SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 78 - October 2003

Africa: the new colonies

Over recent years, the US regime has renewed its interest in Africa. Impetus was added after the al-Qa’ida attacks of 11 September 2001. ‘National security’ became interwoven with the ‘war on terror’, alternatives to Middle East oil a priority. Trade deals and troop deployments followed. MANNY THAIN reports.

IN FIVE DAYS in June, George W Bush visited five sub-Saharan African states: Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria. His mission was to promote ‘compassionate capitalism’ – the human face of a system which condemns half the world’s people to destitution. He promised $15 billion over five years to fight HIV/Aids. He used press conferences and meetings to talk about trade deals. Bush lectured audiences on ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and the ‘war on terror’.

Bush’s promises – not a cent has yet been paid over – were welcomed by some aid agencies. Bob Geldof, of the Band Aid charity, naively lavished praise on the US president. But Bush’s safari was no altruistic adventure. It was conducted in the interests of US capitalism.

The Republican Party hoped it would be good PR, impacting positively on the votes of African-Americans in next year’s presidential election. That was the reason Bush started his tour on Gorée Island, where slaves were crammed onto ships destined for the US. His speech was aimed directly at US voters: "The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation. And many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times. But however long the journey, our destination is set: liberty and justice for all". (International Herald Tribune, 9 July)

Unfortunately for Bush, the visit coincided with an escalation of violence in Liberia, a West African state founded by freed slaves from the US in 1847. Bush was under pressure to help alleviate the humanitarian disaster unfolding around him as two guerrilla armies besieged the then president, Charles Taylor, and his militias. Liberia had played a strategic role during the cold war, backing the US against the former Soviet Union as they tussled for spheres of influence in Africa. But its strategic significance faded when the Stalinist system imploded in 1989/90. US imperialism had no desire to get involved this time around.

Part of the superpower’s prestige, however, is bound up with its claim to ‘defend freedom and democracy’. This can actually fuel expectations that it should use its power to avert humanitarian disasters in situations such as this. Bush was compelled to take some action – $10 million towards the military deployment by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas); a vague offer of a few troops; and the stationing of three US warships near the capital, Monrovia. In reality, mere gestures.

And Bush could not avoid the question of Iraq. Outrage at the allegation that the government of Niger had sold uranium to Saddam Hussein – based on forged documents but used by the British and US governments as a justification to invade Iraq – was a constant thorn in Bush’s side.

The reluctance to intervene in Liberia sums up US imperialism’s wary attitude towards Africa. On the one hand, the continent is rich in precious metals and minerals, fertile land and cheap labour. On the other, it is racked by political and economic crises. Even Pentagon hawks’ blood runs cold remembering the Somalia debacle of 1993, when US military arrogantly intervened in a warlord conflict and ended up fleeing the country with 18 body bags. It was a humiliating episode that the ruling class does not wish to see repeated.

In the words of secretary of state, Colin Powell, however, Africa can’t be ignored. In fact, it is becoming increasingly important. The ‘war on terror’ means that the US is spreading out across the world like never before. It is negotiating long-term access to military bases in Mali. It has 1,800 troops on ‘counter-terrorism operations’ in Djibouti, within striking distance of Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. They have all been dubbed ‘failed states’ by the Bush regime, which is hunting down Islamist groups, in particular. It has long had military agreements with Kenya and many others.

To the chagrin of the French ruling class, US big business has been systematically courting several of France’s former colonial states. In North Africa, the US regime has strengthened military links with Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Algeria’s rulers are using the war on terror to justify their own brutality and repression, the Algerian ambassador to the US happy to take up this ‘common challenge’.

French imperialism’s standing in the so-called ‘international community’ was knocked back after the ties between Paris and the Rwandan regime which launched the 1994 genocide were exposed. In 1995, former military dictator, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, overthrew president Pascal Lissouba of Congo (formerly Congo-Brazzaville). The passive reaction by the French administration was also widely criticised. Lissouba had, apparently, approached US energy companies to exploit off-shore oil reserves.

