Modern Scramble for Africa is Neo-Colonialism.
The new scramble for Africa
FOR CENTURIES, beginning with the slave trade, the West has ruthlessly exploited the African continent. As Karl Marx described it, “the turning of Africa into a commercial warren for the hunting of black skins” was one of the chief sources of “primitive accumulation” that “signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”1 But the abduction and enslavement of millions of Africans was only the start. In the late nineteenth century, in what became known as the “scramble for Africa,” the continent was arbitrarily carved up into colonies by the leading European powers, which violently subjected its people and plundered the continent of its rich natural resources. In the post-independence eras, African states became weak pawns in the world economy, subject to Cold War rivalries, their path to development largely blocked by their debilitating colonial past. More recently, the West has choked Africa with an onerous debt regime, forcing many nations to pay more in interest on debts to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) than on health care, education, infrastructure, and other vital services combined.
The legacy of Western domination has left Africa devastated with crippling rates of poverty, hunger, and disease. The continent today has a gross national per-capita yearly income of $829—below that of the 1950s and 1960s in most African countries—and an average life expectancy of only fifty years.2 Sixty-two percent of Africans have no access to standard sanitation facilities, and two-thirds of the total world population suffering from HIV/AIDS (25.8 million people) live in Africa.3 It remains a continent abundant in human and natural resources, but these manage to enrich only a handful of African rulers and foreign capitalists.
This is the historical legacy, in the words of Patrick Bond, “of a continent looted”:
[T]rade by force dating back centuries; slavery that uprooted and dispossessed around 12 million Africans; precious metals spirited away; the 19th century emergence of racist ideologies to justify colonialism; the…carve-up of Africa into dysfunctional territories in a Berlin negotiating room; the construction of settler-colonial and extractive-colonial systems—of which apartheid, the German occupation of Namibia, the Portuguese colonies and King Leopold’s Belgian Congo were perhaps only the most blatant…; Cold War battlegrounds—proxies for U.S./U.S.S.R. conflicts—filled with millions of corpses; other wars catalyzed by mineral searches and offshoot violence such as witnessed in blood diamonds and coltan; poacher-stripped swathes of East, Central and Southern Africa…; societies used as guinea pigs in the latest corporate pharmaceutical test; and the list could continue.4
You might think a track record of this kind would lead to some self-reflection on the part of Western powers regarding their violent history in Africa. But you would be wrong. Robert Calderisi, a former World Bank Africa chief and author of The Trouble With Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn’t Working (2006) offers diagnoses and prescriptions for Africa that are no less paternalistic than those given by the colonialists of old:
[Some Africans] believe all of Africa’s problems are basically rooted in Western nastiness: colonialism, slavery, debt, and the like. But my own sense is that opinion has shifted tremendously in Africa over the last ten years, that there’s greater openness to accepting that African problems have roots in Africa…. [O]ne of the good legacies of colonialism [is that] there are Western nations that could have turned their backs on Africa a long time ago if they didn’t have some historical, economic, and sentimental connection…. For me to suggest that we reduce rather than increase aid to Africa will sound to many people like spitting in the face of a dying man, but I see it as analogous to dragging a dope addict to his feet and bringing him to a rehabilitation clinic.5
Others, like British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, are no less direct in their unapologetic defense of imperialism. “The days of Britain having to apologize for its colonial history are over,” he said during a tour of Africa, “We should celebrate much of our past rather than apologize for it.”6
A new scramble for Africa marks the beginning of the latest chapter in the plunder of the continent. The United States and Europe, but also rising powers like China, seek to consolidate their grip on Africa’s oil, its minerals, and other resources, all worth more every day because of a massive boom in the price of oil and raw materials. Like the earlier scramble for Africa, the new scramble for Africa is not only about profits, but also control of strategic resources, chiefly oil. The United States in particular is concerned about threats to its hegemony in the region. And, as in the Middle East, the defense and expansion of that hegemony also involves military intervention, justified under the rubric of fighting terrorism. As author Michael Watts writes,
The strategic interests of the United States include not only access to cheap and reliable…oil imports, but also keeping the Chinese (for example in Sudan) and South Koreans (for example in Nigeria)…and Islamic terror at bay. Africa is, according to the intelligence community, the “new frontier” in the fight against revolutionary Islam. Energy security, it turns out, is a terrifying hybrid of the old and the new: primitive accumulation [i.e., looting] and American militarism coupled to the war on terror.”7
The new scramble for Africa centers chiefly on oil, the world’s most important strategic resource. The United States, the largest global economic and military power, consumes a quarter of the world’s oil but possesses only 3 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves.8 West Africa alone sits atop 15 percent of the world’s oil, and by 2015 is projected to supply up to a quarter of U.S. domestic consumption.9 U.S. oil imports from Africa—which come mostly from Nigeria and Angola, but also from Chad, Congo (Brazzaville), Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon—surpassed those from the Middle East for the first time last year.10
China, meanwhile, is also heavily involved in the new scramble for Africa, driven to seek reliable sources for oil by its own growing domestic needs. China’s oil consumption has doubled in a single decade, and oil imports now comprise more than 40 percent of its total oil consumption.11 Other countries are also getting in on the action. Brazil and Malaysia, for example, have oil exploration projects underway in West Africa and Sudan.
There is intensifying global competition for control of oil and gas production and supply. Worldwide, a new generation of mainly state-owned companies, such as China’s CNPC, Saudi Arabia’s Aramco, Russia’s Gazprom, Venezuela’s PDVSA, and Iran’s NIOC now control one-third of the world’s oil and gas reserves and production, while the major Western companies—ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell—control just one-tenth of production, and only 3 percent of reserves.12 (However, because they are fully integrated operations, from extraction to production and distribution, the Western “majors” make far larger profits.)
