I grew up in Zimbabwe in the 1980s. My father was in the South African Communist Party (SACP) and, as such, I only visited South Africa for the first time in 1993 when the ANC and SACP were unbanned and my father allowed to enter South Africa for the first time in decades.

As we drove over the border post I asked my father why the border was so fortified against people coming in. "I thought South Africa was supposed to be bad, dad - why do they need to stop people from coming in?"

"That's because the standard of living is so much higher in South Africa than elsewhere on the continent, and if they didn't have a strong border, all of Africa would be here".

That statement from my father rocked my mind. Here was an anti-Apartheid activist admitting freely that life in Apartheid South Africa was self evidently better than life outside of it.

Many people other than Western liberals and African elites acknowledge this as a self evident truth. When I was a boy in Zimbabwe many black adults I spoke to who had lived under both the colonial regime and the Mugabe regime spoke about the colonial days as being far better: health, education, infrastructure, salaries, everything.

To this day the older generation of the working classes openly speak about the "old days" being better. They are accused of being "self hating" and of "lacking consciousness" by black elites who have a vested interest in advancing the myth of postcolonial improvements and who have the luxury to believe otherwise: This coming from people who educate their children in Europe and get medical treatment in Europe.

Sadly it is mostly this class of people who are vocal in the West and who are adept at playing European identity politics to their advantage.

A couple of years ago I visited Cape Town and went to Robin Island (where Mandela was held for 20 years). I was gobsmacked to see his prison cell and the meal rota still written on the wall.

What once was a testament to the inhumanity of Apartheid had unwittingly become a testament to the opposite. One man to a cell. Three square meals a day. Exercise. Clean linen.

My cousin went to prison in Zimbabwe for 10 years. He had 1 meal a day of ground up maize with water. There were 20 people to a cell and a single bucket as a communal toilet, emptied once per day. Cholera, typhoid, TB and hepatitis were rife. The prison guards would often bury people while they were still alive, knowing that they were as good as dead in any case.

The unfortunate reality is that someone like Nelson Mandela could only have been produced in Apartheid South Africa. Only the Apartheid state had a sufficiently independent judiciary and justice system to allow someone like Mandela to have a trial to begin with and to have any hope of being acquitted of the charges against him.

All the latter day Mandelas are lying in shallow graves, nameless and unheard of, long ago executed without trial or killed by disease and starvation.

For some reason Westerners appear to think these postcolonial states are "free" while constantly obsessing over the "evils of the past" without so much as taking the time to visit a hospital, prison or school. They maintain a "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" mentality that does my country (and other ones like it) no favours.

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It's true that only the liberal West allows dissidents like Mandela to live...

But let's also acknowledge that Mandela was a bad man. He was a secret member of the SACP all along, and he supported terrorism. He raised his fist and sang "Kill the Boer." He wasn't a man with good intentions who brought about tragedy, he was bad all along.

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It’s interesting that all of these “oppressed” groups are clamoring to get into Western “imperial” nations like the United States and Great Britain, fleeing the squalor of their own indigenous roots for the upscale grandiosity that they rail against? What more really needs to be said?

The CEO of Google himself came from India, and rather than being thankful to his new Country, he chose to vilify the culture and it’s people for no other reason than to promote his own agenda and monetary success. He thanked White Americans for his privilege by trying to erase the from history? He is a man of great privilege and wealth, allowed to create that wealth in a nation he condemns, all the while hiding the fact that India has the highest number of humans living in modern day slavery. Why is that never brought up?

At least in the United States and Great Britain, slavery is outlawed, but in India, it goes on unimpeded by such concepts of human rights. Perhaps if more people talked about that, and educated people about that, this whole scam would end? We have millions pouring across the open borders to get into a country where they can have a better, more equitable life than in their own squalid home countries, why is that never discussed because it is such an obvious hole it’s the Marxist argument?