Chirac sent troops to Ivory Coast in September 2002 to prevent a coup against Laurent Gbagbo. There are now 3,000 French troops keeping Liberian and Burkina Faso backed rebels away from the government. This has strengthened France’s hand in its dispute with Gbagbo for negotiating with US companies. In February 2003, Chirac hosted the 22nd Franco-African summit in Paris, where 54 states were represented. But it was a sideshow. At the time, all eyes were on preparations for the war in Iraq.

65 cents a day

BUSH’S OFFERS ON trade and aid are tied down with strings. Development aid is available. But only to states prepared to sell-off energy and finance services to US corporations. It is a neo-liberal programme, successor to the infamous structural adjustment programmes pursued aggressively by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in the 1990s. These policies will guarantee that the African working class, peasants and slaves remain in the gutter. They will ensure that the wealth of the continent ends up in the pockets and bank vaults of rich imperialists. They will maintain Western imperialism’s stranglehold on these ‘neo-colonial’ economies.

According to this year’s United Nations Human Development Report, it will be 2147 before sub-Saharan Africa has halved the number of people living in poverty, at current growth rates. The average per capita income in sub-Saharan Africa is worth less than it was in the 1960s. Half the population lives on less than 65 cents a day. The proportion of the population in desperate poverty has risen from 47% to 49% over the last ten years.

In Zimbabwe, life expectancy has fallen from 56 in the 1970s to 33.1. In Norway, life expectancy is 78.7, there is 100% literacy, and the average annual income is $30,000 (over £18,000). In Sierra Leone, the equivalent figures are: 35; 33%; and $470; and 363 out of every 1,000 children die before they reach five years old. In Norway, it is four per thousand.

This economic and social catastrophe is at the base of the conflicts within and between states. West Africa has been caught up in a series of civil wars and coups. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DROC, formerly Zaire), 3.3 million people have been killed in wars over the last five years, according to the International Rescue Committee.

French-led troops entered the gold and mineral-rich Ituri province in north-east DROC in 1999, when it was controlled by the Ugandan army. The warlords are divided between Hema and Lendu militias and are engaged in a scramble over raw materials between DROC and Uganda and Rwanda, and their rich-nation backers. Along for the roller-coaster ride are the world’s major gold mining companies, including South Africa’s Anglo-American and Gold Fields, Canada’s Barrick Gold, and Ghana’s Ashanti Gold Fields. They want exploration rights and contracts. The power-sharing deal of 17 July seems shaky, with four vice-presidents – one each from the two main rebel groups, the government party and main opposition party – now under the current president, Joseph Kabila.

Eritrea has been involved in a border war with Ethiopia since 1998. This has devastated the economy as Ethiopia was its main trading partner. When the threat of the worst famine in 20 years loomed earlier this year, the World Bank and IMF demanded that Ethiopia pay £73 million of its ‘debt’ to the West (enough to provide twelve million people with food for a month). Last year, the government paid $100 million, nearly 10% of its revenue.

There have been almost ten years of civil war in the East African state of Burundi, where predominantly Hutu rebels are fighting government, mainly Tutsi, troops. This is not, however, a clear inter-ethnic conflict, more a battle for ascendancy between Hutu groups. Around 200,000 people have died in this small state in between Congo, Rwanda and Tanzania. A 1,000-strong South Africa-led force stands by.

The ‘can-do countries’

THE COLLAPSE OF August’s World Trade Organisation (WTO) summit – held in Cancún, Mexico – was a setback for the G7 (the richest industrialised countries). While Bush in Africa talked of extending duty free access to US markets for African textiles, US and EU representatives in Cancún demanded the privatisation of the continent’s financial sector.

