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Editor’s Letter

Benjamin Ramm

“PEACE is suddenly breaking out across Africa... From Congo to Uganda and Burundi, rebels are abandoning armed struggle in favour of settlement”. Barely two years after this optimistic assertion by The Independent newspaper, in the Congo, Uganda and Burundi, and across swathes of central and southern Africa, rebels and militias are re-taking arms in increasingly vicious and complex cross-border conflicts. The participants of the Second Congo War, which between 1998 and 2003 killed 3.8 million people, are not the only nations experiencing a resurgence in warfare; their neighbours in Sudan, Somalia and the Central African Republic each face violent division on more than one front. And in nearly every case, the roots of contestation lie in a quarrel over resources – for it is, paradoxically, the natural wealth of Africa that has consistently undermined its path to prosperity and peace.

In 1975, the Venezualan founder of OPEC, Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso, warned that “Ten years from now, twenty years from now, oil will bring us ruin. We are drowning in the Devil’s excrement”. While it is doubtful that his compatriot Hugo Chávez would agree, few can deny the veracity of this prophecy, or the corrosive effect of ‘black gold’ on the African continent. Oil is a jealous resource; it creates a myopic market intolerant of diversification, by pricing out agriculture and industry. When petrodollars flood the economy – as in the six oil-producing countries that are responsible for around half of all investment flows in Africa – the cost of living rises dramatically (in 2003, Libreville, the capital of Gabon, was the third most expensive city in the world), making local goods more expensive and so less competitive: this, in turn, creates a culture of extreme centralisation and exacerbates the gap between the rich (those involved with oil) and the poor (those not). Oil also inspires jealousy; forty years after the Biafran War, a secessionist struggle stimulated in part by claims over ownership, oil continues to be a cause of schism, even when attempting to rectify its errors (Chevron recently conceded that its offer of ‘community aid’ in the Niger Delta was “divisive”, as it required recipients to identify themselves on ethnic grounds). This pattern is not confined to Africa: globally, nations dependent on oil and mineral exports are nearly fifty times as likely to witness civil war over a five year period, a situation further complicated by foreign interference, all too evident during Angola’s wretched 27-year conflict, the effects of which are still visible on the streets of Old Havana. The People’s Republic of China, which in tandem with apartheid South African worked (unsuccessfully) to destabilise the Cuban and Soviet-backed Marxist government, is now the primary investor in Angola’s booming economy, growing at a staggering 19% per annum, with oil production expected to reach 2 million barrels per day by 2008. China has secured contracts across the continent for a wide range of resources, including copper, timber, platinum, oil and natural gas, from South Africa all the way up to the Gulf of Guinea, an area now exporting more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia and Kuwait combined. West African crudes are superior in terms of quality to those in the increasingly unstable Middle East, the former being sweeter and lighter with fewer impurities, rendering a greater amount of gasoline on refinement. Yet the whirlwind of investment has reaped more victims than beneficiaries, a situation conveyed evocatively by Nicholas Shaxson in Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil:

Oil rigs are alighting all along this stretch of Africa’s western coastline like giant metal mosquitos, standing on the skin of the earth on spindly legs and drilling down with steel proboscises to suck out the fluid that is the lifeblood of the world economy. Like the biting insects, the rigs can cause irritation around the site of the extraction, disrupting local communities or polluting farmland. But it is this resource curse – the stealthier, time-delayed payload that accompanies the extraction, just like the malaria that real mosquitos transmit – that is the real threat.

This predicament is exemplified by the Niger Delta, Nigeria’s richest region in terms of resources and its poorest in terms of wealth. The flaring of excess natural gas in the Delta produces more greenhouse gases than the rest of sub-Saharan Africa combined, and the result is a hellish vision of all-night light, acid rain, polluted freshwater and poisoned vegetation. This need not be the case; a fraction of the unused gas could provide enough electricity to power every village in the surrounding area, but the prospecting companies, in particular Shell – infamously complicit in the hanging of Ogoni poet and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, along with his colleagues – have acted with a wrecklessness bordering on contempt. The situation has now spiralled out of control, as a quarter
of the country’s oil output is lost to criminal gangs and increasingly militant rebellions: “We are not communists or even revolutionaries”, remarked the head of MEND, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta; “just extremely bitter men”.

