Sub-Saharan nightmares

Issue: 124

Claire Ceruti

Joseph Mensah (ed), Neoliberalism and Globalisation in Africa: Contestations from the Embattled Continent (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), £40

This collection examines Africa’s special place in globalisation. Africa south of the Sahara often appears in cheery UN and World Bank reports after the phrase “the sole exception”. Its wealth has declined in the last 20 years, against the trend for other regions.1 Globalisation skipped chunks of Africa, whether the issue is electricity, “space-compressing” technologies such as the internet or tourism. What Africa has more of is death—life expectancy here is regressing. The authors of this collection expose the “Washington consensus” that Africa’s special predatory and protectionist states cause all its problems, while also avoiding bland generalisations about contemporary globalisation.

Joseph Mensah explores culture. Globalisation has not made everywhere identical. Africa has always acted back upon the rest of the world culturally as much as it has been acted on. Modern transport and communication have intensified the exchange between global and local, embodied in Asian rap, Chinese tacos, Irish bagels, dreadlocks and African music crossing the world. Mensah is no romantic. He knows this integration is deeply unequal. Not everyone’s world is getting closer. The woman collecting water on foot connects to the world differently from a jet-setter with a wi-fi laptop, although things going on in the jet-setter’s world might be directly responsible for the water-bearer having no water on tap.

Globalisation in the era of neoliberalism amplifies both integration and the inequality in an “overarching process that makes exclusion an integral part of globalisation”. A century ago Leon Trotsky called this uneven and combined development. Only Patrick Bond calls it by this name in this volume but the concept appears in other chapters.

In fact the new scramble for Africa’s resources creates predatory states. “Managing large-scale resource extraction requires strong geopolitical and military capacity, and given the failure of many Pentagon missions in Africa, local strongmen are required,” writes Bond. He recounts a memorable measure of international looting, from a World Bank report called “Where is the Wealth of Nations?”. The report compared the existing productive capacity of various African countries with the capacity they could have had if the oil and mineral revenues had been reinvested, not extracted to distant headquarters. Nigeria could have had five times more productive stock than it has now, and it would have been less dependent on oil. On a personal scale the losses translated to more than $2,000 for each Gabonese person in 2000.2

Unequal integration produces new kinds of criminal survivalism, described in William Tettey’s chapters, such as those emails from Kabila’s son who needs your bank details to help him secretly move millions from the country. Some young people in Ghana also try to exploit the power imbalance, hoping to escape dead-end situations by hooking up with an Obroni (a white person) from a richer country over the internet. Frequently, the power imbalance chews them up and spits them out.

Blair Rutherford’s chapter on land redistribution in Zimbabwe marries the local and the global to transcend the false dichotomy of either absolving the Western powers or of regarding Mugabe as anti-imperialist. Zimbabwe’s structural adjustment programme, begun in the late 1980s, kept the loans coming but impoverished most black Zimbabweans. It also enriched the mainly white commercial farmers who replaced food production with flowers and tobacco grown for export. Hence the land invasions. Many were later hijacked by Mugabe’s cronies, but even before that they failed to link up with the farm workers who were excluded from wealth grabbed by the white farmers.

I was shocked to learn that this is partly rooted in the fact that black farm workers could not vote in local elections until 17 years after Zimbabwe’s liberation and therefore were assumed to be with the white farmers. When their vote was debated in 1988 the minister of local government objected it might allow them to vote out their bosses and employers.

Most of the authors are healthily sceptical of existing African elites. Eunice Sahle’s chapter on “The New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development” shows up the African leaders who drafted it staking their claim to be doorkeepers to neoliberalism on their continent. I was therefore astonished by the claim in the closing paragraphs of the book that “internal leadership” is the problem; the West “can only operate on the continent with the tacit agreement of local leaders” and therefore perhaps what Africa needs is “visionary, tech-savvy…philosopher-kings” who “understand the power geometries of the world”, acccording to Mensah and Roger Oppong-Koranteng. Of course solutions must come from within Africa but “false diagnoses and dangerous prescriptions” such as those from the World Bank may also flow from the self-interest of Africa’s rulers.

Julius Kiiza’s discussion of protectionism vs deregulation observes that globalisation is not the opposite of economic nationalism but the economic nationalism of the dominant economies. Yet his solutions barely peek past the existing top-down order. “We need to recruit the best and brightest national skills… We also need to reclaim the state from neoliberal state elites and transform government into a key strategic player in the economy,” he writes.

Carolyn Basset is much better. She observes that the people’s budget campaign in South Africa failed to challenge neoliberal budgeting because it relied on lobbying government rather than mobilising people. Bond outlines a set of responses a “genuinely left government” could take (including defaulting on the debt, refusing tied aid and import-substitution) but acknowledges that no government is “genuinely left”, so “bottom-up social movements have to intensify their work”.

Bond’s measures could be an early bulwark for a Chavezista-type mass movement in Africa putting its foot down on looting, but it has to start out powerfully to outweigh the benefits politicans get and the international punishments they avoid when they play along with globalisation. It would eventually need to overturn all existing government. Real independence requires a movement powerful enough to take back mining interests, land rights, and workplaces from big corporations like Shell, De Beers and Anglo.

Africans need equal access to all the world’s riches, no more and no less. We could not afford to remain confined in an import substitution ghetto. The movement will have to reach into the very heart of the West’s shiniest financial districts and into the very heart of people like itself in every part of the globe. Such a movement could not long be limited to the ghetto of capitalism.

A sketchy chapter on mass resistance outlines social movements and social forums, but skims or misses the waves of democracy movements, “IMF riots” and mass strikes that Bond mentions. These tidbits are important because all the way through the book what I missed was more discussion of how these forms of resistance can grow into a power able to overturn entirely the current order of things.


1: Which is not to say that everyone was getting richer in the rest of the world-the gap between the richest and the poorest also increased over this period, and Mensah notes islands of wealth within the poorest puddles.

2: A weakness in several chapters is an absolutely uncritical use of David Harvey’s phrase “accumulation by dispossession”. It is not wrong as a description of the daylight robbery of Africa but as several contributors to this journal have pointed out it is more problematic to see it as a form of primitive accumulation rather than some bonus loot on the side.