Africa: A continent in crisis

Imperialism condemns millions to poverty

Action to help Africa will be one of the central demands of the hundreds of thousands expected to demonstrate in Edinburgh on July 2, during the G8 meeting. There will be calls for decisive steps to be taken, but already it is clear that these hopes will be unanswered by the G8 leaders. Despite the big fanfare the $40bn debt deal already agreed by the G7 finance ministers, it will, in reality, only bring small relief to the sh;African masses.

The run-up to the G8 summit in Gleneagles has seen repeated attempts by the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and his would-be successor Gordon Brown, to jump onto the various “Make Poverty History” campaigns and to portray themselves as fighters against world poverty and dealing with climate change, while simultaneously trying to boost British capitalism’s position in the continent vis-à-vis its rivals.

Of course Blair’s anti-poverty campaign did not quite extend to himself. Last year, he personally spent £3.6 million on buying a new London home and, so far, his wife has not donated to charity any of the £30,000 she “earned” for speaking in Washington on June 6, during a visit by her husband to see George Bush. But this has not stopped Blair, facing a huge credibility gap, and re-elected with the support of only 21% of the electorate, once again seizing upon the plight of the African masses to give himself a “humanitarian” makeover after the invasion of Iraq. But, after the Iraq war, millions correctly do not believe a word Blair says.

Simultaneously the British government (which, in the words of Gordon Brown says that it is time to “stop apologising” for seizing much of Africa and South Asia for the former British Empire) wants to divert attention away from imperialism’s responsibility for the poverty that affects hundreds of millions around the world.

But, while this rank hypocrisy is to be expected from the political establishment, there can be no doubt whatsoever that the African masses are facing a dire, and worsening, crisis.

At the same time, the G8 leaders fear that impact of the continuing crisis in Africa, on their own immediate interests in the continent, the international effect of increased destabilisation, and in further strengthening the growing opposition they face at home to the super-exploitation of the African masses.

Earlier this year, Blair’s ‘Commission for Africa’, composed of leaders of the British and various African governments, published a report. This argued that something needed to be done to help support pro-Western African leaders, especially those implementing neo-liberal policies. The Commission warned: “Inaction brings danger. Those new African leaders who are committed to change have put in place reforms – on the economy and on combating corruption – that have been politically difficult. Those leaders could be evicted from office if their people do not see returns.”

Starting from the point of view of defending capitalism, and local rulers, rather than the mass of people, the Commission advocated concessions from the IMF, World Bank etc. to try to prevent more revolts from below.

Debt burden

A focal point of campaigning around the G8 meeting has been the huge debt burden that Africa bares. Officially, Africa owes $300bn in debt but out of this “some $235bn was acquired between 1985 and 1995, as governments followed structural adjustment programmes …$270bn of the $300bn borrowed by sub-Saharan Africa over the past 30 years has already been paid back,” (Kamran Kousari and Richard Kozul-Wright, staff workers on UNCTAD’s programme for Africa, Guardian 20/12/04). These “structural adjustment programmes”, or SAPs, were vicious neo-liberal austerity policies that cut living standards, at the same time as increasing the debt burden. A Nigerian Senator, Farouk Lawan, said earlier this year “It is unconscionable that Nigeria has paid £3.5bn in debt service over the past two years but our debt burden has risen by £3.9bn – without any new borrowing. We cannot continue. We must repudiate this debt.” (Guardian, 26/4/05)

But, refusing to cancel the debt, the G8 finance ministers agreed a $40 billion debt deal, with neo-liberal strings, that actually translates only into an extra $1.2 billion a year, that can used for other things, for the 18 countries involved. But Blair’s Commission for Africa argued that the whole of Africa needed an extra $25 billion a year. Although this deal will cost the US up to $1.75 billion over the next decade, this is almost nothing in comparison with the cost of Bush and Blair’s Iraq war. By the end of September this year, the attack on and occupation of Iraq will have cost the US alone $207.5 billion.

Blair’s Commission’s report combines a total faith in capitalism with an almost surreal view of the world. Thus it writes that “unlike the opulence of the past, which belonged to a handful of privileged individuals and elites, this wealth is shared by unprecedented numbers of ordinary people across the planet …Yet it is not a wealth which everyone enjoys.” Despite the small qualification at the end, the reality is very different. At the beginning of June, the US investment bank, Merrill Lynch, published the ‘World Wealth Report 2005’ showing that today a total of 8.3 million individuals worldwide personally have $30,800 billion worth of financial assets.

Generally, Blair’s Commission’s report is filled with meaningless phrases like “Africa, at last, looks set to deliver” and avoids making serious criticism of the major imperialist powers. Thus, while criticising the fact that the imperialist countries spend almost $1 billion a day on “subsidising the unnecessary production of unwanted food”, it is absolutely silent when it comes to the fact that in 2004, worldwide, military spending was far more, reaching $1,000 billion, or nearly $3 billion a day.

Similarly, it avoids the issue of the austerity Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP), making only the mildest, indirect, criticism and asks that the IMF “should avoid creating ill-judged limits on what countries can spend” – a very minor slap on the wrist!

But the report, albeit in dry statistics, does outline the drastic situation facing the vast majority of the over 650 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa.

More than a 100 million Africans are “chronically poor” and today life expectancy is actually falling, with the average now 46 years. The continent is ravaged by repeated wars, which have killed millions. 3 million died in four years of civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The last three decades have seen economic stagnation in African countries and a collapse in their share of world trade, which fell from around 6% in 1980 to 2% in 2002. On top of this, there is the huge debt mountain, over $300 billion that the African masses carry.