The dependence of the United States and other developed nations on oil from developing nations is only going to increase, as the Financial Times notes: “90 per cent of new supplies will come from developing countries in the next 40 years. That marks a big shift from the past 30 years, when 40 per cent of new production came from industrialized nations.”13 Thus the new scramble for Africa is a fight between major competing powers for control of new energy sources and profits at a time when they control fewer resources themselves. The race is all the more important given that conflicts and tensions in other energy-rich areas—such as Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela—have loosened the West’s grip.
The interest in African oil on one level is nothing new. As Exxon boasts proudly, the company has been in Africa for a century. Nigeria has been an exploration hotspot for decades. A preview “of American plans for African people and resources in the new century can be seen in Eastern Nigeria. U.S. and multinational oil companies like Shell, BP, and Chevron, which once named a tanker after its board member Condoleezza Rice, have ruthlessly plundered the Niger Delta for a generation.”14
The crisis-wracked Horn of Africa has also been the site of Western corporate investment for a number of years. “Big Western companies including Conoco-Phillips, Chevron, and Total held Somali exploration concessions before the country slid into civil war in 1991.”15
But interest in East African oil heated up dramatically over the past fifteen years.16
Somalia may seem an unlikely prospect for investors seeking untapped oil and gas fields, but that could be about to change as the [oil] majors turn their gaze off the beaten track. Driven by record profits, a race with hungry Asian rivals and fears of growing energy nationalism in South America and Russia, interest in eastern Africa has never been higher. “Africa across the board has seen a substantial uptake in acreage in recent years by all sizes of companies from the majors to mega-majors, independents and minnows,” said Duncan Clarke, chairman and CEO of international energy consultants Global Pacific & Partners. “Quite a few significant players have moved into position.”17
Increasing oil and raw material prices have produced a boom in some African countries, as well as a marked jump in foreign investment, especially by Western and Chinese capital. By 2005, foreign direct investment had almost tripled over the previous five years.18 U.S. investors were expected to pump more than $50 billion into African oil between 2007 and 2010.19
According to a report published in April 2007 by the IMF, sub-Saharan Africa recorded growth in its GDP in the 5–6 percent range for the third consecutive year, fueled by the tripling of worldwide oil prices since 2003.20 “Investment bankers are grappling with a novel challenge,” remarked the Financial Times, “explaining to potential investors that exotic places like Abuja and Accra, the capitals of Nigeria and Ghana, are among the new frontiers in the international capital markets….[But] there is a glut of liquidity in the global financial system that is helping to fuel the current enthusiasm for far-flung markets such as those in Africa.”21 ExxonMobil has mega-projects in the works, having wrapped up the infamous Chad-Cameroon pipeline that runs through war-torn areas in Central Africa, the largest single investment in Africa. ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest oil company, invests 22 percent of its capital expenditures in Africa, and gets 30 percent of its oil from Africa.22
Wall Street is lining up to get in on the action. JP Morgan helped raise $300 million for Nigeria’s largest bank last spring, and an officer for Citigroup in Nigeria celebrated the new boom saying, “There are deals we are doing today that a couple of years ago we would not even have contemplated.”23 In June 2007, a private equity company called Emerging Capital raised $523 million to invest in Africa, one of the largest amounts ever raised for the continent. The fund managers gloated about the opportunities for investment, announcing, “Africa is open for business.”24 The growth in volume of sub-Saharan Africa’s stock market has surpassed that of the Far East and Eastern Europe since 2002.25 Angola, recently dubbed an “oil industry darling,” received a $902 million bid last year from Eni, the Italian oil company, to secure the rights to drill offshore, one of the highest fees ever paid by an oil company.25 East Africa is also a new favorite, with countries like Kenya signing giant exploration deals with companies whose other global sources are running low.
The Greater Horn has become a hotbed of competition between oil companies flush with profits. Oil companies have hundreds of millions of dollars from high oil prices to spend on exploration this year, but have been burned in countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Russia, which are all taking a much tougher stance on production deals. This has boosted Africa’s profile, while factors like growing violence in Nigeria and rising taxes for producers in Algeria have shone a new spotlight on the eastern seaboard. Much of the interest is from Chinese, Indian and Malaysian firms with deep pockets, technological skills and an appetite for higher insecurity than Western competitors.27
China’s trade with Africa “has risen more than tenfold in a decade to $55 billion. Chinese demand for energy and mineral resources to fuel its booming domestic economy has helped drive up commodity prices on world markets, and contributed to the longest period of sustained growth in Africa since the 1970s.”28 At a 2007 meeting of the African Development Bank hosted in Shanghai, China pledged $20 billion in infrastructure and trade financing over the next three years, with a chunk of that amount intended for electricity, roads, and other infrastructure. Most of China’s trade in Africa is with oil-producing countries like Sudan, Nigeria, and Angola, but it is also mining in Zambia, Namibia, and South Africa.
