How Europe underdevelops Africa (but how some fight back)

September 26, 2008

In even the most exploitative African sites of repression and capital accumulation, sometimes corporations take a hit, and victims sometimes unite on continental lines instead of being divided and conquered. Turns in the class struggle might have surprised Walter Rodney, the political economist whose 1972 classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa provided detailed critiques of corporate looting.

In early June, the British-Dutch firm Shell Oil — one of Rodney's targets — was instructed to depart the Ogoniland region within the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, where in 1995 Shell officials were responsible for the execution of activist Ken Saro-Wiwa by Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha.

After decades of abuse, women protesters, local NGOs and the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) gave Shell the shove. France's Total appears to be the next in line to go, in part because of additional pressure from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).

Across the continent, exploitation by other European capitalists and politicians has become so extreme that something has to break. Although it was nine months ago that the European Union's ultra-manipulative trade negotiator, Peter Mandelson, cajoled 18 wretched African leaderships into the trap of signing interim "Economic Partnership Agreements" (EPAs), a backlash is now growing.

An Addis Ababa conference on June 9-11 brought officials from the African Union and a few African states together with critical academics and scholar-activists allied to the Council for the Development of Social Science Research (Codesria). It's extremely rare to find genuine coincidence of interests, and even possible strategic agreement, between these camps.

"We can't continue to deal with incompetent, weak, corrupt, supine governments", explained Dot Keet of the Alternative Information and Development Centre in Cape Town. "But these are not factors of the same order of magnitude. The domination of African countries by neocolonialism and the subordinate stance by African governments are not the same. We must be clear where the main driving force comes from: outside Africa. We have to tackle the source."

National sovereignty decimated

The conference host, Codesria director Adebayo Olukoshi, provided a visionary strategy in the spirit of former Ghanian leader Kwame Nkrumah, calling for a united Africa. Pretoria-based Nigerian academic Omano Edigheji insisted on this happening "in the context of transformative social policies" in the leading countries, in contrast to the Washington Consensus. Added Zambian trade union leader Austin Muneku, "This should be integration from below, by the people and their organisations, not from above by elites".

From above, many African elites have succumbed to what Olukoshi terms trade-balkanisation, following the lead set by colonial pigs in the 1884-85 Berlin conference that so irrationally carved up the continent. Since 2002, the EPAs have supplanted the agenda of the gridlocked World Trade Organisation, just as bilateral trade deals with the US, China and Brazil are also now commonplace.

A united Europe deals with individual African countries in an especially pernicious way, because aside from free trade in goods, Mandelson last October hinted at other invasive EPA conditions that will decimate national sovereignty: "Our objective remains to conclude comprehensive, full economic partnership agreements. These agreements have a WTO-compatible goods agreement at their core, but also cover other issues."

Those other "Singapore" issues (named after the site of a 1996 WTO summit) include investment protection (so future policies don't hamper corporate profits), competition policy (to break local large firms up) and government procurement (to end programs like South Africa's affirmative action). These were removed from the WTO by African negotiators during the Cancun summit in 2003, but have reemerged through EPA bilaterals.

Europeans' regular abuses of donor power include threats of trade preference withdrawal if EPAs are not signed. European capital has made its own needs clear: not only access to cheap commodities, as was enjoyed under the Lome Convention, but also unrestricted access to African markets, protection from potential restrictive public policies and a buffer from Chinese competition.

According to Gyekye Tanoh of the Third World Network in Accra, "The key thing for Mandelson is to gain exclusive preferential market access. Europe is gaining 80% of our markets in exchange for what is effectively just 2% of theirs."

Already, says Tanoh, "The effect of trade liberalisation on African agriculture is a disaster, with only one sector anticipated to grow: agro-processing. That's the one that most easily invites European capital to scale up investments in joint ventures. Agricultural output would only increase by 1%, our studies show. But the big contradiction is in the export of cash crops, at a time of severe pressure on food products."

African farmers' ability to sell on the local market will be undercut by rapid trade liberalisation that opens the way to surges of cheap, often subsidised imports. Women are most adversely affected.

Earlier allegedly "developmental trade" strategies, such as the EU's "Everything But Arms" deal, haven't worked, because of strict rules of origin and serious supply side constraints. There is simply no capacity in African firms to penetrate Europe given this continent's small production runs and high transport costs.

