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From: The Socialist issue 609, 27 January 2010: Prosecute the war criminal Blair

Search site for keywords: Africa - Imperialism - Oil - China - US - Nigeria - Congo - Ethiopia - Sudan - Kenya - Military

Imperialism in Africa today

In a renewed 'scramble for Africa', the continent is again a competing arena for all the big powers globally - China, the US, the EU, Russia. They are making a grab for oil, gas, minerals and land to grow food, plus military-strategic positions. Africa in 2010 is a horrific example of what imperialism means writes Per-Åke Westerlund of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (the Socialist Party's counterpart in Sweden).

The running of Africa's economies and politics today involves often corrupt and oppressive African regimes, in shifting alliances with the White House, Beijing, European governments, multinational corporations and international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In the 1980s and 1990s, African economies were subjects of the 'structural adjustment programmes' of the World Bank and the IMF. Governments were ordered to privatise water, telecommunications, electricity, mining, education, health care etc. This was later institutionalised in NEPAD (New Partnership for African Development) which also demanded African countries 'open up' their markets to imports.

The results of these neoliberal policies were that "indices for education, health, sanitation, water, life expectancy, infant mortality and literacy have fallen" (Tanzanian author and professor Issa G Shivji). Privatisation and cuts in education in Nigeria, for example, increased the number of pupils per teacher from 23 to 39 from 1990 to 2006. In Zambia, state-owned mines contributed $200 million to the state in 1992, compared to $8 million from the privatised mines in 2004.

One of the strangleholds of the West was Africa's debt, today still at about $200 billion. "Sub-Saharan Africa receives $10 billion in aid but loses $14 billion in debt payments per year" (Africa action, a campaign to cancel African debts).

Onset of recession

In the last decade, the new 'scramble for Africa' led to strong economic growth. Between 2002 and 2007, GDP in sub-Saharan Africa rose at an average annual rate of over 6%. But all the more drastic was the global capitalist crisis.

The IMF estimates the growth for sub-Saharan Africa for 2009 to be 1% - leading to a fall in GDP per capita of 0.9% due to population growth. The average state fiscal balance changed from +4.8% of GDP in 2006 to -4.8% last year. However, consumer prices rose 10.5% in 2009 despite the sharp economic downturn.

Capitalist economists and the media globally hailed the growth as a result of neoliberal 'reforms' - focusing on stock markets, 'business environment' and trade volume. But when world trade fell over 10% in 2009, US imports from Africa halved, from $113 billion in 2008 to $55 billion.

The IMF has agreed with state stimuli measures that have increased budget deficits. But recently, IMF Africa Director Antoinette Sayeh asked for: "Measures to improve the business environment, to develop well regulated capital markets, to increase labour productivity, and to enhance efficiency in the public sector... in the months to come."

Capitalist globalisation over the last two decades has to an increasing extent de-industrialised Africa. A 'textile tsunami' has closed factories and left hundreds of thousands of workers unemployed. The main factor recently is textiles and shoes from China, but second-hand clothes from the US and Europe, plus subsidies to cotton farmers in the US have for a longer period undermined Africa's textile industries.

The climate crisis also highlights Africa's status in a capitalist world. The Africa Progress Panel warned in 2009: "Climate change threatens to spark violent conflict in 23 African countries and political instability in another 14". Water shortages, disease, drought, flooding and mass migration are results of climate change in Africa. The climate summit in Copenhagen in December showed the main imperialist powers marginalising African input to any climate deal, at the same time as they refuse to pay for necessary measures in Africa.

Natural resources

Oil and minerals are the two areas most attractive for imperialism in Africa. 80% of the US' import from Africa is oil. For China, oil, gas and minerals make up 86% of imports. The dominance of oil is a recipe for increased inter-imperialist tension and serious conflicts. Oil is also the single most important source of corruption and authoritarian regimes in Africa, with oil companies having a history of backing presidents and military dictators.

Another effect is that oil-producing countries are kept in dependence on the oil trade and are not developed economically. Uganda and Ghana are new African oil producers. Hope is growing in these countries of rising living standards but they will not be fulfilled. In the two oil giants of Africa, Angola and Nigeria, GDP per capita today is lower than in 1973. In Nigeria, with 160 million people, 70% live on less than $1 a day.

Nigeria is the eighth biggest oil exporter in the world. But oil and minerals exploited in Africa are not processed there. So Nigeria imports 80% of its refined petroleum products. And the country's electricity capacity is less than the national target of 6,000 megawatts (South Africa's capacity is 45,000 megawatts). The regime now plans total deregulation of petrol and kerosene, claiming privatisation would increase production. But the result will be drastically increased prices.

Oil and gas in Nigeria is dominated by multinationals such as Shell and Total. In the last year, China's Sinopec has taken over the largest independent Nigerian producer of oil and gas. At the same time Gazprom of Russia has invested $2.5 billion in Nigerian gas.