Environmental degradation has also played a seminal role in creating the conditions that led to genocide in Darfur. The Arab supremacist ideology advanced by Khartoum, which Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has for decades aggressively promoted in an attempt to carve out an ‘Arab belt’ across the Sahel, only gained real currency during a period of sustained, severe drought, which saw herder turn on farmer and the Arab/African paradigm emerge. (“Tellingly”, writes Julian Borger, “those Arab tribes who had land ownership rights – mostly in the south of Darfur – chose not to join the government’s counter-insurgency. Global warming created the dry tinder. Khartoum supplied the match”). Africa is responsible for just 3% of global carbon emissions, but in recent decades it has experienced acute, sudden and devastating changes in climate – many of those awaiting aid earlier this year at the refugee camp in Habile died of thirst, as temperatures reached 45C (113F). The conflict has now spilled into the north of the Central African Republic and eastern Chad, driven by an alliance between the Janjaweed and Chadian anti-government rebels determined to gain control of the flows from a major new oil pipeline. And Colonel Gaddafi, who consistently armed and funded the militias with a view to fermenting greater instability, has been tasked with hosting peace talks between the rebel groups.

There is much to be said for discouraging the refrain alluded to by Nana Akua Anyidoho (p.23), of Africa as a picture solely of “famine-war-and-disease”, and understand many aspects of the continent’s recent history as a mismanaging of abundance. In part, these difficulties are a consequence of the poor implementation of policy – only 22% of the Ethiopian population has safe access to drinking water, and yet 70% of entire water budget goes unspent – but more often than not it results from endemic corruption, aided and encouraged by economic systems that facilitate money laundering. The founding charter of the International Monetary Fund, now in its 60th year, is grounded in an idealised delineation between the economic and political spheres, and the organisation was far too slow to recognise that in nations totally subsumed to a resource economy, ownership is political power. (For this reason, Africa’s longest-serving leaders all govern over major oil zones). Moreover, the Chinese strategy of ‘no strings attached’ investment in countries experiencing massive natural resource booms has undermined the work of global bodies that have incrementally succeeded in securing greater transparency. The extent of extortion is truly staggering: it is estimated that 30% of Africa’s GDP disappeared offshore in the 1990s, and that between 1997-2002, Angola – “the single worst place on earth for a child to be born”, where more than one in four don’t reach the age of five – saw $4 billion vanish from state coffers, with unexplored discrepancies at 23 times the national budget. Of course, this would not be possible without the subtle legal loopholes and not-so-subtle inducements that work to undermine accountability and hamper development: 200 years after the British abolished the Atlantic slave trade, it is not unlawful for a United States bank to receive funds derived from slave trading. And yet, while it is crucial that unfulfilled aid promises are finally met, Africa’s prosperity still lies in its potential power in the marketplace; after all, with the latest rise in the price of petroleum, West Africa’s daily oil output is greater than all global development aid flows.

The concentration of economic and political capital in oil-rich nations has led to the growth of what has been termed ‘successful failed states’. In November this year, the Gabonese president Omar Bongo will celebrate his fortieth year in power, in part thanks to the ‘convivial opposition’ he has nurtured with a mixture of financial and political incentives. Perhaps this is what Fela Kuti meant by the lyric “Demo-Crazy, Demon-Crazy, Dem-All-Crazy”; it is certainly a fitting description of the elections held earlier this year in his own Nigeria, or quite possibly those about to be held in Kenya, where President Kibaki’s main rival, Uhuru Kenyatta, appears to have been co-opted into the ‘presidential majority’. But no nation knows governmental hegemony like Equatorial Guinea, scene of the infamous 2004 failed coup by Simon Mann and his associates at ‘Executive Outcomes’, a number of whom are now languishing in the capital’s Black Beach Prison, Africa’s most notorious jail. A modern history of Equatorial Guinea reads like a caricature of third-world despotism. During the terrifying reign of the country’s post-independence leader, Macías Nguema, a third of the population was murdered or forced into exile. The self-proclaimed ‘Unique Miracle’, regarded by observers as ‘Africa’s Pol Pot’, banned the word ‘intellectual’ and had his political opponents garrotted, buried alive and crucified – powerful symbolism in Africa’s only Spanish-speaking Catholic country. Chillingly, on Christmas Eve 1975, Macías oversaw the execution of 150 alleged coup plotters in the national football stadium while a band played his favourite song ‘Those Were the Days’. (The Sunday Times subsequently called Equatorial Guinea “the wickedest place on earth”). The police state that Macías constructed remained in place after he was overthrown in 1979 by his nephew Teodoro Obiang Nguema, and in 2002, Obiang won another seven-year term with 97.1% of the vote (down from 99.2% in 1996, although he garnered 103% in some precincts – which, as Der Spiegel wryly put it, “could well be a democratic record”). Yet Equatorial Guinea is not one of the ‘outposts of tyranny’ identified by Condoleezza Rice in 2004: rather, the president of this oil-rich nation is, according to Rice, a “good friend, and we welcome you”. How deeply depressing that an administration that purports to proselytise freedom should so shamelessly parade its hypocrisy. It ought to send a shiver down the spine to know that this winter, gas from Equatorial Guinea will be heating British homes.