China’s most significant role is in the Greater Horn, where billion-dollar deals with Sudan and Ethiopia have established it as a major power and threat to the U.S., all the more so because of the Horn’s strategic proximity to the Middle East.29 China buys 60 percent of Sudan’s oil, much of it through its largest state-owned company, China National Petroleum Corporation. Hence, U.S. sanctions against Sudan, announced by Bush last year, will not harm the country’s oil production, as even U.S. officials admit.30 The stakes in Darfur are all the more clear given the abundance of resources in the area: massive amounts of oil in both Sudan and Chad, plus gold, uranium, copper, and bauxite in Sudan, including Darfur.31
Chinese President Hu Jintao went on a whirlwind African tour in early 2007, and, as the New York Times described it, “swept through 8 nations, among them some of China’s closest allies, largest trading partners and most prominent objects of Chinese investment. He left behind a multibillion-dollar trail of forgiven debts, cheap new loans, and pledges of schools and cultural centers.”32 China has followed up its own investment with recent calls by Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, “for developed nations to deliver on promises of aid and market access for Africa.”33
China’s involvement has generated hypocritical hand-wringing from the U.S. and EU, distressed that China has become such a big player in Africa and is building alliances through grants and loans without strings attached. Western investors claim that China’s loans to Africa could pave the way for economic crisis down the road, with African nations tied to oil exports and world prices that have no guarantee of sustaining high levels. The IMF has delivered warnings of a “new wave of African debt” led by China, but also other competitors like Brazil and India.34 The irony of Western concerns was not missed on at least one Financial Times writer, who commented that China’s pattern of operation in Africa, “draws comparisons with Africa’s past relationship with European colonial powers, which exploited the continent’s natural resources but failed to encourage more labor-intensive industry.”35
Western powers’ real concern is that African states will opt for Chinese deals to free themselves from the punitive conditions of IMF-World Bank loans and other forms of financial dependence on Europe and the United States. As the second largest source of oil in Africa, Angola is now in such a strong position that it is rejecting IMF loans completely. As one consultant put it, “[w]ith all their oil revenue, they don’t need the IMF or the World Bank. They can play the Chinese off the Americans.”36 Or more to the point, as one writer put it, “[w]ho needs the painful medicine of the IMF when China gives easy terms and builds roads and schools to boot?”37
Chinese threats to Western hegemony in Africa are behind some of the recent Western cries of distress over China’s human rights record in Africa, especially Darfur, where Western politicians have strong-armed China into pressuring the Sudanese government to accept peacekeeping forces. Similar base concerns motivate Western politicians targeting the 2008 Beijing Olympics.38 “More than 100 U.S. Congressmen released a letter…saying inaction by China threatened ‘disaster’ for [this] year’s games. ‘This is a moral challenge for us all; if China fails to do its part, it risks being forever known as the host of the ‘Genocide Olympics’.”39 This hypocrisy is not unique to U.S. politicians. European investors and statesmen have done their share of finger-wagging, saying that the Chinese “prefer” to work with “non-democratic” governments. “A lot of the provincial Chinese governments are active in Africa and they basically just want to grab the minerals and go,” says Richard Dowden of the Royal Africa Society.40 “Today most western institutions are preaching the values of good governance and democracy,” the Financial Times claims. “Turning a blind eye to corruption and the abuse of political power is a recipe for political instability. It does not serve China’s long-term interests, either.”41 Or as another journalist noted, “China is not sniffy about dealing with despots.”42
The U.S. and European governments stoop to new lows when they chastise China for its record on human rights in Africa, given their own far longer and bloodier legacy of colonialism and “dealing with despots.” As a Financial Times special report notes, U.S. cooperation with brutal regimes in Africa “has drawn criticism from human rights groups which say the U.S. is repeating its Middle East mistakes by cozying up to despotic and corrupt regimes on the continent” in order to combat Islamic “terrorism.”43
Neither Western nor Chinese investment has closed the gap between the handful of extremely rich African elites and the majority of ordinary people, but rather has deepened the immiseration. Much of the billions of dollars invested in African petroleum projects every year go to pay skilled Westerners, and profits are repatraited to the West.44 Moreover, the massive rise in oil prices threatens to wipe out any economic gains made over past years. As the Financial Times writes:
Yet the effect of increased corporate interest has not always translated to economic wellbeing for African countries. Soaring oil prices have threatened to wipe out recent economic gains on what is both the world’s poorest continent and its fastest-growing oil and gas exploration zone of the past decade. According to the International Energy Agency, the increase in the cost of oil in 13 non-producing countries, including stable economies such as South Africa, Senegal and Ghana has since 2004 been equivalent to 3 per cent of their combined gross domestic product. This is more than the debt relief and foreign aid received during the same period. Even in some of Africa’s biggest producers, where high oil prices have driven rapid economic growth, poor governance in the use of oil funds as well as high fuel prices brought about by a lack of refining capacity and heavy import bills have added to social woes.45
Even South Africa, the standout industrialized nation on the continent, has an unemployment rate of 40 percent. On the rest of the continent, conditions are far worse. Angola, “darling of the oil industry,” earned more than $30 billion last year form oil exports, but according to the World Bank, 70 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day and one in four children die before their fifth birthday.46 Home to the most extensive oil exploration on the continent, Nigeria shows all too clearly how multinational corporations have destroyed the lives of ordinary Africans.
As one activist put it,
Where once there were poor but self-sufficient people with rich farmland and fisheries, there is now an unfolding ecological collapse of horrifying dimensions in which the land, air and water are increasingly unable to sustain human life, but the region’s people have no place else to go…. Twenty percent of Nigerian children die before the age of 5, according to the World Bank. Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of oil have been extracted from the Niger Delta, according to Amnesty International in 2005. But according to them, its inhabitants “remain among the most deprived oil communities in the world—70 per cent live on less than $1 a day. And that’s in spite of its windfall gains, as global oil prices have more than doubled in the last two years.47
Trade policy and international financial institutions
Recent decades have exposed the disastrous impact of Western global financial institutions, such as the IMF and World Bank, on African societies. After independence, African ruling classes emphasized state investment and national development based on import-substitution industrialization. The concept was that the West would lend funds through the World Bank to help nations build infrastructure, grow domestic industries, cut reliance on imports, and boost exports. One of the chief concerns of the World Bank and IMF was to keep states out of the Soviet orbit by promoting Western-led economic development.