Poverty and a ruined environment have provoked armed resistance in the oil-rich Niger Delta. As a result of these actions and sabotage, oil production fell below two million barrels a day, half the government's target of four million. Last year, the Nigerian government first launched a major military attack, then offered amnesty for the armed groups in the Delta.

Neither of these measures, however, will have the effect of solving the social crisis that has caused the conflict. Despite the social basis for the actions of the armed groups, such acts will not end the exploitation of the oil companies or liberate workers and the poor.

Marxists stand for mass struggle and the building of democratic and revolutionary mass workers' parties with socialist policies. Nigeria has seen a number of impressive general strikes, triggered by increased prices, where virtually all the working population has united behind the organised working class. Important strikes and increased anger over the last year indicate the build-up to new general strikes.

Alongside oil, Africa is rich in minerals. According to the African Union, $150 billion disappears from Africa every year through illegal mineral exports.

Coltan is a necessary component in electronics such as mobile telephones. Since it is mainly found in Congo-Kinshasa, it was a major factor behind the wars during 1996-2003. Over five million were killed as a result of these wars that involved armies from Uganda, Rwanda, Angola, Zimbabwe and other African states alongside Congolese troops.

In the 2006 presidential elections, the EU, US and China supported the 'winner', Joseph Kabila. Mining companies from all over the world are involved in Congo-Kinshasa, exploiting gold, copper, diamonds etc as well as coltan. In Kivu in the east, there are at least four different armies, all notorious for war crimes, with many multinationals making deals with the most infamous, the Hutu army FDLR.

Food production

Since 2008, agro-imperialism has come to the fore in Africa. A dramatic food price surge was caused by speculation, biofuels, increased demand and the long term neglect of investments and environmentally healthy agriculture. In Africa, staple food prices have doubled since 2007.

Alongside the price hike, the worst drought in East Africa for a decade has caused mass starvation and a water crisis. Even before that, five million people in Ethiopia were dependent on food aid - now it's 13 million. In Somalia the situation is even worse. In September, the UN reported it had only received $24 million out of $300 million needed in food aid for Kenya.

Despite this situation, imperialist powers are annexing huge areas of agricultural land in Africa, with Ethiopia plus war-ravaged Sudan and Congo at the front.

The rice, wheat, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, melons etc produced, however, are sent to the exploiting powers' domestic markets. Ethiopia's dictatorial government - close to both the US and China - has calculated it has nine million acres to lease (1 acre = 4,000 square metres).

Millions of acres have already been 'allocated', with Saudi Arabian companies paying 50 US cents per acre. Behind the deals is Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi - one of the world's 50 richest people - who controls big parts of Ethiopia's private sector. Saudi Arabia is also involved in Tanzania, Mali, Senegal and Sudan.

A number of foreign states are intervening. China has leased nine million acres in Congo-Kinshasa, Qatar 250,000 acres in Kenya, Indian companies 800,000 acres in Sudan, etc. Companies from Sweden and Norway have accessed land to cultivate Jatropha for bio-diesel.

This issue came to the fore when a mass movement overthrew the president of Madagascar, who had given half of the island's arable land to the South Korean company Daewoo for 99 years. In return, Daewoo would develop roads and infrastructure, similar to many deals made between African governments and China. The deal was stopped by the movement and South Korea has recently made deals with Tanzania.

During the 'cold war' between Western powers and Stalinism, 1945-1990, the West supported dictatorships such as that of Mobutu in Congo and the apartheid regime in South Africa. The Soviet Union's Stalinist rulers upheld links with other regimes and helped establish Stalinist states in Ethiopia, Angola and Mozambique. A few governments were able to balance between the two blocs.

Social explosions

Today, while the corrupt ruling elites can attempt to manoeuvre between China, the EU and the US, the policies and situation for the masses would be similar whatever imperialist power they deal with. Attempts in the West to portray the US as a more 'democratic' force in Africa are as futile as attempts by apologists for China saying Beijing is preferable.

What is true is that the power blocs have conflicting interests in pursuing commodities. China's role is rapidly increasing - but it lags far behind the US or France in terms of a military role in Africa, although Beijing is pushing forward with anti-pirate ships off Somalia and participation in UN troop interventions.

Total arms sales to Africa close to doubled from 1988 to 2008. Under Obama, the US has now increased its military support and training in Africa.

UN troops are used on a big scale, with more than 10,000 troops in Liberia, the Ivory Coast and Sudan, and 20,000 in Congo-Kinshasa. The masses often recognise these troops as defenders of governments and mining companies, there to pacify social conflicts and to uphold a minimum of 'order'.

