The militarisation of poverty in Africa
Toby Leon Moorsom
KINGSTON, CANADA – Over the past year, Africa has seen the decomposition of states from coast to coast. A belt of war, coups and large-scale spontaneous demonstrations has emerged across the Sahel, from Guinea-Bissau to Somalia. The situation represents a significant global security threat, which for some will justify the increasing militarisation of the continent. These political processes have a variety of localised causes, yet they have some commonalities. All of them emerge in a context of failed agricultural markets and a boom in mineral and oil extraction. Fundamentalist Islam is merely a complicating factor: not a cause, so much as a response to the destabilisation we are seeing.
It is not a coincidence that African governments are falling apart while Europe and North America are facing financial crisis. We are witnessing are the declining hegemony of African states at the same time the competition for spoils intensifies, while the potential rewards of capturing the centre become ever more valuable. Capital is not withdrawing from Africa, but instead, the processes of extraction are becoming more obvious as the economic basis of societies are under severe strain. This is the context in which the US is devoting more resources to its AFRICOM division.
Frantz Fanon wrote in 1959 that:
‘Colonialism hardly ever exploits the whole of a country. It contents itself with bringing to light the natural resources, which it extracts, and exports to meet the needs of the mother country’s industries, thereby allowing certain sectors of the colony to become relatively rich. But the rest of the colony follows its path of underdevelopment and poverty, or at all events, sinks more deeply into it.’
This is the basis of “combined and uneven” development: a state in which most of the continent still finds itself. The aid industry has masked some of these effects, yet in the current moment it has been forced into retreat, as country contributions are cut away in austerity budgets.
“While they debated whether or not [neoliberal economic] policies had brought growth to the continent, the only point they agreed on was the fact that they have resulted in growing inequalities and increasing poverty.”
At a recent launch of The Oxford Companion to the Economics of Africa in Accra, the editors of the esteemed volume were at odds over how to assess the consequences of three decades of “Washington Consensus” neoliberal economic policies. While they debated whether or not these policies had brought growth to the continent, the only point they agreed on was the fact that they have resulted in growing inequalities and increasing poverty throughout Africa.
Elections have therefore only offered the electorate a chance to choose politicians who continue to impose increasing poverty upon them. As a result, in some places, people are actually nostalgic about the years they were living under dictatorships – because they remember them as times when they had more food.
What we are witnessing now is, in part, the blowback from years of neoliberalism and military interventions in places such as Somalia and Libya. This blowback is revealing the shallowness of the “Third Wave” democratisation processes in Africa that the US political science establishment was so keen to ride. Larry Diamond, for example, influenced much of the Clinton administration’s thinking about the democratic transitions and now boasts having authored 27 books on it.
The liberal triumphalist thinking of the 1990s was, of course, forced into revision from events that ensued. Neoliberal thinkers in places like the World Bank had thought movements for democracy, supported by Washington, would chop away the burdensome state, freeing natural propensities to trade, allowing capitalism to flourish. The reality is that neoliberal policies destroyed existing local markets while highly sinister elements flourished.
Thinking at the World Bank then turned policy orientation toward building “institutions for markets”, “capacity building” and eventually a complete about-face to “statebuilding”. The occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan were most influential in forcing this shift cutting back the sate, to now build them up as bulwarks against Islamic fundamentalists, rampant corruption and those who might want to consider re-nationalisation as a development tool.
GOVERNANCE REGIMES IN AGRICULTURAL SOCIETIES
While US political scientists were obsessed with liberal triumphalism in the 1990s, others were offering far more powerful tools for understanding African states, even if the empire had no use for them. Some of the most powerful analyses have been published in Review of African Political Economy. Works by people such as Catherine Boone, Mahmood Mamdani, and the late Chris Allen among others, examine ways that material processes of extraction impact political processes.
African state borders contain a wide variety of variables. They have diverse geographies, cultural histories and economic foundations. Nevertheless, Boone’s work (along with others such as Mamdani, Jean-Francois Bayart and Robert Fatton) shows that peasant-based economies have integrative tendencies. Hegemony is more firmly rooted in land-tenure patterns and cultural institutions of labour mobilisation (ie: unpaid family labour, or working for the chief or marabout). These patterns stem from various alliances and forms of indirect-rule set in place between colonial governments and “strong men”. Alternately, extractive industries around valuable commodities have greater tendency toward disintegration.
Along with agro-pastoralism, states in West Africa have forms of mercantilism that have extended back many centuries. Mining has also taken place there for hundreds of years. Until very recently, in most cases, it has been conducted by artisanal miners, who find sustenance largely through farming and herding.