These loans from the World Bank were the origin of Africa’s debt—debts incurred to create industrial sectors that could not effectively compete on the world market. Respectable growth rates of 4–6 percent in the 1960s gave way to stagnation and decline in the 1970s, as most African states proved, as latecomers to industrialization, unable to marshal sufficient capital resources, even with state intervention, to overcome the legacy of colonialism.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the dogma began to change; the World Bank and IMF mandated a shift away from industrialization toward economies based solely on the export of raw materials and agricultural products. Loans were now to be used as leverage to impose what were called Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs)—programs that mandated slashing social spending, eliminating price subsidies and trade tariffs, and privatizing government-owned industries and services—all in order to pay down foreign debt.
This approach flowed from a need to spur world trade and help restore profitability in the advanced capitalist countries following a series of recessions starting in the 1970s; industrializing nations would grow their economies by focusing on producing commodities that could be exported to the rich countries while importing the latter’s finished goods. In practice, this had the effect, as under colonialism, of turning Africa back to a one-way conveyor belt of raw materials. Africa today exports the bulk of its natural resources.
The strategy had disastrous consequences. For one, it stultified developing economies: rather than building diverse industries, economies became entirely reliant upon the West for imports to meet domestic needs. Further, economies reliant on a handful of exports are more vulnerable: if the price of one commodity falls, it sends the entire nation into recession. “Sub-Saharan Africa has seen the terms of exchange of its export products on the global market deteriorate since the 1980s…. [T]he value of a basket of goods exported by Africa has lost half its value compared to products imported by the North.”48
The impact was to reduce growth, and in some cases led to a reversal of trends toward industrialization. Foreign direct investment in sub-Saharan Africa fell from 25 percent of the world’s total at its peak during the 1970s to less than 5 percent by the late 1990s, according to data from the UN Conference on Trade and Development.49 The average rate of growth in Africa in the 1970s was about 3.5 percent; by the 1980s it had fallen to 2.5 percent, and to 2.2 percent by 1998.50 Manufacturing output per head in sub-Saharan Africa actually fell 14.3 percent from 1990 to 1996.51
For example, “in Abidjan [Ivory Coast], one of the few tropical African cities with an important manufacturing sector and modern urban services, submission to the SAP regime punctually led to deindustrialization, the collapse of construction, and a rapid deterioration in public transit and sanitation; as a result, urban poverty in Ivory Coast—the supposed ‘tiger’ economy of West Africa—doubled in the year 1987–88.”52 GDP growth in Ivory Coast stood at 1.6 percent in 1990 but by 2000, its GDP shrunk 3.3 percent; the value of its industry declined 11 percent in that same period.53
The World Bank and IMF began to operate as global loan sharks. African debt from 1980 has been paid back four times more than what was originally borrowed, a total of $255 billion. The amount also exceeds many times over the amount African exports have earned. “Long before shock therapy in Eastern Europe or even the debt-driven ‘adjustments’ in Latin America, it was sub-Saharan Africa that was the playground of neo-liberalism’s assault.”54 The All-Africa Council of Churches has called Africa’s debt burden “a new form of slavery, as vicious as the slave trade.”55
Africa is also saddled with another burden: because their economies are narrowly tied to exports, many African nations are compelled to import oil for their own use, and so higher oil prices actually hurt them. Free-trade agreements also force developing regions such as Africa to import other Western goods including food, which, according to Oxfam, destroys the “livelihood for many small producers…[and] the adverse impact on poverty [is] substantial.”56 Driven off their land, small farmers have flooded urban areas, producing the massive slums and unemployment documented in Mike Davis’s book, Planet of Slums. The world’s highest percentages of slum-dwellers are found in the African nations Ethiopia and Chad (99.4 percent each).57 With African economies in free fall, some of neoliberalism’s former boosters like World Bank head Joseph Stiglitz have been forced to conclude that free-trade agreements “are not right for developing countries…it is not a negotiation, it is rather an imposition.”58
But not everyone was hurt under these conditions: “The boom in exports all too frequently benefited only a tiny stratum. One of the most extreme cases was Angola, a major producer of oil and diamonds. In Luanda, where in 1993 a staggering 84 percent of the population was jobless or underemployed, inequality between the highest and lowest income deciles ‘increased from a factor of 10 to a factor of 37 between 1995 and 1998 alone.’”59
Post-colonial economic development on the continent proceeded unevenly, resulting in combined and uneven development that has concentrated industrial growth in key centers such as Nigeria and South Africa. According to the World Bank, those two countries together account for 55 percent of the industrial value in sub-Saharan Africa, while the other fifty-one countries share the remainder.60 Class polarization has expressed itself most sharply in these centers, with enthusiastic ruling-class support for market-based neoliberal reform on the one hand, and higher levels of working-class resistance on the other.