The masses of Africa, despite heated frustration against their national elites, have no allies in imperialist governments or the UN. Spectacles like 'Make Poverty History' at the G9 summit in Scotland in 2005, aim to promote world leaders as 'saviours' of Africa, implying helplessness on the part of the African masses.

Social explosions are inevitable, such as in Kenya in early 2008, where there was horrible ethnic cleansing. Poverty had increased from 48% of the population in 1990 to 56% in 2008 in the period of an economic boom. These clashes were another alarm bell showing the need for building genuine workers' organisations.

For Marxists, it is important to study the rich history of struggles in Africa, against colonialism, apartheid and capitalism. Since 2007, there have been a number of impressive general strikes and mass strikes in many African countries, including in the two most important regarding the potential strength of the working class, South Africa and Nigeria (see www.socialistnigeria.org and www.socialistsouthafrica.co.za).

Fought on a class and socialist basis, struggles in Africa will receive massive support from workers globally. The first 'scramble for Africa', 1880-1914, was parallel with the development of Bolshevism in Russia. When workers took power in Russia in 1917, this gave an example to the whole world, not least Africa. Today's imperialist interventions in Africa must coincide with the building of African and global socialist forces. The need for socialism is acute on a global scale.

Capitalist exploitation on a global scale

The revolutionary Marxist, Vladimir Lenin, defined imperialism as 'the higher phase of (monopoly) capitalism'. Imperialism meant increased tensions, conflicts and wars, as the world powers divided the globe into spheres of influence.

This was caused by concentration and monopolisation of capital nationally, with 'excess' capital exported in order to continue to raise profits and growth. There was a particular 'scramble for Africa', colonising the continent within a few decades. The infamous British imperialist and colonialist in Southern Africa, Cecil Rhodes, stated that if Britain's rulers wanted to avoid civil war at home "you have to become an imperialist".

Through imperialism, which at that stage took the shape of direct colonial conquest, Britain, France, Germany, the US and others got access to raw materials (from ivory and rubber to oil and gold), new markets and cheap labour. The economies were never fully developed and artificial borders left national questions unsolved. The local capitalist classes were extremely weak and dependent on their imperial masters. Instead of increased living standards, imperialism meant slave conditions and constant conflicts, culminating in world wars one and two.

After 1945, a massive movement against colonialism developed in Africa. The working class played a key role, with general strikes in Tanganyika (Tanzania) in 1947 and Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1950. Strike movements also developed in French West Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia and other parts of Africa. African leaders at that time, such as Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah and Tanzania's Joseph Nyerere, were sharply radicalised.

The fifth Pan-African congress in Manchester in 1945 agreed to "condemn the monopoly of capital and the rule of private wealth and industry for profit alone". But there existed no mass workers' parties able to lead the struggle to a socialist conclusion. The Communist Parties were restrained by the Stalinist theory of 'stages', ie believing a prolonged period of capitalism was needed before socialist policies were possible.

Ghana in 1957 and Guinea in 1958 were the first African colonies to achieve independence from Britain and France respectively. When Nkrumah, Nyerere and others became heads of states they stayed within the limits of capitalism, despite their ambition to implement social reforms. By 1965, a disillusioned Nkrumah used the term 'neo-colonialism' to describe the continuing grip of the imperialist powers and multinational corporations.

In the period of capitalist globalisation, all powerful states of the world have intensified their exploitation of Africa. On a global scale these deals are small economically - trade with Africa is only 4% of China's total trade. But for Africa's 53 states and 920 million people they play a dominating role - China's offer of $7 billion of infrastructure to Guinea is more than twice the country's GDP.

The United States doubled its oil imports from the continent during 2002-2009 and last year received 24% of its imported oil from Africa. In 2008, the US was still the biggest trade partner with Africa, worth $140 billion. A new US military command, Africom, has been established, but its base (1,300 staff) is still in Germany. Washington arms and trains African troops, such as the Ethiopian army used to invade Somalia in 2007.

China is the fastest growing imperialist power in Africa, exploiting minerals and oil in many countries, often in 'exchange' for infrastructure projects and loans mostly linked to extracting and exporting these resources. China's trade with Africa increased 30% a year in the last decade, reaching $104 billion in 2008. China has also built the presidential palaces in Mali, Togo, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Sudan. It caused a political scandal in Angola by secretly awarding elite Chinese university places to the children of government ministers including the prime minister. Angola itself only has two public universities. There is nothing 'progressive' in China's actions in Africa, despite its government's 'communist' label. While China's demand for resources has lifted growth rates this has not benefited the masses. Rather, its actions are "consistent with the logic of market capitalism-liberal trade" (Jian Junbo, Shanghai University, in Beijing Review).

The European Union's combined trade with Africa is larger than China's and so is its stock of investments in the continent. France and Britain continue to influence former colonies, including through military intervention.

Russia has recently concluded large oil and gas deals with Angola and Nigeria.

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Article dated 27 January 2010

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