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I think this is a matter where truth is so hard to prevail because of two factors, a)the mainstream media which promulgates white guilt will of course emphatically deny any existence of beneficial effects of colonization and b) the current elites of the previously colonized nations are extremely unlikely to even suggest colonization had salutary effects because they have to govern a highly nationalistic society that have a deep, whether misplaced or not, animosity towards their former colonizers. So these two factors work together to shun any evidence on the actual effects of colonization

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I think there's a pretty good case to be made that the late colonial period from the 1890s onward was overwhelmingly beneficial, and certainly by the time the empires were dismantled in the 1950s/60s countries like Britain were investing far more in their colonies in terms of education and infrastructure spending than they received in tax receipts. ...Which is no doubt part of the reason they gave up the empire with relatively minimal fuss. Whatever the earlier crimes of the imperial powers may have been, the colonised were already receiving 'reparations' for it, and elected to go their own way instead.

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This is a disgusting take. I constantly criticize the people that want to blame past atrocities to then shame or humiliate or even oppress people now, partly because they usually use a partial account of history to paint themselves victims. But it is equally as insane and disgusting to try to whitewash the colonial legacy.

The reason you see this overall trend of ex-colonies being more economically productive and literate and socially progressive chiefly in the actual colonial hubs, is that for one thing the colonial hubs were chosen for their preexisting markets and enterprise, they were often the capitals of the states or monarchies that collapsed under colonial rule. They thrive now despite former atrocities and not because of them. Which relates to the second reason, during colonial rule all industry was systematically destroyed in the rest of the occupied territory. There were strong migration pressures for every capable person to rush to the colonial capitals in order to escape horrifyingly brutal conditions(I challenge anyone to have an honest look at the average person’s life during colonial times and to try and justify it in the name of better development). The *relatively* better development of these places is not the positive legacy of colonialism that you think it is.

Every civilization and ethnicity has atrocious things in its historical legacy, things that most normal people should feel disgusted and ashamed of. Why try to pretend it away by selective analysis? Look at statistics that make the professional victims uncomfortable, by all means, but also look into why the statistical trends exist. Otherwise, you are no better than they are.

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If those places were so prosperous, why were they colonised?

Don't forget, there were countries that voluntarily asked to join the British Empire.

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What a naive sounding question.. I hope it is an honest one. I hope it sends you on a new inquiry of colonial history and anthropology.

Is that the supposed saving grace of the British? “Lesser of evils”? I am even willing to grant it, but that shouldn’t erase the reality. Even in those cases they turned out to be far worse than what the locals bargained for.

Don’t forget, there are countries that had been fighting colonization on many different fronts for more than a millennium by the time the British showed up. The British, at first, only offered guns for hire and a naval force, made dishonest trade deals that they promptly broke, took advantage of already volatile situations and in many cases supplied both sides of local conflicts and shamelessly fueled bloodbaths.

Let me ask you, if these places weren’t so prosperous to begin with, what compelled the Europeans to come seeking for them all the way across the world? What compelled them to commit such horrible atrocities to keep these places under their control? If prosperity is supposed to make you invincible, why is there such hemming and hawing over illegal immigration into western countries? They’re prosperous now, so surely they have no danger of being invaded and taken over, do they?

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Well, there is no evidence to suggest the bad sides of colonialism would not have happened without colonialism, and there is even less evidence to suggest the positive aspects would have happened without it.

I don't think you know anything worth knowing, to be honest, so I won't waste my time on you any more.

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“Well, if this guy hadn’t broken into your house to murder your parents and rob you, I’m sure someone else would have. Who knows? Maybe they were suicidal already? And of course, he fed your dog before leaving didn’t he? No evidence to suggest your parents would have been able to anymore”

I don’t think you want to know anything that is worth knowing. No amount of yours or my time spent on it will change that.

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Have you heard of Johannesburg and Cape Town prior to the colonial days? How thriving were they? Just tell me.

Nowadays the two more developed megapolis on the continent.