As Keet suggested, it therefore may be time to question trade itself — not merely the mythical "export-led growth" shibboleth — in part because climate change will soon invoke hefty taxes on ships (whose dirty bunker oil sends vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere). Yet EPAs will require an even greater African investment in port infrastructure and other management costs necessary to facilitate trade.

Added Senegalese scholar Cherif Salif Sy, "Most of Africa has an electricity crisis, and yet to get economies of scale for European agro-processing companies if they locate in Dakar, they require vast amounts of electricity. And they come with the power to demand a lower price, which puts much more stress on our grid and causes the price to go up for local buyers, and the supply to be redirected."

African firms cannot compete in this sector, as they lack the brand names, skills and marketing structures that European companies enjoy. The same firms also have no access to EU support in the forms of straight subsidies, tax incentives, research and development funding or concessional credit.

As a result, African countries face unreliable provision of public utilities (electricity and water); poor public infrastructure (run down roads and railways); rapidly fluctuating exchange rates and high inflation; labour productivity problems arising from poor education, health and housing provision; vulnerable market institutions (such as immature financial systems); and poorly functioning legal frameworks. The EU has no interest in reversing such fundamental structural economic challenges.

Call to halt negotiations

From early on, African civil society movements — especially the African Trade Network — called on elites to halt the negotiations.

But it has not been easy to develop a strong coalition, as Third World Network director Yao Graham concedes: "Unions have been too syndicalist, while our justice movements have been exhausted fighting structural adjustment. The local private sector has been absent. But in some regions, like West Africa, agricultural producers have been well organised and opposed to EPAs. Links to the Caribbean are weak. But we are working behind enemy lines with progressive allies in Europe, including within the Brussels parliament."

Graham points to the surprising resistance to EPAs from the South African government. Nigeria is another crucial state, one that is publicly pro-EPA but nevertheless slowed the process down and refused Mandelson's pressure to sign an interim deal.

According to Graham, "It should be possible to shrink the EPA agenda to nonreciprocal market access to goods, and no more. This we can win in coming months."

His colleague Tanoh says that inspiration comes to the campaigners from South Korea: "The Seoul government is backing down — and cabinet has resigned — when protesters attacked US beef imports, and they reversed their trade deal."

'Transmission line' for imperialism

African social movements will have to strengthen considerably to have that degree of influence on elites. "Can a corrupt government represent you when it negotiates with outside actors?", asks Nairobi-based pan-Africanist intellectual Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem. "In most cases their negotiating position is aimed at maximising their personal or familial interests."

Rodney might agree, as he criticised "the minority in Africa which serves as the transmission line between the metropolitan capitalists and the dependencies in Africa … The presence of a group of African sell-outs is part of the definition of underdevelopment. Any diagnosis of underdevelopment in Africa will reveal not just low per capita income and protein deficiencies, but also the gentlemen who dance in Abidjan, Accra and Kinshasa when music is played in Paris, London and New York." [And now, with EPAs and the WTO, add Brussels and Geneva.]

But because Mandelson is squeezing so hard, he may be single-handedly breaking the links between elites. Led by Senegalese and Malian politicians, most of the African officials at the conference agreed with the left intelligentsia that dangers now arise of:

•regional disintegration (due to EU bilateral negotiations and sub-regional blocs) and internecine race-to-the-bottom competition;
•threats of not only de-industrialisation but further EU penetration of the African services sector;
•increasing social polarisation (including along gender lines), and the rise of parasitical classes; and
•much greater gains for some sectors of the capitalist class: owners of plantations, mines and oil fields; commercial circuits of capital; and financial institutions.

Moving from fear to confidence in rejecting the EU won't be easy, but steps are certainly being taken. In the Niger Delta on September 20, MEND forced Shell to evacuate 100 employees from an installation and demanded that all foreign firms leave the area.

Meanwhile, the leading NGO Environmental Rights Action in Port Harcourt is campaigning to "keep the oil in the soil". To pay for needed development and environmental clean-up, ERA demands ecological debt repayment by the north to the south.

[Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society in Durban. Richard Kamidza is doing a doctoral degree at the centre. For the full version of this article, visit]

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