“Africa without France is a car without a driver”, Omar Bongo once told Libération, and “France without Africa is a car without petrol”. Nicholas Sarkozy began his first trip to Africa with a visit to the arch-Francophile Mr. Bongo, whom The Cameroon Tribune described as a “symbol of Françafrique”. This term, coined by François-Xavier Verschave, refers to an unspoken arrangement between the ruling elites of France and her former colonies, which became the subject of intense speculation during ‘Angolagate’ – a scandal that demonstrated, after Verschave, France à fric [‘fric’ being a slang word for ‘cash’]. Shortly after his election, Sarkozy pledged instead to promote ‘Eurafrique’, but a recent controversial speech delivered at the University of Dakar, Senegal, suggests that French priorities have not altered substantially (“What Africa wants is the same as what France wants”, Sarkozy remarked coercively: “cooperation”). The President’s address ranged from the mawkish (“I have come to tell you that your pain and your suffering are ours and therefore are mine”) to the overtly patronising (his appeal to jeunes d’Afrique and la jeunesse africaine is repeated 29 times) to what was widely, if a little unfairly, viewed as an apologia for French colonial exploitation. Certainly, there was no contrition over French support for Hutu genocidaires in 1994, and France still refuses to cooperate with the Rwandan War Crimes Tribunal. Instead, the speech revelled in the sort of fanciful exoticism that it supposedly set out to refute:

The African peasant, who for thousands of years lived according to the seasons, whose life ideal was to be in harmony with nature, only knew the eternal renewal of time, rhythmed by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words. In this imaginary world, where everything starts over and over again, there is room neither for human endeavour nor the idea of progress.

While lamentable, this neo-Enlightenment teleology is nonetheless predictable – indeed, his speechwriter owes much to Hegel’s caricature of the African in Reason in History – but it is strange that Sarkozy evoked the phrase ‘African renaissance’, an allusion to the concept popularized by Thabo Mbeki, when his whole thesis is grounded in the idea that Africa has never entered history, has yet to be born a first time, existing previously only in a womb-like nirvana. Sarkozy was duly praised as “a citizen of African” by Mbeki, a leader who continues to bolster Robert Mugabe’s murderous regime in Zimbabwe and whose government has repeatedly resisted calls for antiretroviral treatment for all HIV-infected South Africans (p.19), demonising the drugs as tools of a neo-colonial conspiracy.

There is a graceful serenity – “a tranquil dignity” – to the River Thames in the opening scene of Heart of Darkness that belies the savagery at the book’s core. 150 years after the birth of Joseph Conrad, we are in the midst of a new ‘Scramble for Africa’, and the City of London – “also ... one of the dark places of the earth” – is once again a key player, this time as what the Royal African Society describes as “the Laundry of Choice” for capital flight. And the Congo, wracked by intestinal and proxy conflict, is again a scene of unspeakable ‘horror’. The waters which ferried Marlow to Africa were, 150 years before Conrad, the very same that ferried men and women to slavery, to that other continent which suffered for its abundance (remember the cry of the Conquistador: “Este oro comemos!” [We eat this gold!]). On this anniversary of the abolition, that ‘first liberal intervention’, we must reaffirm the case for a fair trade, one which empowers Africans to manage the flow of resources and reverse the tides of history:

Quite simply, genetic
memory made metaphor, musical time
stretched like currents, songs escaping
to ribbon the sky; like a whipped hem
of waves laying claim to the shore.

(Nii Ayikwei Parkes, ‘ballast V’)

This issue of The Liberal is dedicated to the memory of two late contributors to the magazine:

Lord (Tim) Garden, a voice of great clarity and authority on defence and military matters;

and Michael Hamburger, one of Europe’s foremost poets, translators and critics,

whose final published review appears on p.42.

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