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Did you even read my comment? I haven’t disputed the trend that this study and article has put forward, where higher colonization corresponds to higher development today.

But is the higher development supposed to justify the horrifying realities of colonization? it only starts sinking in to people’s heads how insane this argument is when their own kin is involved so I will keep repeating my metaphor here:

The argument is basically, “so what if someone broke in and killed your parents and robbed you? They fed your dog for you didn’t they? And now you own the whole house for yourself, aren’t you richer?”

It is cruel and disgusting.

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I can't speak for others, Sai, but for myself, the point in raising the reality that colonial states were often better than postcolonial ones is not to excuse the crimes of colonisation, but rather to implore people to hold postcolonial states to the same standards that they once held colonial ones.

Many of the modern day atrocities we see are because few people will hold postcolonial states to any kind of humanitarian standard.

There is much hypocrisy from people who shout "black lives matter" over George Floyd, but who remain deafeningly silent at the mass beheadings taking place in Mozambique, for example.

The selective outrage to me exhibits one thing and one thing only: hatred of a perceived white establishment masquerading as concern for the oppressed.

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I don’t believe in hiding from reality or wallowing in the past. I know many people like the ones you mention- that feel resentful and bitter about the past and want to use it as an excuse for their failures, or want revenge. I am equally as critical of them.

But like one of the commenter did above, is the data presented not being used to somehow claim that colonization was good for the colonized people, or that it did not benefit the colonizers, or that surely it was not quite so brutal after all? And the article left so much to be desired when explaining the entire context of the data presented.

It may seem a far reaching Freudian analysis, but I have come to believe that the widespread malaise and nihilism in the western world comes from not properly integrating the reality of their colonial past. That there is no acknowledgement of the brutality of their ancestors because the average person today is too scared to acknowledge the brutality of all humans in general. They can’t really look at their past and they can’t look at the present brutalities of the failed-states in the postcolonial world, because both of those evoke the same human reality.

There is a widespread feeling of guilt and shame about having privileges that are built on the foundation of these past atrocities. To reconcile with this one has to climb down from their moral high ground and see that they are themselves still capable of doing atrocious things, that all humans are. If people are not willing to do that then it quickly becomes a festering wound for the children of colonizers as much as it is for the children of the colonized.

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I don't much understand the history of India, where it seems most of your experience is drawn.

My impression is that India was a very advanced land mass and the benefits of colonisation were difficult to argue given the rich civilisations that existed prior to European arrival.

I once read an article by an Englishman from the early 1800s commenting, for example, on how much more pleasant it was living in India, how much cleaner, how much more sophisticated and how he would never return to England after his time there.

But colonisation was not a uniform practice and what is "good" or "bad" depends on what it replaced.

In Sub Saharan Africa there was no civilisation to upset: people lived in small tribes scarcely in the iron age: No mathematics, no architecture, no written word. Population levels were very low because of erratic rains, warfare and disease.

What is now Zimbabwe, for example, went from a population of what was presumed 300 000 to more than 3 million in about 40 years of colonisation: A 10x increase in population driven by Western medicine, agriculture and the rule of law. 

Before settler arrival life expectancy was abysmal and, at least if you were a Mashona tribe in the North of the country you would expect to be murdered by marauding Matabele impis.

Indeed, new farmers in the 1890s wrote to Cecil Rhodes himself threatening to pull out the fledgling territory if the "Matabele problem" was not resolved (ie their labourers being indiscriminately slaughtered by raiding Matabele).

To say that colonisation in this case was bad for the local population presupposes that the alternative was better. And I have yet to see a convincing argument that it was.

In any case I'm not sure it's ever useful to categorise anything as either one thing or another when in many cases such a question is too blunt to be meaningful.

Were colonial-era sub Saharan Africans better off in terms of life expectancy? Yes.

Were they better off in terms of material possessions? It depends: did they benefit from the newly arrived commerce or lose their land to settlers?