Capitalism means corruption

Often in the Western media there is an attempt to simply blame Africa and Africans, as a whole, for this crisis. Of course each country and continent has its own history. However, Africa is not unique in facing wars and crisis. Europe’s history is filled with wars and crises. There are specifically African elements in the crisis, such as the continuing legacy of the centuries of pillaging of the continent’s recourses both material and human in the form of the slave trade, the impact of the direct imperialist rule it suffered during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the indirect imperialist control that continues to this day. But the continent’s crisis is also the result of poverty, and local rulers seeking to enrich themselves through looting.

Neither of these two last factors is uniquely African. Corruption is rife throughout the capitalist world. A recent example is how US Presidents regularly give prime Ambassadorial posts, and the diplomatic immunity that goes with them, to their financial sponsors. Bush has just appointed as his new Ambassador in Rome a banker, who was one of his university classmates and, more importantly, was one of his election fundraisers. In fact, 20% of Bush’s elite “pioneer” fundraisers from the 2000 and 2004 elections have been given Presidential appointments. When an African president does such a thing there are allegations of corruption. When Bush does this it is accepted as “normal” US practice.

The African elites’ rampant corruption and looting is an illustration that the vast majority see no prospect of stable development taking place in their respective countries and have a “take the money and run” mentality. This almost complete lack of confidence extends right to the very top. Nigeria’s current Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has been widely praised in the international media for her drive to cut public spending and her public opposition to corruption, but she only become a Minister on condition that she was paid in US dollars not in Nigerian naira. Now she “earns” the modest sum of $247,000 a year.

Imperialism’s grip

Blair’s Commission correctly pointed out that one of the causes of Africa’s crisis is because raw materials remain its major exports and that it “simply does not produce enough goods to trade”. However, as was to be expected, the Commission did not explain why this is the case.

Africa has huge resources in the talents of its people, its natural resources, and its agriculture, but why are they not used in the interests of the African people?

The fundamental answer is because the world economy has long been dominated by the ruling classes of the rich countries and their companies. Currently the 500 biggest international companies now control 70% of world trade, while the fifty largest banks and financial companies control 60% of all global capital. Today, just 300 multinationals and big banks account for 70% of all foreign direct investment.

This domination effectively blocks off the growth of independent rivals to these monopolies. Where new technologies or products develop they are quickly dominated by the imperialist powers. Exceptions to this general rule, such as South Korea, were helped by the West to develop during the cold war for strategic reasons. In the unique case of China, the basic economic foundations of its recent growth were built on the foundations, the initial advances, made possible by a planned, nationalised economy, despite the effect of Maoist Stalinism.

While opposing the imperialist neo-liberal demands for the “liberalisation” and “opening up” of African markets socialists do not see the alternative as tariffs or trade barriers to defend the local capitalist economies from imperialist competition. The reality is that these sort of capitalist import controls are used to drive up the price of goods while giving enormous opportunities for corruption and profiteering to those who are able to manipulate import licences, foreign exchange dealings etc. Only by breaking with capitalism and beginning to democratically plan the economy, including a state monopoly of foreign trade, could it be possible to begin to develop the economy in the interests of the working masses.

Imperialist control and the drive for profit distorts the world’s entire development. Even the Blair Commission partially recognised this when it wrote that “developed nations …trade policies are skewed to benefit the rich without consideration for the poor”. This is the key barrier that has to be overcome if world living standards are to rise.

But, of course, Blair and co. do not challenge capitalism at all. The Commission put all its faith in capitalism. It clumsily claimed, “Economically, since growth is driven principally by the private sector, that requires governments to provide a climate in which ordinary people – whether they be small farmers or managers of larger firms – can get on with their daily tasks untroubled, and feel that it is worthwhile investing in their future”.

Leaving aside the ridiculous notion that the situation facing “small farmers” can be equated with the position of “managers of larger firms”, experience has shown that capitalism is not developing Africa, indeed the continent is going backwards. But even if one looks at European or US capitalism’s history, it is clear these were never examples of uninterrupted progress, they have suffered repeated crises and shocks. This needs to be especially remembered today when the basis of world economy’s current growth is extremely fragile and there are growing fears of what the next economic crisis will bring.

Class struggles in Africa

But, despite its continual crises, there is another side to Africa, namely the repeated struggles, led by the working class and youth, to defend living standards and democratic rights. In Nigeria, alone, the Obasanjo government’s policy of cutting fuel subsidies has faced seven general strikes or periods of mass protests since June 2000.

Again and again, repressive regimes have been toppled, but because no break was made with capitalism and imperialism a fundamental and lasting change did not occur. Only when production for private profit is ended, and resources are publicly owned and democratically controlled, would it be possible to begin to plan their use to meet human needs.

The necessity of this break is part of the alternative that socialists in Africa, such as the Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI) in Nigeria, argue for, as they build fighting socialist organisations, as part of a worldwide movement. A socialist break with capitalism in an African country, particularly a regionally important one, like Nigeria and an appeal for this example to be followed in other countries, could begin the real transformation of the planet. Globalisation has shown how individual companies can plan production around the world. Imagine what would be possible if a democratic plan was able to utilise all of the world’s resources, human and material, to meet humanity’s needs while protecting the environment.

The Western media usually presents Africa as in need of aid. Certainly socialists and other activists in Africa can benefit from international solidarity. But this is not a one way movement. Africa is currently the weakest link in world capitalism. If the African working masses, poor and youth can begin to break capitalism’s chains then they could start changing the whole globe.

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June 2005