One does not need to look far to see that agriculture across the region is in crisis. Famine has already been declared in Somalia. The Sudans are at war, while refugees have fled their herds and any crops they could scrape from the ground after years of drought. UN FAO notes that last year the Horn of Africa experienced a food crisis that left an estimated 13 million people dependent on humanitarian assistance. Currently there are 15 million people facing food insecurity in the countries of the Sahel.
These famines are compounded by refugee crises. Altogether some 284,000 Malians have fled Northern Mali, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: 107,000 of them are thought to be displaced within Mali; 177,000 in neighbouring countries. New arrivals have pushed refugee numbers to 56,664 in Burkina Faso, to 61,000 in Mauritania, and to 39,388 in Niger, according to UNHCR.
Around 810,000 Senegalese are facing hunger, according to a joint study in February 2012 by the Senegalese government and the World Food Programme (WFP). In the 2011 harvest season, cereal production fell by 36 per cent compared with 2010, and the production of peanuts, Senegal’s main cash crop, fell by 59 per cent. One figure shows the latest harvest was 120,000 tons, down from a previous yearly average of 800,000.
It is tough to say what is happening in Guinea in the midst of its protracted electoral crisis, though it seems recent demonstrations called by opposition candidates tap into spontaneous displays of anger among a large population of highly disenfranchised youth. These demonstrations are acts of desperation among people whose anger can be easily exploited by self-serving politicians with fiery rhetoric. In this way, it holds some similarities to the more sophisticated Senegalese movements that emerged last year against former president Abdoulaye Wade. The Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo is an example of how unsavoury they can become.
Guinea Bissau’s coup has disrupted the marketing of cashews – an important plantation crop in that country – but the story not being told is that the indigenous rice economy has already been seriously battered. This is the case with all the rice-growing economies in West Africa, as shown by USDA figures. Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali, Ghana and Senegal all show declines in production. In the past year, imports have soared to meet local consumption. Mali’s importation has risen 50 per cent. The Ivory Coast is importing a massive 80 per cent of their consumption.
“Sudden market shocks, gradually worsening terms of trade, market disincentives … led to a process of de-agrarianisation … [and] ‘de-peasantisation’, whereby ‘peasant households and communities have lost their coherence as social and economic units’.” – Deborah Bryceson, University of Glasgow
In these countries, 3,500 year old rice economies are being destroyed in a period of less than 20 years. Of course, it is not simply the rice that has been impacted, but also the cultures that came into being alongside them – along with the complementary grains that comprised a diverse agroecology suited to local conditions. This is what dispossession means. There are certainly positive aspects of breaking feudal regimes, but if people’s labour fails to be absorbed into new forms of work, they simply become a surplus. This then pulls down labour conditions for many – who now also lack the protective aspects of a feudal economy (while you may work out of obligation, rather than for a wage, you are at least ensured your sustenance).
Reforms of the 1990s battered the agricultural sector throughout Africa. Deborah Bryceson at the University of Glasgow notes how these reforms greatly expanded the productivity gap between small-scale and large-scale production. Studies show that production rates of growth in African rice have begun to rebound in the past decade, but they are not keeping up with that of the population. More importantly, they are not meeting the same rates as highly capitalised farmers in North America and Europe (who have remained subsidised).
As Bryceson noted in 2009, sudden market shocks, gradually worsening terms of trade, market disincentives, “continue to undermine personal welfare, leading to social upheavals and political destabilisation”. This has led to a process of de-agrarianisation, or more specifically, “de-peasantisation”, whereby “peasant households and communities have lost their coherence as social and economic units”.
These patterns fuel burgeoning global unemployment rates. A recent report of the International Labour Organisation shows that youth are particularly badly hit. Between 2007 and 2010, youth unemployment increased by 5.1 million.
AUSTERITY, DECLINING AID AND ‘OVER-CONSUMPTION’
Africa is experiencing the most grotesque contradictions of Europe’s financial crisis. The immediate consequences in the south have been a drop in aid funding, while at the same time, the world’s wealthiest are hoarding gold. The Africa Report cites a 2.7 per cent drop in global development aid between 2010 and 2011, or a drop of $3.4bn. More importantly, it is the first drop in aid since 1997, after growth of 63 per cent between 2000 and 2010.
“There is no doubt that many of the earth’s resources are being used to create unnecessary products for high-consumption lifestyles… Capitalist societies are producing simply for the sake of production, not need.”
As declining peasant production, increased war and climate change fuel dislocation, there are fewer aid organisations to fill in the gaps for people to meet bare necessities. These people are the easiest to recruit into armies and gangs of banditry and piracy.
Amidst this, environmentalists at the World Wildlife Fund in a recent report, claim the world suffers from over-consumption. This, however, seems to fit too easily with an ideology where those in the affluent parts of the world are told they need to tighten their belts. Austerity is being enforced to “cut the waste” in workplaces where we are told people have been taking too much – retiring too early, expecting pensions and healthcare from employers. There is no doubt that many of the earth’s resources are being used to create unnecessary products for high-consumption lifestyles in much of the world. The problem, however, is that the World Wildlife Fund has the matter up-side-down. Capitalist societies are producing simply for the sake of production, not need.