Were they better off in terms of self esteem? It depends on who you were: some gained status from colonial arrival and many lost it.

Is self esteem more important than material acquisition and health? That depends on who you ask.

You say, "I have come to believe that the widespread malaise and nihilism in the western world comes from not properly integrating the reality of their colonial past" - What would properly integrating the reality of a colonial past look like? 

I have, to this day, never met a Zulu who feels guilty about Shaka's blood trail across South Africa.

I have never met a Japanese person who feels guilty about Nanking.

I have never met an Arab who feels guilt about slavery, even though the Arab world practiced it for far longer than the West, took far more slaves, and only stopped it at gunpoint in the 1960s.

Many of these cultures don't feel guilt because they don't respect conquered peoples: they see weakness as its own moral failing and treat the defeated with contempt.

The only people I have ever met who reflect on their past and feel guilt for what their ancestors have done are Europeans. Guilt is woven into the school curriculum to a large degree, which is why articles like the above are never published in mainstream outlets.

The BBC, the national mouthpiece, regularly runs documentaries on the evils of slavery, colonialism and its present conduct with minorities.

The sins of past and present are a national obsession of the left in the UK.

I'm not sure, therefore, where you get this idea that the past is not integrated into the European mind. What would adequate integration look like and how, with an integrated mind, would Europeans conduct themselves?

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I really appreciate the thoroughness of your comment. And I will have to concede that I speak primarily from the perspective of India, although I know at least the cursory history of colonization across the world.

Your points are well-taken, it is hard to see colonization as anything negative when it actually does bring such a drastically better life to colonized peoples, instead of only claiming it as a post hoc justification. In the case of India, an entire body of atrocity-literature was deliberately created to massively exaggerate everything negative that the locals did, I can’t help but wonder if that also happened with the examples you give. But I still will keep insisting this: just because there are genuinely positive outcomes at the end, that does not mean that you can just ignore the horrific things that were also involved in it. The real question to ask here, is whether we can justify the dehumanization and suffering of any number of people for material gain. (If you don’t know it yet, look up a story called “The ones who walked away from Omelas”, about this).

I think that dehumanization actually works remarkably well as long as you can keep the distinction between the in-group people and out-group non-people quite clear and absolute. The examples where past colonizers feel no guilt about it are inevitably the ones where that distinction is carefully maintained. And in the case of Japan, they also seem to have given up on themselves as a civilization, might it be out of collective guilt? But I actually don’t think that most people in the world are capable of making such a distinction between their “tribe” and outsiders forever, hence the overwhelming guilt and shame for causing the suffering of fellow humans.

You say that European countries are obsessed with the sins of the past, but I would have to disagree. What they are obsessed with is virtue signaling- and that is precisely the problem. The only reasons people talk about colonization is to feel a sort of “guilt-pride” over it, to show how compassionate, peaceful and moral they are, and to get the pleasure of self-flagellation from it or to deny and whitewash everything negative in order to claim that they and even their ancestors have always been the good people. The difference between the two things is only that the latter are more conservative and feel a bit of affinity toward their ancestors that the former don’t.

Properly integrating the realities of the colonial past would mean that they actually understand the mentality of colonizers as well as the colonized, without any kind of blinders or filters of narrative on. It would mean that they climb down from their high horse and see that they too are capable of being as evil and selfish or as helpless and incapable as the rest of us, past and present. It would mean admitting that suffering by itself doesn’t make you morally superior. What happened for Europe is that the people that were previously in their out-group, that they comfortably dehumanized before, have now moved into their in-group. I think that that is the main source of unconscious guilt. And so reconciliation would also mean seeking and gaining real forgiveness for whatever unacknowledged guilt they have(and I don’t believe reparations are much use in this). This doesn’t just apply to European colonizers, of course. I think that properly integrated, people on either side of the issue will be able to actually move on with their lives without constantly bringing up the painful past, because it will stop being painful.