In South Africa more than 40 percent of the population languishes in extreme poverty while the top quarter of the population earns 85 percent of the country’s wealth.61 In Nigeria, 80 percent of the nation’s oil wealth is concentrated in the hands of 1 percent of the population.62 As John Ghazvinian describes in Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil, foreign oil companies have conducted some of the world’s most sophisticated exploration and production operations…but the people of the Niger Delta have seen none of the benefits. While successive military regimes have used oil proceeds to buy mansions in Mayfair or build castles in the sand in the faraway capital of Abuja [Nigeria], many in the Delta live as their ancestors would have done hundreds, even thousands of years ago.63
In much of the rest of the continent, prevented from industrializing and developing an economic base, many nations are now subject to the latest version of blame-the-victim, as Western investors chide African economies as “basket cases” for having “missed the globalization boat” because they are not set up to compete on the world market. An accepted part of the mainstream debate on Africa is that assistance “doesn’t work.” Africa’s been given generous amounts of aid, goes the argument, “without showing very much in the way of economic or social success.”64 In fact, aid to Africa has been cut by 40 percent since the 1990s. To think about it another way: the U.S. gives the state of Israel $4.5 billion a year, but only $680 million to the entire continent of Africa. But U.S. military aid to Africa has increased dramatically since 2001. For example, “since September 11, Kenya, which the State Department describes as a ‘frontline state’ in the war on terrorism, has received eight times more military aid than in the preceding five years.”65
The ultimate irony is that Africa is actually not a debtor continent: because African ruling classes deposit so much money from Africa into foreign banks, what’s called capital flight, billions more have gone into those banks than has been lent to Africa. According to one study, sub-Saharan Africa experienced capital flight of $196 billion between 1970 and 1996—whereas these countries’ combined debt in 1996 stood at $178 billion.66 A good portion of this money comes from funds siphoned off from foreign aid and sent back to the private accounts of African rulers in Western banks. This dynamic helps explain why African ruling classes do not refuse the World Bank and IMF terms, as deadly as they are for the majority in Africa: they profit off of foreign assistance.67
In the face of their disastrous track record in Africa’s economy, Western rulers have recently declared their commitment to reforms and ending poverty in Africa. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has tried to redeem his record as a war criminal in Iraq by making a name for himself in African debt relief, and the G8 summit in Scotland in 2005 produced a promise to double aid to Africa by 2010. But this rhetoric masked no small amount of posturing, as the lead up to the 2007 G8 summit in Germany made clear. The press reported that the richest nations in the world fell well short of their goal and aid actually decreased by several billion dollars.68 Oxfam has said that the failure to meet aid goals will mean that 45 million more children will die between now and 2015.69 The U.S. was among the worst culprits in the drop-off of aid pledges to Africa.70
In any case, increasing aid does nothing to attack the overall structure of inequality in the G8 trade deals, because aid itself is a political tool that comes with strings attached. As Oxfam has pointed out, “[t]hey are using their muscle to push for greater liberalization and access to African markets while continuing to protect their own markets from competition from African exports”71—the very policy that is hurting most Africans. The U.S., for example, uses aid to expand African dependence on U.S. exports.72
The World Bank and IMF launched the Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) plan in 1996, which effected a miniscule reduction in debt. And the UN launched a set of targets for 2015 called the Millennium Development Goals for child mortality, disease, and environmental sustainability. But the actions of the U.S. and the EU give lie to the lip service they pay to these goals. New trade deals that force African countries to eliminate tariffs will cut 25 percent of their income—the equivalent, for example, of Zambia’s yearly budget for dealing with AIDS.73 Meanwhile, such so-called reforms come with requirements for “good governance,” the favorite buzzword for new conditions imposed on African nations for aid. But Western powers’ concern over political instability in Africa is sheer hypocrisy, given that they have supported the worst, blood-soaked rulers in Africa when it suited them, while backing deregulation and privatization that “stripped the African states of what little control they had previously exercised over…foreign firms.”74
Neoliberal African-based reforms, like the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the African Union, championed by South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, are no solution to African inequality and poverty as they merely create opportunities for more African ruling-class involvement in trade policy.75 NEPAD helps to create favorable conditions for Western investment through (African-imposed) requirements for privatization, cuts in social spending and “good governance,” i.e., subjecting African policy-making to the political will of Western imperialism and its allies. The response to this African “partnership” highlights the tremendously uneven benefits of neoliberal policy across classes and nations. In 2002, members of some forty African social movements, trade unions, youth and women’s organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), religious groups, and others rejected NEPAD in the African Civil Society Declaration on NEPAD.76 Ultimately, whether African elites are at the table or not, the priorities for Africa are set by the needs of global capital rather than the needs of ordinary Africans.
Militarism and the “war on terror” in Africa.
Economic and strategic goals are driving a new militarization in Africa, and growing talk of a “war on terror” across the continent. And, as in the Middle East, “promoting democracy” has provided a useful pretext for military intervention. Yet, as the Financial Times so cleverly put it, “Dick Cheney…once pointed out [that] the good Lord did not see fit to put oil only where there are democratic governments. The Horn of Africa, one of the world’s last unexplored oil frontiers, bears this out.”77
Both the Horn of Africa and West Africa present serious problems for the U.S. in its new scramble for African resources. U.S. officials fear instability could interfere with access to the region’s oil and minerals, especially with military operations tied up in Iraq. The State Department, the Pentagon, and industry heads have been jointly strategizing to find a coherent policy balancing investment opportunities and security risks.78As elsewhere in the world, the “war on terror” provides a central ideological justification for U.S. ruling-class strategy in confronting these obstacles, and Africa’s proximity to the Middle East and large Muslim populations make it that much more critical.