The current crisis of capitalism is that there is “surplus liquidity”. In other words, the rich have so much wealth they have exhausted places to store it. If it is not invested its value depreciates. This is what has led to land grabbing and investment in grain futures markets. This is why we see record amounts being spent on art (ironically art that depicts the pain and isolation of capitalist society being imposed on Europeans). This is why we see car companies pushing zero per cent financing.
While workers are having their jobs and wages cut and governments are enforcing austerity, companies have never held so much cash. As one author reports: “Globally, companies are sitting on more than $5 trillion.” This is a classic case of “over-production”. When investors cannot sell more cars and condos, they turn to purchasing gold and minerals.
AFRICA’S MINING BOOM AND THE POLITICS OF SPOILS
There are few places in Africa where mineral industries have had a positive impact. 27 years of warfare in Angola is a case in point. More than a million people lost their lives, while another million were displaced in just the last decade of the war – a war that saw the country divided between factions fueled respectively by oil and diamond wealth.
Currently, Mining Weekly reports that “with commodity demand soaring, the world’s mining companies are increasingly turning to Africa to deliver resources to growing economies”. Foreign investment on the continent has grown 87 per cent in the past decade.
At this moment, rising mineral prices and increased production complicates all of the problems that states are confronting from declining agricultural production. The Sudans are amassing arms and moving ever-closer to full-scale war. The South was no-doubt emboldened by the first round of contracts it signed for mineral exploration. Coupled with the resulting cash, South Sudan was able to re-fit its army to push into Heglig, situated within territory situated in the North according to the 2009 peace treaty.
The ink from Chad’s 2007 peace treaty was barely dry before Chad announced a new investment charter in 2008, in attempts to lure companies searching for gold, silver and even diamonds. Further attempts to sway prospective investors included a glitzy conference last year under invitation by Chad’s president.
“The reason we need to worry about these mining investments is not simply because of their human rights violations … mining increases the rewards for those forces able to capture the state.”
The impact of gold on Nigeria has led to the largest recorded lead poisoning in human history as small-scale and artisanal miners step up their production, scattering lead-laden dust into children’s play areas. The results are painfully tragic, killing 460 children and contaminating a further 4,000. The contamination will cause numerous ongoing problems for the country in years to come. This is of course in a country where the draw of Islamic fundamentalism has the entire country on edge. As much as those of us on the left would like to believe otherwise, this degree of poverty rarely produces pleasant political responses.
In Mali, mining companies will no doubt be increasing private security force protection of their mining concessions in the west of the country. The companies involved are also those that are participating in the mineral exploration rush on the same geographic feature that crosses into Guinea and Senegal. There are so many companies clamouring for mines in Guinea right now that the prices of poor-quality hotel rooms in Conakry are reportedly often $300 or $400 a night.
The reason we need to worry about these mining investments is not simply because of the human rights violations, the displacement of populations and the pollution of land that accompany them. More than that, we need to be aware of the fact that mining increases the rewards for those forces able to capture the state – regardless of how they go about accomplishing it. Warlords have little need to control the productive activities; they just need to have some control over the proceeds – or at least portions of them.
Guinea has seen one coup after another, with Burkina’s Blaise Campaore often involved in some way. In Guinea Bissau, the proceeds from drug-running are beginning to have the same effect, with factions in the military and state colluding to exact spoils (and why would they want to collaborate in the “war on drugs” when drug smuggling is practically the only competitive advantage they have?).
The consequences of the processes I have described here are that, within the past year we have seen a corridor of insecurity emerge that leaves large areas, from coast to coast, where there is effectively no functioning government. Although African states have often done little to protect their citizens, the circumstances in refugee camps and in rebel held territory are far worse for everyone. They are especially bad for women; as the situation in Northern Mali is making clear.
The US, under AFRICOM, however, is not likely to be as concerned with women’s safety as they are their oil and mineral operations, and the draw of fundamentalist Islam. Yet interest in Islamic fundamentalism is that much more appealing to people who’ve lost everything for the sake of the one per cent intent on taking it all. Armies are not signs of hope for those who have recently lost their land in mining concessions and land grabs, because in the experiences of the disposed, militaries have tended to come in to support those who are taking from them.
Militarisation is not taking place to resolve impoverishment, but enforce it. A more systemic solution would be to curb the appetites of the richest and invest human energies into building a more egalitarian global economy.
Toby Leon Moorsom teaches at Queen’s University in Canada and is an editor of Nokoko Journal of African Studies.
* This article was first published by Al Jazeera.