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Mar 28·edited Mar 28

I'd have some other critiques of this piece- a lot of the ethnic/religious civil wars that followed in the post-colonial period could be plausibly blamed on europeans drawing crazy borders across Africa, for example- but I vaguely remember when I looked into it that some of these studies controlled for pre-existing indicators of wealth like mineral deposits and didn't find any correlation with duration of colonial rule? Lipton also specifies that the states that most effectively resisted colonial rule (which presumably would have included the capitals and market hubs you specify) had various other negative long-term indicators. I haven't examined the data in detail myself, but those narratives seem incongruous.

"...during colonial rule all industry was systematically destroyed in the rest of the occupied territory..."

What are your sources on this, specifically?

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It has been a while since I chased down the research papers on this subject, you will have to look for the individual sources yourself.

But for example, India was the biggest exporter of the highest quality cloths for two thousand years before British colonialism. The remains of high quality Indian cloth have been found along the Silk Road btw. There are accounts of these specialized looms being burned, of weavers having their thumbs cut off. So many of ancient skilled work traditions like that were destroyed in that period- all of which have traditionally been passed down in rural families. There were hundreds of horrific famines caused just because so much of the land was farmed for industrial crops that destroy the farmland over time. Farmers and even local rulers of small kingdoms paid as much as 80% income taxes, calculated by expectation of income and not the actual income. Can you imagine that anyone had any capital or energy or will left for building new industry in a situation like that?

The British themselves kept rather meticulous records of people’s occupations and you can find in it the appalling numbers of skilled and professional workers having to become farm laborers and serfs over time. Literacy in local languages and subjects of study was quite high before colonial rule and decreased because the already established schooling system was banned and broken down as a pagan “heathen” practice. Every moderately intelligent person in the rest of the country was forced to go to the colonial hub for any kind of education at all, stay an illiterate farm laborer in his own village or risk cruel punishment by the government (many people opted for the third option and there are documented cases of these punishments). When there is no human capital left in the rest of the country, it doesn’t matter how many mineral deposits there are.

The railway system was built by shipping every single piece of equipment used in it all the way from English factories when both, the raw material and skilled labor was available in India already. The capital for the railway system came from Indian people’s taxes, when the average person in the country was already on the brink of starvation, while all the revenue collected from its use went to the British government and the crown. The officers in charge of the colonies describe the situation in their own words as bleeding the country dry. And all that is just the British colonialism, which I have admitted, was the lesser of evils when it comes to the rest of the colonial history across the world.

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"It has been a while since I chased down the research papers on this subject, you will have to look for the individual sources yourself"

Some specific references or citations to back up any of this would be appreciated. I've checked the stats for India under the British Raj as best I can dig them up and GDP per capita was basically flat between the start and end-points despite the population more-than-doubling, as opposed to income declining slightly under the Mughals. Indian nationalists like to talk about the British inflicting 'genocide' on their subjects when this would have to qualify as one of the least effective genocides in history.

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I’m sorry but I don’t want to go back to the primary sources all over again because it is an incredibly personal subject and the sources are frankly very upsetting to look at. You will have to do it for yourself.

GDP per capita tells you nothing about the actual wealth distribution. That far back you are looking at estimates of both numbers to begin with. But then if the ratio was flat through all that time and most of the newly created wealth disproportionately went to a very small group of people, which it did, then most of the country actually got poorer. Look at the GDP and GDP per capita of Britain through this period. That is where most of the created wealth ended up. GDP is a very flawed measurement of wellbeing to begin with- you have the current example of China building inefficient and useless infrastructure to pad their numbers.

Let’s not start with boogiemen like “Indian Nationalists” when the actual numbers of people that died in famines are undisputed. There are photographs and videos of the Bengal famine in particular, as well as a disgusting letter written about it by Churchill himself. You talk of these people as if they’re cattle- the number that were killed through horrific conditions and oftentimes actual torture for political reasons don’t matter to you as long as the overall number stays high enough? India is a large and diverse country and there are ethnicities, tribes, clans that were systematically completely wiped out in these famines. But I suppose every person in the subcontinent looks like the same economic unit to you. “Where’s the genocide? So many more units still left alive after all!”