It was the Clinton administration that first designated Africa as a “terror” target, and dropped bombs on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in 1998 to back this up. Madeleine Albright declared in 1999, “Africa is a major battleground in the global fight against terror, crime, drugs, illicit arms-trafficking, and disease.”79 The current plans continue this agenda. There is the “$100 million Eastern Africa Counter-Terrorism initiative involving Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, and Eritrea as well as Djibouti. Another new State Department program, the Pan Sahel Initiative, is being implemented by Pentagon and civilian contractors in Mali, Mauritania, Chad, and Niger. These actions suggest the obvious targeting and encirclement of Islamic Africa.80
The Horn of Africa has been called the “hottest conflict zone” in the world; the wars of the region—including Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea—have created a human rights catastrophe of mammoth proportions: 9 million people displaced and 16 million in need of humanitarian aid.81
The history of Western intervention in the Horn extends back through the twentieth century, when colonial powers and the Cold War superpowers waged proxy warfare in constantly shifting superpower alliances and competition, against a backdrop of falling world commodity prices and economic devastation. The Horn’s civil wars today must be seen as the direct result of the U.S. and USSR arming the different sides with billions of dollars, all while famines raged.82 The so-called humanitarian intervention by U.S. Marines in Somalia in 1992–93 was merely a continuation of this policy with a different name, and humanitarianism too has become a useful ideological guise for foreign intervention. Alongside “fighting terror,” promoting humanitarian goals has been a watchword of both the Clinton and Bush administrations, designed to cover for economic and military aims, and to justify U.S. military deployment in the region.
Today, U.S. policy in the Horn centers on shoring up local allies, especially Ethiopia but also Sudan, as partners in counterterrorism, even as Bush denounces the Sudanese government for permitting genocide in Darfur. As the region’s regimes line up on different sides, supporting various Islamist groups and warlords, the conflict intensifies. In June 2007, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of African Affairs Jendayi Frazer declared, “We were against the Ethiopian invasion.” In reality, the U.S. offensive against Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union—ousted by U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces—included “funding…warlords to pursue terrorists on its behalf. By 2006, the enlisted warlords were getting…about $150,000 a month.” In contrast, the U.S. gives “far less humanitarian assistance to Somalia than to other countries in the region.”83 This is the pattern for Africa as a whole in recent years: big jumps in military aid while other forms of aid are slashed.84 The EU is also extremely concerned about instability in the Horn, yet worries that U.S. intervention will spark an all-out regional war.85 Declaring it potentially “one of the most serious of all conflicts that we could possibly imagine,” EU officials set aside approximately $6 billion as an incentive for “good governance,” pointing to the danger of “inflamed tensions” spreading to the Middle East and even Europe.86
In 2003, while invading and occupying Iraq, the U.S. military built a base in the strategic location of Djibouti, a tiny country next to Somalia and across the Red Sea from Yemen, and has earmarked $100 million a year to support its counterterrorism efforts. The U.S. used Camp Lemonier to train Ethiopian forces in the lead-up to the December 2006 invasion of Somalia. Washington has backed up its support for the Ethiopian invasion with periodic air strikes against so-called terrorist camps.87 “Meanwhile, the [Islamic] Courts’ collapse has left a huge vacuum that the Transitional Government cannot fill. The Courts had brought [relative] peace and stability, and their defeat has returned Mogadishu to the warlords…of the past two decades.”88 In other words, “U.S. political and military alliance with Ethiopia—which openly violated international law in its aggression towards Somalia, is destabilizing the Horn region and begins a new shift in the way the U.S. plans to have permanent and active military presence in Africa.”89 Two hundred thousand new refugees have been created since the invasion. Refugees trying to cross the Red Sea are reported drowning off the Somali coast. The Washington Post reported from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, that “More than 200 FBI and CIA agents have set up camp…and have been interrogating dozens of detainees… picked up in Somalia and held without charge and without attorneys in a secret prison somewhere in this city.”90
“The carnage and suffering in Somalia may be the worst in more than a decade—but you’d hardly know it from your nightly news,” wrote a Reuters reporter last month.91 Salim Lone, a Somali spokesperson for the United Nations mission in Iraq in 2003 denounced the occupation on Democracy Now!, saying: “The prime minister’s attempt to lure Western oil companies is on a par with his crying wolf about al-Qaeda at every turn…. No one believes it.”92
The Ethiopian occupation continues. Mogadishu has used helicopters and tanks to destroy entire neighborhoods, killing at least 400 Somalis in a single assault. A recent Amnesty report on Somalia found that “Some 6,000 civilians were reportedly killed in fighting in the capital Mogadishu and across southern and central Somalia in 2007, and over 600,000 Somali civilians were internally displaced from and around Mogadishu. In addition, an estimated 335,000 Somali refugees fled Somalia in 2007.”93
The U.S. outpost in Djibouti has another role of ostensibly winning the “war on terror” through public works projects, in what the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof calls “the softer touch.” In a column called “aid workers with guns,” Kristof explains how U.S. troops stationed in Djibouti pitch in during natural disasters, dig wells, and build hospitals.94 This “soft touch” approach is one strand in the web of political, economic, and military relations drawing U.S. policy-makers closer to the African ruling class, and is designed to ease the interjection of military power.