Although the rich nations were stalled at Cancún, they wield such overwhelming economic and military might that they will force their policies on the neo-colonial world regardless of WTO rules. US trade representative, Robert B Zoellick, made this clear: "But the key division at Cancún was between the can-do and the won’t-do. For over two years, the US has pushed to open markets globally, in our hemisphere, and with sub-regions or individual countries. As WTO members ponder the future, the US will not wait: we will move towards free trade with can-do countries". (Financial Times, 22 September)

The ‘can-do countries’ will be those which accept US diktat. They will have to open up their economies to be picked over by big business – through privatisation and exploration rights, etc. Access for the US military will be demanded. US capitalism will pursue bilateral deals, exerting enormous pressure on states desperate for even limited access to the world’s biggest economy.

While the richest and most powerful nations demand that the neo-colonial world opens itself up for exploitation, they help maintain their dominance with protectionist measures of their own. Japan’s tariffs, for example, mean that it imports 10% of the rice it uses. Without that tax on imports Japan would have to import at least half the rice it consumed.

In the European Union (EU), the annual subsidy per cow is $913. EU annual aid is $8 per person in sub-Saharan Africa, where the average income is $490. Farmers in the rich countries received $311 billion-worth of subsidies in 2001, more than the gross domestic product of sub-Saharan Africa ($301bn). In 2002, Bush granted $3.7 billion in subsidies to the US’s 25,000 cotton farmers, which meant they could sell cotton on the world market for less than it cost to produce. This lowered world cotton prices by a quarter. Cotton represents 75% of export revenue for Benin, and 60% for Burkina Faso. It accounts for half the hard currency resources of Mali, and is Chad’s main export. West African states lost $200 million in foreign exchange earnings, with devastating effects for eleven million families. (Le Monde Diplomatique, September 2003)

World trade is rigged in other ways. When trying to export to industrialised countries, developing countries often face tariffs four times higher than those applied between industrialised countries. Rich countries exert a high price for the manufactured goods they supply to the neo-colonial world, while driving down the price they pay for raw materials and agricultural produce. Farmers in poor countries just cannot compete.

In 1999, after protests shut down the WTO summit in Seattle, and worldwide demonstrations against third-world debt, the G7 reinforced the heavily indebted poor countries (HIPC) initiative. But the IMF/World Bank formula overestimated export growth at the same time as their export revenue was falling sharply, leaving them even worse off than before. Of the 26 states receiving HIPC debt relief, 19 still spend more than 10% of government revenue repaying ‘debt’.

The IMF and World Bank wield incredible power in the neo-colonial world. They dictate policies on budget deficits and inflation, on privatisation and deregulation. They demand an end to subsidies for fertilisers, loans and prices. With controls removed, prices are highest when the poor can least afford them. IMF and World Bank representatives publicly denounce public-sector pay claims as unaffordable, demand cuts in trade barriers, and instruct local health authorities to introduce hospital fees.

30m HIV+

AFRICA IS A continent blighted by extreme poverty, exacerbated by disease. The number of people living with HIV/Aids has reached 42 million worldwide, 30 million in sub-Saharan Africa. In Nigeria, the official HIV infection rate is 5.8% (1.8% in 1991) – either a big underestimate or an indication that the disease is about to take off. Even on that basis, with a population of 128 million (one-sixth of sub-Saharan Africa), Nigeria has the third-highest absolute numbers of infected individuals in the world, after South Africa and Ethiopia.

The HIV infection rate in Mozambique could be as high as 17%, with 600 new cases every day. The pandemic is hitting the most productive and reproductive sections of society and has already left an estimated 418,000 children orphaned – from a population of 18 million. Life expectancy could drop from the current early 40s to the late 20s. Forty percent of all adult deaths in South Africa in 2000 and 2001 were Aids related.

