The Unended Recessional

Zimbabwe's crisis has incited an unsettling feeling of déja vu . The reason is clear: it is, thankfully, no longer fashionable to decry colonialism's evils in assigning blame for every national misfortune. The imperial statues are toppled, cities and streets renamed, the vestiges of foreign rule either abandoned or adapted. With the sole exception of Zimbabwe, no leading politician in any post-imperial country has made a notable speech in recent years attacking colonialism. That great staple of political rhetoric appears to have been buried across the developing world.

Internationally, colonialism is even more passé. Once, the votaries of one kind of new international order or another decried the evils of imperialism (sometimes, but not always, prefixed with a ``neo-'') in justifying demands for a more just dispensation. That theme has died out in diplomatic discourse. Yet followers of world affairs would be unwise to consign colonialism to the proverbial dustbin of history, for it remains a factor in understanding our world's problems and dangers.

To begin, residual problems from the end of the earlier era of colonization, usually the result of untidy exits by the colonial power, still remain dangerously stalemated. The events in East Timor in 1999 remain fresh in memory, and difficulties linger. But at least closure seems in sight, unlike those messy legacies of European colonialism: Western Sahara, Cyprus, and Palestine.

Moreover, fuses lit in the colonial era could re-ignite, as they have done, to everyone's surprise, between Ethiopia and Eritrea, where war broke out over a colonial border that Italy's occupiers had failed to define with precision. In Zimbabwe, colonial land ownership patterns that gave most of the viable farmland to white settlers are at least one root of the country's current crisis.