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"I’m sorry but I don’t want to go back to the primary sources all over again because it is an incredibly personal subject..."

Could you at least tell me what books you read, or website you visited, or what search terms I'm supposed to be using? Or would that be "too upsetting"?

"Look at the GDP and GDP per capita of Britain through this period..."

Yeah, the effect of industralisation is that GDP per capita goes up by a factor of 10 or 100. That doesn't mean you're pushing down GDP elsewhere (it's inherently implausible that such growth would even be possible if it were based on parasitic wealth transfers.)

"...when the actual numbers of people that died in famines are undisputed..."

I believe they are very much in dispute, and I'm leery about taking these estimates at face value when I dug into the specifics of the Irish Potato Famine and found out the British objectively did far more to alleviate Irish hunger than cause it during this period.

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I feel quite sure that you will absolutely doubt the credibility of any current day Indian historians.

Here are some places to start-



Additionally you can look at the internal records and letters from the EIC data archives.

I wish I had the impetus to list the actual names and accounts for you to look at but if you read through enough of them you should get the picture.

GDP per capita of a country goes up by a factor of 10 or 100 as it industrializes, while its occupied colonial territory that is many times as populous stays the exact same. Even if you ignore all the realities on the ground, which you miraculously always do so far, how do you justify that as humane? You should find the direct transfer of wealth from the colonies to Britain in that period in the EIC documents, but even without that, you are trying to make the argument here that colonialism was somehow good for the colonized people and not a catastrophe. How does that discrepancy make your argument for you? Like I said to another person here, your arguments are akin to, “well so what if the guy broke into your house and murdered your parents? He fed your dog for you didn’t he? And now you get the whole house to yourself!”. What kind of sick, messed up logic threads are you spinning now just to justify something that is self evidently unjustifiable?

The famine deaths in India are not in dispute by any serious sources. If you mean that *you* are disputing them because of what *you* think happened in some other country under some other circumstances, well I think all this discussion will be a completely hopeless exercise for everyone. I hope you feel better for ruining my morning by dragging this subject out, since nothing else will likely be accomplished here.

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The states that most effectively resisted colonial rule were not the capitals and market hubs I was talking about. They were small kingdoms that paid heavy taxes and what was basically protection-money to the British government to keep a modicum of sovereign rule in their domain. These states usually had to deal with large numbers of starving peasant refugees from the rest of the country. The British system did not support such migrations because it increased farm labor costs for them. These states were outnumbered, outgunned and overwhelmed by the surrounding British colonial government. They often disintegrated and were then kept alive as puppet states by the British. It does fit the overall trend of higher colonial control correlating with overall higher development, but the reasons for the trend are still just as ugly and disastrous.

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I've been reliably informed that cannibalism is good, and only evil Christians put an end to it.

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Homer Simpson said it best: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KF6SNxNIV08

Perhaps we should compare the improved outcomes of colonialised states to the advantages enjoyed by the children of the rich, or a derivative of white privilege or whatever. That would bend a few brains.

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I jest, of course. It would affect the discussion not at all. they are well-defended.

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The Bornu empire was located in Northeastern Nigeria, not the southeast.

And yes, only the elite and the traditionalist fools would deny the comparative benefits of colonial administration. I remember reading Gilley's thesis cum proposal and being very impressed and sad at the same time. Sad that such an obvious truth which continues to ring true till today would never be countenanced. The hypocrisy of most African states is revealed in their usual their usual choice of coaches for their national football teams. Many often preferring to go for foreign coaches, often of European descent. Why? Because international sports is one arena in which their nepotistic, mediocre, and corrupt modus operandi can never generate false result.

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What about ex-colonizer?

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