George Bush announced in 2007 the creation of a new Africa command called AFRICOM, likely based off the coast of West Africa to protect energy interests in Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea region, “to deal with what the Christian Science Monitor dubbed ‘Strife, oil, and Al Qaeda.’”95 Some African leaders are refusing to consider an AFRICOM base on their soil, but U.S. military officials are determined. As Rear Admiral Richard Hunt, the Commander of Combined Joint Taskforce-Horn of Africa (CJT-HOA) at Dijbouti’s Camp Lemonier explains, “Africa is the new frontier that we need to engage now, or we are going to end up doing it later in a very negative way.”96
AFRICOM is only the most public of a ring of U.S. military bases operating or under construction across the continent, and for the U.S. and the local forces it trains, “instability” and “insurgency” are frequently code words for the revolt of ordinary people against brutal dictatorships and their American partners. As one U.S. activist put it: Local Africans are demanding respect and a share in what is after all, their oil. They are now routinely, viciously suppressed in eastern Nigeria, in Equatorial Guinea and elsewhere, by African troops trained and equipped with American tax dollars. When resistance continues, as it certainly will, America is preparing to up the ante with more American equipment, with military and civilian advisers, with bombs, bullets and if need be, with American bodies. That’s what AFRICOM is about, and what it will be doing in the new century.97
The U.S.’s new military base is upping the ante for China to step up its own security in the region. Equally, claims of genocide have provided the pretext for “bringing UN/NATO troops into the [Chinese-controlled] oilfields of Darfur and south Sudan.”98
“Unofficial” military forces are also at work in Africa. The U.S. hired a major military contractor called DynCorp this spring to provide logistical and technical support to African Union (mainly Ugandan) “peacekeeping” forces. The State Department has asked for $40 million for Somalia alone. DynCorp also has forces on the ground in southern Sudan and Ethiopia, including paramilitary “security teams.”99 U.S. contractors have a long record of doing business in Africa. Blackwater and Halliburton’s KBR provide services to bases in Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia; the Bush-connected Barrick Gold provides “intelligence” and security for operations in Congolese mines, and helped fuel a bloody civil war with a death toll of 5 million people.100
Interests in Africa extend to other Western powers, and the U.S. is by no means the lone military force in Africa. The UN has organized 11,000 troops for Darfur’s next-door neighbor, Chad, and the Central African Republic. Chadian and Sudanese rebels, and the governments of both sides, are engaged in a cross-border war, using Darfur as a staging ground for uprisings supported historically by both the U.S. and France. There are approximately 300,000 Sudanese refugees and 120,000 displaced Chadians. India, another regional competitor, has a massive navy that dominates the Indian Ocean abutting East Africa.101 Nonetheless, only the U.S. is presently willing to back up its economic interests with direct force, and neither India nor other powers, established or emerging, are in a position to challenge the military hegemony of the U.S. for quite some time.
Beyond the Horn and East Africa, threats of instability posed to U.S. investments in West Africa are a huge concern. One of the most important recent examples was the April 2007 Nigerian election, rigged in favor of President Obasanjo’s hand-picked successor, which further inflamed resistance in the oil region. Over the past year, attacks on oil facilities have forced Nigeria to shut down one-fifth of production and has resulted in lost billions in revenue to the Nigerian government; more than 100 foreign workers have been kidnapped in the Niger Delta region, with attacks from a range of forces under the umbrella grouping of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. Given U.S. corporate investment in Nigeria, some policymakers have openly called for military intervention. The Atlantic Monthly has called Nigeria the “largest failed state on earth,” and written that further destabilization would threaten “the abundant oil reserves that America has vowed to protect. Should that day come, it would herald a military intervention far more massive than the Iraqi campaign.”102
But as Ike Okonta, a Nigerian academic at Oxford University and the author of When Citizens Revolt: Nigerian Elites, Big Oil, and the Ogoni Struggle for Self-determination points out, the West is to blame for these conditions:
At the heart of this…growing armed insurrection in the Niger Delta, fed and sustained by five decades of economic exploitation and political marginalization that the local communities have suffered at such terrible cost. The United States and the European Union backed the Obasanjo government in 1999 and again in 2003 even though there was abundant evidence that those elections had been marked by rigging and violence…. He was seen as a competent general who could be counted on to rein in the youth activists in the Delta region and ensure that Western oil companies continue to extract oil undisturbed. Local democracy and corporate social responsibility were thus sacrificed for cheap oil.103
John Ghazvinian, author of Untapped, describes the conditions behind the uprising in Nigeria the following way:
You have people living in Stone Age squalor, in mud huts, you know, in swamps with no roads, no electricity, no running water. I spend a lot of time in the Delta, and I’ve seen the way people live there. And, you know, through their backyards you have thousands of miles of pipelines, ultra-modern, multi-million-dollar, air-conditioned, state-of-the-art facilities going up, and people just haven’t seen any benefits from the oil exploration. And over time, that has turned into a fairly nasty sort of militant insurgency, as I think shouldn’t surprise anyone, really.104
Competition between the U.S. and China has spilled over into this very unstable area as well, with China making massive investments in Nigeria in exchange for oil exploration rights and arms deals.105 As in Somalia, Chinese workers have been victims of what is euphemistically termed a “security deficit” in the Niger Delta region, a deficit China may be less and less willing to tolerate.106
Conclusion: possibilities for resistance
The new apologists for colonialism, the Bush administration included, operate as if the only solution for poverty, crisis, and civil war in Africa is to back up Big Oil with more privatization and military force. Even many NGOs are resigned to promoting limited reforms that fall far short of challenging the murderous terms dictated by global corporations and Western imperialism. But these are not the only alternatives. Africa has a long tradition of militant struggle. Mass movements in the anticolonial period, supported by millions of workers and peasants, shattered the political control of Europeans powers on the continent. Left-wing national liberation movements and African socialism—new heads of state such as Nkrumah, Lumumba, and Nyere—inspired movements elsewhere around the globe, including Black liberation struggles in the United States.