In the Doha round of the WTO in 2001, neo-colonial states confronted the pharmaceutical companies over the price of drugs, focusing on treatment for HIV/Aids. Such is the scale of the catastrophe, that they were forced to back down after massive international pressure. In sub-Saharan Africa the pandemic threatens the collapse of several economies (including the profits of multi-national corporations), and social disintegration. The WTO drew up an ‘approved list’ of diseases for which states could override patents and buy cheap generic drugs. Nonetheless, the multi-national drug companies fought to limit the damage to their profits. The list excludes most major diseases treatable by drugs developed in the West.

Although a major concession extracted from big business, this measure will not radically improve conditions for most of the Africans living with HIV/Aids. In Uganda (sometimes cited as a ‘success story’ on this issue), only 7,000 people are receiving the anti-retroviral drugs which have dramatically improved the quality of life of those in the rich world. This is despite the fact that treatment costs have fallen from $1,200 a month to $28 with the use of generic drugs from India. The price discrepancy exposes the colossal profits made by the pharmaceutical industry. But even $28 is out of the reach of most Ugandans and other sub-Saharan Africans. In Swaziland, the total health budget is £12.6 million, one quarter of the population is in need of food, and 22% are HIV-positive. (This did not stop King Mswati III from spending £28 million on a new private jet.)

All the economies hit by HIV/Aids have followed the paths laid down by the IMF. All are heavily indebted. Just before the outbreak of famine last year, the Malawi government was instructed by the IMF to sell off the state’s grain reserves. Senior officials pocketed the cash. One of those implicated in the scam was Leonard Mangulama, minister responsible for poverty alleviation. Again under the IMF, subsidies on fertiliser and seeds were mostly removed last year. At least 1.3 million poor farmers have been left without any help. (The Observer, 19 January)

The myth is that Africa could not feed itself. It could. The huge tobacco, tea, coffee, cocoa and sugar cane estates, mostly on the best lands, could grow food crops for the domestic market instead of cash crops for export.

Under the capitalist system, however, food is not grown to eat. It is produced to sell. And the imperialist powers have a voracious appetite for profits. There is a relentless drive to expand and develop new markets. The system turns its back on millions of people struggling to survive. Capitalism means that mass starvation and disease, war and environmental destruction will continue practically unchecked. That is guaranteed.

The only way to ensure that all the world’s peoples have access to adequate food, healthcare, education and shelter would be by organising society on the basis of collective cooperation and solidarity. Common, public ownership of industry, mines, plantations and transport would provide the economic foundations. Then, if the workers who produce the goods and services elected representatives to local, regional, national and, eventually, international councils – accountable to the people who elected them and with no privileges gained from office – a coherent plan of production and distribution could be worked out democratically.

A socialist society organised in this way would be motivated by people’s needs – not short-term profits benefiting a small handful of rich capitalists. It would also be able to take full account of environmental effects, and plan accordingly. Based on workers’ unity, it would oppose all ethnic and religious discrimination. Workers’ participation would be the safeguard against the resurgence of the corruption and dictatorial rule commonplace in the neo-colonial world.

Today, however, African food production per capita is lower than it was ten years ago. Almost 30% of Africa’s food is now imported. Even in the most extreme situations, ‘aid’ is still subject to conditions dictated by the interests of US capitalism and/or other major powers. Last year, when 14 million people in southern Africa were at risk of starvation, the US pledged more than half of the 1.2 million tonnes needed to avert a major famine. But it only offered genetically modified food. Intense US pressure forced Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe reluctantly to accept. Zambia refused and the US withheld aid as a punishment.

Even when neo-colonial countries are in a position to export goods, the market works against the poorest people. In 2001, Zambia exported nearly 10,000 tonnes of produce, worth $68.5 million (£44.5m). But only the larger-scale farmers, growing flowers and vegetables for export, have benefited. And 85% of farmers are small scale, growing subsistence crops for the table and, in a good year, a few commercial crops and livestock to make a bit of money.

