For five centuries, Africa has suffered at the hands of the West. Starting with the slave trade, through the colonial era, to today’s neoliberal global economy, the development of industrial capitalism in the West has come at a terrible price paid by Africans.
Food riots in Mozambique early this month and looming mass starvation in Niger after floods that were preceded by years of drought both reflect the ongoing economic exploitation.
However, they also reflect another creation of the industrialised West adversely affecting Africa: climate change.
Parallels can be made between the drought and floods in Niger and those that are taking place in the Australian state of Victoria. Both are in historically drought-prone areas that experience occasional flooding.
However, in both instances, the weather events are more extreme than in the past, in line with climate scientist predictions about the effects of climate change. On June 22, Niger’s hottest ever temperature was recorded in Bilma — 47.1ºC.
There are differences, however. Niger has been responsible for only a tiny proportion of the carbon dioxide and methane emissions that cause climate change.
Another difference is in the human cost. The Victorian floods have caused hardship, and drought has created ongoing economic and social distress in much of rural Australia (including high levels of suicide).
However, the suffering in Niger is on a different scale.
Reuters said on January 28 that the Nigerien government was already reporting that 7.8 million people (half the population) were facing malnutrition. By August, 12 million Nigeriens were facing food insecurity and 400,000 children were in danger of starvation, the August 1 Guardian said.
The August 3 Australian said people were trying to survive by eating poisonous weeds. This was before the country was hit by the floods that destroyed the few crops that survived the drought, drowned livestock, displaced 200,000 people and spread water-borne diseases.
NGO Save the Children's Niger manager Severine Courtiol, told the August 29 Independent: “After six months without proper nutrition, these children have little resistance to disease.
“There is little children can do to avoid coming into contact with this contaminated, disease-ridden floodwater.”
Niger is ranked by the United Nations as the world’s fourth-poorest country. Life expectancy is 43, one in four children die before their fifth birthday and 71% of adults are illiterate.
Like most other African countries, it is kept in poverty by policies forced on it by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and other Western lenders.
Between 1990 and 2003, African countries received US$540 billion in loans, paid back $580 billion, but still owed $330 billion, the July 16, 2009, Pambazuka said.
IMF and World Bank loans come with conditions: the recipient must implement neoliberal reforms, such as privatisation, to facilitate the control of African economies by Western corporations.
An IMF structural adjustment program imposed on Niger in 2005 introduced a 19% sales tax on basic foodstuffs and abolished emergency grain reserves.
Niger has considerable mineral wealth — like Australia, it is a major uranium exporter.
However, Niger’s uranium resources are owned by foreign corporations, most by French nuclear corporation Areva (the world’s largest) whose near-monopoly (and below-market prices) are based on agreements that pre-date Niger’s independence from France in 1960.
The presence of French troops, and several military coups by the French-armed, financed and trained Nigerien army, have ensured this arrangement remains. Environmental safeguards are virtually non-existent in Niger’s uranium mines, which are now under water.
A core condition imposed on African countries by the IMF and World Bank is removing agricultural subsidies and tariffs. The US and European Union, however, give billions of dollars in subsidies to their own agricultural sectors.
This makes food imported to Africa cheaper than that locally grown, sending African small farmers bankrupt and tying the price of food to the global market.
Mozambique was hit by three days of food riots starting on September 1, in which 13 people were shot dead by police, 300 were injured and 224 arrested. The trigger was a 30% rise in the price of bread, which was withdrawn on September 7 after an emergency cabinet meeting.
The September 3 Independent said Mozambique imported 70% of its wheat and that the price hike was caused by a climate change-related event far from Africa — the heat wave and bushfires in Russia.
This decimated Russia’s wheat crop, causing a global price spike.
A report released by Friends of the Earth International (FoEI ) on August 30 revealed that, despite the food insecurity caused by dependence on imported food, 183,000 hectares of agricultural land in Mozambique has become foreign-owned commercial plantations growing jatropha, a toxic plant used to make biodiesel.
The FoEI report detailed a land grab of millions of hectares across Africa by Western corporations, with rapidly expanding plantations producing sugar cane and other food crops to make ethanol, and palm oil and jatropha for biodiesel.
The report detailed the resulting destruction to the environment and food security.
The profitability of this new industry is ensured by European Union emissions reduction schemes that classify biofuels grown in Africa as renewable energy.
In much the same way as the plunder of Africa by Western corporations, the IMF and World Bank is termed “development assistance”, an economy based on Africans growing biofuel crops to trade for expensive food from Europe is termed “tackling climate change”.
In 2005, at the G20 summit of world leaders, Bob Geldof lent his self-righteous credibility to the project of re-branding IMF structural adjustment programs as “poverty reduction programs”. In 2007, he put his skills to use in promoting biofuel, becoming special advisor to British firm Helius Energy.
A July 2007 article in the South African Engineering News said Geldof, while promoting a biofuel joint venture in Swaziland, described jatropha as a “life-changing” magic cure for both climate change and African poverty.
The October 7, 2009 Pambazuka said the project failed and local people with HIV/AIDS recruited to work on the plantation were left destitute.
The boom in African biofuels, much of which may turn out to be little more than land speculation, has not stopped fossil fuel exploitation.
Nigeria is now the eighth-largest oil exporter in the world, supplying 8.2% of US crude oil imports. As with uranium mining in Niger, the Nigerian oil industry makes large profits for Western big business, in this case Shell, while bringing poverty and environmental destruction to Nigeria’s oil-producing region, the Niger Delta.
The August 23 Guardian said a UN investigation into oil spills during Shell’s 40 years in the Niger Delta was financed by Shell and relied on Shell’s data.
“The [US] $10m investigation by the UN environment programme (UNEP), paid for by Shell, will say that only 10% of oil pollution in Ogoniland has been caused by equipment failures and company negligence, and concludes that the rest has come from local people illegally stealing oil and sabotaging company pipelines.”
A June 2009 Amnesty International report said Shell had spilled 9 billion barrels of oil in the Niger Delta, almost double that spilled in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The rate at which oil is being spilled is increasing.
The May 5 Guardian said: “The amount of oil spilled by Shell's Nigerian subsidiary [in 2009] was more than double the amount poured into the delta in 2008, and quadruple what was spilled in 2007.”
Local people have gained no economic benefit, but have had their livelihoods and their country destroyed. The Guardian noted on August 23: “Life expectancy in [the Delta’s] rural communities, half of which have no access to clean water, has fallen to little more than 40 over the past two generations.”
In the 1990s, non-violent resistance to oil-drilling emerged in the form of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), led by Ken Saro-Wiwa. In 1995, Saro-Wiwa and eight other MOSOP leaders were hanged after a crudely rigged trial.
Saro-Wiwa’s family filed charges against Shell in a US court alleging complicity in the hangings. Shell denied the allegations, but settled out of court, paying the family $15.5 million, the June 8, 2009 New York Times said.
The plunder of Africa continues in new and old forms. Climate change, which is worsening Africa’s problems, has become a new excuse for Western interests to exploit the continent.
Western interests promote “solutions”, such as mass production of biofuels, that do not provide any climate solution but do allow for continued exploitation of Africa’s land and people.
It shows that the urgent question of tackling climate change is closely bound up with the need to take on the system of global corporate plunder.