These newly emerging African economies, however, were not able to fulfill the aspirations of their populations after the era of liberation. Those that attempted to insert themselves into the world market, or break free from it, met increasing resistance as the global recession of the 1970s intensified competition. Widespread illusions that political independence would create the conditions for rapid economic development were undermined. Africa’s new national states were so small and economically weak that they could not, without giant loans, even begin to embark on the policy of national development they eagerly promised. Hobbled with weak infrastructures inherited from the colonial regimes, and insufficient capital to technologically advance, these economies fell increasingly behind. The new nationalist elites, meanwhile, were forced into the mold of all ruling classes: exploiters of workers and peasants, driven by the logic of international competition.107
But the fight for self-determination did not end with colonialism’s demise, and African workers and the poor waged a new round of strikes and protest movements decades later against new African ruling classes;108 over three dozen dictatorial regimes were toppled by struggles from below in the 1990s alone.109 Just as African economic development is marked by uneven development, resistance is focused in key centers of working-class opposition, such as in South Africa and the Nigerian oilfields, where the concentration of workers provides the social weight to bind together the struggles of whole regions, overcoming ethnic barriers. Above all, the example of apartheid’s defeat at the hands of South African workers—with their hands on some of the most valuable minerals in the world—shows how working-class struggle, concentrated at key points, can unify the resistance of the many oppressed groups, from ethnic minorities to the unemployed of the region.
Revolts against neoliberal structural adjustment policies began in the 1980s; so-called IMF riots, and class struggle exploded in the 1990s. These included strikes against wage cuts, anti-poverty activism, mobilizations for AIDS treatment, struggles against the privatization of water and electricity, and movements for debt relief.110 Many of these struggles have laid the basis for alliances and longer-term battles over basic needs and human rights for workers and the poor today. Activists against privatization in South Africa have raised the demand for reparations for apartheid, and the global justice movement has built solidarity with those in Africa, like Jubilee South Africa’s campaign against Citigroup, the source of billions of dollars in loans to the apartheid regime. Along with activists across the Third World, African activists built the World Bank Bonds Boycott that successfully forced the world’s largest pension fund, TIAA-CREF, to drop its bonds.
The battle against the new scramble for Africa’s resources has for years put the oil industry in its crosshairs. Movements in Nigeria have demanded reparations and environmental justice. Oil companies have been the targets not just of kidnappings and sabotage of oil pipelines, but organized strikes, sit-ins, and demonstrations. In May 2007, protesters in Ogoniland carried out a weeks-long occupation of a major oil pipeline hub that forced Royal Dutch Shell to cut production by 40 percent.111 Human rights activists have also waged a long campaign against the World Bank’s support for the Chad-Cameroon pipeline.112
A petition to the World Petroleum Congress stated the following:
At every point in the fossil fuel production chain where your members “add value” and make profit, ordinary people, workers and their environments are assaulted and impoverished. Where oil is drilled, pumped, processed and used, in Africa as elsewhere, ecological systems have been trashed, peoples’ livelihoods have been destroyed and their democratic aspirations and their rights and cultures trampled…
Your energy future…threatens the global environment, imposing on all of us the chaos and uncertainty of climate change and the violence and destruction of war. Another energy future is necessary: yours has failed!113
Movements are also taking on the blood diamonds of the West African diamond industry, land displacement for gold mining and dam construction, and the deadly monopoly of pharmaceutical companies. The new scramble for Africa has produced new movements of resistance.
Above all, workers’ power in Africa has shown the potential for uprooting the source of poverty and inequality. Workers have shown how to take on global institutions like the IMF. For example, in Zambia, the workers’ movement led a half-million strong general strike against IMF-imposed wage freezes. The Zimbabwean labor movement of the past decade has waged a fierce struggle against Robert Mugabe’s repressive regime, including strikes and protests for wage hikes this past spring. However, the leading opposition group against Mugabe, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), depends heavily on bourgeois financing and support, and has adopted neoliberal strategies. As Patrick Bond writes, there is a concern that “the MDC [will] end up like the Movement for Multiparty Democracy in Zambia. There, trade unionist Frederic Chiluba won the 1991 election against veteran nationalist Kenneth Kaunda with a multi-class alliance, and quickly applied neo-liberal economic policy with even worse results than his predecessor.”114 The question of the politics and class independence of the developing social movements in Africa therefore matter a great deal.
South Africa is where workers’ power achieved the most important victory since the end of colonialism: the overthrow, in 1994, of racist apartheid rule, following decades of struggle in the mines and factories alongside uprisings in the townships and schools. The rise of workers’ struggles in the 1980s shook the apartheid system to its core and ushered in its final days.
South African workers have continued to fight against corporate power and inequality in its neoliberal guise, now administered by the African National Congress (ANC). In 2001, 3 million South African workers joined a general strike against the ANC government’s privatization of public utilities and basic industries. The COSATU strike slogan declared: “We did not fight for liberation so that we could sell everything we won to the highest bidder.”115 Key pillars of the 1994 ANC program “included promises for land, water, electricity, housing, jobs, education, healthcare. The promises were all immediately broken.”116
Great challenges confront the building of a workers’ movement in Africa that is capable of taking on the power of global capital in a battle for the world’s most critical resource. These include U.S. and Western military power; economic terrorism on the part of the IMF and World Bank; repressive African regimes; uneven development and vast unemployment, due to deindustrialization and economic “restructuring.” Equally, as elsewhere, there is a pressing need to rebuild a Left independent of both the so-called Left regimes and top-down NGOs that refuse to shake free of the dictates of corporate and governmental power. These are indeed huge challenges.
African workers and the poor have a proud history of struggle, from the uprooting of colonialism to contemporary movements against the neoliberal order. With the new scramble for wealth in Africa, and the role workers on the continent play in producing that wealth, Africa’s workers are crucially positioned to link the battle against the new imperialism with the struggle against exploitation in all its forms. African workers are tied to international capitalism and to the potential for international, permanent revolution that links the developed and the developing world. These connections make working-class resistance and revolutionary struggle in Africa, and our solidarity, so important today.