An audit of African resources is long overdue and a proper geological survey and mapping is a matter of urgency. After all, if you can’t measure it, you can’t control it, argues Pusch Commey as he revisits the ever-vexing issue of why Africa remains largely poor amidst plenty.
The value of Africa’s natural resources, in the trillions of dollars, dwarfs other sources of capital such as remittances and aid. Yet sub-Saharan Africa remains the poorest in the world. Just how do estimates that Africa has 10% of the world’s known reserves of oil, 40% of its gold, plenty of ferro alloys, coal and diamonds, as well as 80-90% of the chromium and platinum group metals, not equate to the broad reality on the ground, while by and large these resources remain as catalysts for wars and conflict fuelled by greed?
Over 20 years after the execution of environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, for his work in the oil-rich Niger Delta, 70% of Nigerians still live in incomprehensible poverty while oil companies continue to make stupendous profits. Equatorial Guinea, which has a major oil deal with a mega American oil company, got to keep a mere 12% of the oil revenues in the first year of its contract, according to a report on the CBS news programme 60 Minutes – a share so low it would have been scandalous even at the height of colonial oil pillage.
Sub-Saharan Africa is also the most profitable investment destination. It offers, according to the World Bank’s Global Development Finance report, “the highest returns on foreign direct investment of any region in the world”. Africa is poor because its investors and its creditors are so incredibly rich.
Predation or the rule of the jungle lies at the heart of every anti-colonial struggle in history, before and after the Boston Tea Party when the USA got rid of the suffocating tentacles of Britain. In modern times the international rule of law becomes a weapon. It comes in the form of “free trade” and countless skewed trade agreements, informed by power relations.
The vilification of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, a vehement defender of his country and Africa’s natural resources, whose country has been under sanctions for some years now, is illuminated by historical perspectives.
Once contextualised with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s resolute opposition to sanctions during South Africa’s apartheid era, the picture becomes clearer. The argument against sanctions then was that they would hurt black people most. But why that’s not the case with blacks in Zimbabwe, begs the question.
The elder statesman has seen it all however and shared his rich experiences for posterity. Back in May 2013 for example, when he spoke at the Conference of Intelligence and Security Services of Africa (CISSA) in Harare, he called for the beneficiation of natural resources to increase value and to support industrialisation.
He said: “It is time for Africa to be proactive in using her resources for her developmental objectives, bearing in mind that African resources have, hitherto, been predominantly foreign-owned and exploited with little benefit to Africans.”
The conference, which ran under the theme “The Nexus between Africa’s Natural Resources, Development and Security”, originated at a time when Zimbabwe’s implementation of resource nationalism through land reforms was so derided by the West and Zimbabwe’s former coloniser – Britain. CISSA was mooted in the wake of Zimbabwe’s interception of a plane-load of mercenaries who were on their way to Malabo, Equatorial Guinea to depose the government of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo on 7 March 2001 in the wake of the discovery of massive oil reserves off the Gulf of Guinea.
This made everyone in intelligence services in Africa rethink closer co-operation and culminated in the formation of CISSA in Abuja, Nigeria, on 26 August 2004. CISSA’s aims and objectives include assisting the African Union and specifically the Peace and Security Commission to effectively deal with security challenges confronting the continent. Mugabe proffered then that, “If we arrest the scourge of conflicts, a bright future for Africa becomes a reality as the necessary tranquil environment will then obtain. Consequently, Africa will be fully capable of exploiting her own resources for developmental purposes.”
It is estimated that Africa loses $18 billion per annum through conflicts, often backed by the same people who further gain from arms sales and the exploration of natural resources in conflict zones.
History and winning the future
There is always plenty of talk and outcry about good governance, transparency and accountability (or the lack of it) in Africa. All of which are extremely important. But so is African unity, underpinned by a strong pan-African philosophy. An African- centred education, curriculum and books should permeate the educational system, so that African children don’t fall into the same traps of their pre- and immediately post-independent Africa.
Lack of proper statistics and information and bad business contracts should be a thing of the past. Good contracts should be designed that allow for contingent events, and must be founded on a well designed tax system. How Western countries deal with their resources should be a template. What is good for the goose is also good for the gander.
The issue of contractual expertise is fundamental, preferably both in a colonial and an African language. And there is no reason why the transcripts and outcome of deliberations on contractual agreements can’t be posted online, or videotaped for all to see on Youtube. There is also no reason why a nation’s audited accounts can’t have the same treatment. After all, corruption and dark deeds thrive in dark places.
Treaties and contracts are old colonial tricks working in tandem with force and coercion. During the scramble for Africa, Ethiopia in the 19th century was wise enough to have an Amharic version of the Treaty of Wuchale, a co-operation agreement signed with Italy.
Strangely the Italian version made Ethiopia a protectorate of Italy, completely different from the Amharic version. The Italians then decided to enforce their version. The ensuing war to colonise Ethiopia resulted in a crushing defeat of Italy at the battle of Adwa (1895-96). Italy subsequently had to pay indemnities to Ethiopia.
The war was won because Emperor Menelik II understood the importance of having his language version of contracts and most decisively he convinced all the rival Princes (Ras) to unite under his leadership. They contributed 100,000 troops to defeat the invaders. It is a great argument for African unity.
In modern times wars will be fought with superior knowledge and technology, both economically and militarily. Is there any doubt as to where Africa’s resources should be invested? And what will be the use of resources if African nations cannot utilise them and trade them amongst one another, and be able to control the price. What lessons Africa could learn from a desert now called Dubai, a marvel destination achieved by organisation, resolve, and proper investment of its resources.
The biblical story goes that Peter was able to walk on water when Jesus told him to do so. But when he saw the boisterous winds he was afraid, and he began to doubt. And when he began to doubt he began to sink. Whether you are a Christian or not, the story illustrates the disproportionate value of confidence in everything Africa does. With confidence comes self- respect, and respect for one another which in turn lessens or even quells the need for conflict.
Many long-oppressed Africans do not have confidence in themselves and this becomes a self- fulfilling prophesy. The institutions left in place by the colonialists, such as the British Commonwealth and Francophone arrangements, were designed to perpetuate self- serving interests and subjugation. Therefore dismantling neo-colonialism and the neo-colonial mentality, is another war that must be fought and won by all Africans, that in turn will go a long way in curtailing the so-called resources curse. NA
*Pusch Commey is a Ghanaian writer and barrister based in Johannesburg. He is the author of the bestselling book, 100 Great African Kings and Queens, which chronicles ancestral pride.