How imperialism maintains poverty in Africa

A coltan mine in the Congo. Coltan is used for capacitors, used in many electronic devices

Extracting Profit: Imperialism, Neoliberalism & the New Scramble for Africa
By Lee Wengraf
Haymarket Books
Chicago, 2018
339 pages

Lee Wengraf’s Extracting Profit shows in great detail that Africa is poor, not because of any innate inability of Africans to raise themselves up, but because Africa’s poverty is necessary for corporate profit.

The exploitation of Africa began with slavery in the 1500s and accelerated under colonialism after the Berlin Conference of 1886 divided Africa up among the European powers.

But exploitation did not end with African nations winning independence; rather its form merely changed.

Africans resisted the colonial powers, but during the so-called Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century, only Ethiopia and Liberia successfully kept the Europeans out. Uprisings and revolts in many places took place for the next 80 years after the division of Africa, till independence struggles won out.

People fought against forced labour, forced growing of exportable commodities instead of food, expulsion from land, taxation, oppressive laws, massacres, racism and conscription for European wars. Belgian colonists killed an estimated 12 million people in the Congo; Germany massacred 30,000 in the Maji Maji rebellion in Tanganyika and 20,000 Herero people in what is now Namibia.

Revolts continued in the settler colonies of South Africa, Rhodesia, Algeria and the Portuguese colonies until the last one was won in 1994.

To ensure exploitation continued after independence, national leaders who opposed Western interests were assassinated, deposed in coups or cornered into compliance. CIA-supported assassinations included the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, Guinea Bissau’s Amilcar Cabral and Burkina Faso’s Thomas. Uganda’s Milton Obote was removed in a coup for nationalising British banks; Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah for refusing to accommodate US interests.

Many weapons are used to ensure compliance from African leaders for resource extraction. Aid and loans are conditional on allowing foreign military bases, voting the correct way in international bodies, buying armaments, and facilitating corporate interests.

Debt is then used as a tool to force privatisations, cut government services, weaken environmental laws, provide ready access to resources, markets and cheap labour, and ensure low taxes and royalties on extractive industries.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund lent huge amounts of money to dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, in return for compliance, knowing that much would go into his private accounts. Then they harshly enforced repayment on the Congolese people, causing poverty and conflict that has killed millions.

Aid is another weapon to maintain compliance and expand markets. Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger stated in 1974: “To give food aid to a country just because they are starving is a pretty weak reason.”

Corruption is another tool. Western governments rail against the corruption by African political leaders, but multinational corporations depend on corruption to ensure favourable treatment.

Western powers made sure independent economies were not possible in Africa. National economies were de-industrialised after the end of colonialism. Africa is now a net food importer as local production cannot compete with US and European Union subsidies, having been forced to eliminate their own protections.

Tax loopholes, holidays and dodges, as well as trade mis-pricing strategies, means little revenue from extractive industries stays in the country of extraction. Zambia and the DRC, for example, receive just 2.5% of raw material export value, compared to the world average of 45-60%.

An estimated US$500 billion of African wealth is also held in tax havens.

Competition between the major world superpowers is played out in Africa, fostering civil wars. During the Cold War, both the US and USSR plied governments with arms. Now the competition is between the US and China.

The US and EU are concerned that increased Chinese investment, which carries fewer strings than that of the IMF and World Bank, will reduce dependence on these bodies.

Africa is being further militarised to counter the threat from China. AFRICOM is the US acronym for establishing military bases and intervening in conflicts, using the excuse of “humanitarian intervention” and “war on terror”, which has actually increased terrorism.

Africans resisted colonialism and won independence, only to be foisted with neo-colonialism. Wengraf writes that the intensification of imperialist control is now intensifying resistance.

Revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Burkina Faso have overthrown unpopular governments. South Africa is seething with discontent as promises have been unmet and striking workers fired on. Large scale strikes are common in Nigeria. More than 30 dictatorial regimes in Africa were deposed by struggles from below in the 1990s.

The struggle against exploitation and degradation of the continent continues.

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