In the early 1990s, the Ethiopian government promoted ‘green revolution’ policies – inorganic fertilisers and high-yield crop varieties. This dramatically increased grain production and Ethiopia produced a surplus. However, this led to a catastrophic fall in prices and grain production became economically unviable. This was compounded by war with Eritrea and the breakdown of the international coffee market.

In the 1980s, 55-70% of Ethiopia’s export earnings came from coffee. Now, farmers cannot even cover their production costs. With the collapse of Stalinism, the political basis of the international coffee agreement crumbled, as explained by Trygve Berg and Michael G Angstreich (agricultural researchers in Norway): "With the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States, with its huge market, lost interest in the International Coffee Agreement that for three decades had ensured a relatively stable market – and lessened the danger of dissatisfied farmers in Latin America turning toward communism". (International Herald Tribune, 4 July) The agreement ended in 1989 and the value of Ethiopia’s coffee exports sank from $420 million in 1997-98 to $175 million in 2000-01.

Oil wealth

AFRICAN OIL IS capturing the imagination of US imperialism. Just as it looks to cut its dependency on the Middle East, vast reserves of high quality, low-sulphur crude have been found off the West African coast. A 2002 report to the US Congress by the African Oil Policy Initiative Group, which includes Pentagon officials, identified western Africa "and its attendant market of 250 million people located astride key sea lanes of communication as a vital interest in US national security calculations". (The Guardian, 7 July)

Improvements in deep drilling technology have made the oil more accessible. It is closer to the US east coast than is the Middle East. Of the sub-Saharan states, only Nigeria (the largest African oil producer) is in Opec, which would give the US more leverage on the world oil market if its corporations were in place. The ‘new’ reserves are also in deep water, away from numerous conflict zones on land.

The US currently imports about 550 million barrels per year from West Africa – roughly as much as from Saudi Arabia. The department of energy expects that US oil imports from Africa will reach 770 million barrels per year. It is aiming for 20% of its imported oil to come from West Africa by 2005, 25% by 2015.

What is certain is that the wealth will not trickle down to the mass of the people. Oil concentrates wealth in the hands of a small minority and increases poverty. Corrupt elites will attempt to hold onto power by any means possible, so labour and democratic rights are often abused. The likelihood of conflict with neighbouring states also increases.

Angola’s president, Eduardo dos Santos, came to power in 1979. His personal fortune is estimated at $14 billion (£8.5bn). An IMF report alleged that the regime pockets $1 billion (£615m) of oil revenue every year. The capital, Luanda, has the highest property prices in Africa. A decrepit one-bedroom apartment can cost £1,000 a month in rent. Up-market bars and restaurants charge £10 for a beer and £100 for dinner.

Off-shore oil reserves are fuelling this boom at the top. State-controlled Sonangol is linked with BP, Chevron and Total. Oil production in 2002 was just under one million barrels a day, second only to Nigeria in Africa. In 2000 exports of oil earned $6.9 billion, 90% of Angola’s national budget.

At the same time, Angola has the second-highest child mortality rate in the world. Only 30% of children go to school. Nearly two million people – 15% of the population – are dependent on aid. The war-torn people have suffered displacement, systematic rape, forced conscription, summary executions and physical assaults. Angola used to be self-sufficient in food, as well as being the world’s fourth largest coffee producer. Last year it imported half its cereal needs. (Independent on Sunday, 16 February)

Africa is vast and potentially very rich. For hundreds of years its natural and human resources have been plundered by Western powers: Portugal, Britain, France and Belgium, for example. They brutally put down any resistance from workers, peasants and indigenous peoples. For the majority of the continent’s populations, independence meant swapping a vicious colonial ruler for a home-grown dictator. He was usually backed by the former colonial power which continued to hold the economy by the throat. Now US interests, concentrating on oil and backed by the ‘war on terror’, are to the forefront. True, the ships no longer leave Gorée Island with their wretched human cargoes. Today, US imperialism aims to enslave Africa’s workers and poor where they live.


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