Protests surge as gap widens between reality and the ‘Africa rising’ narrative
- Patrick Bond
Self-congratulatory rhetoric keeps springing from the lips of World Economic Forum elites – at the expense of reality.
Software executive Brett Parker claims that “Africa will probably remain natural resources-driven for the next two decades at least.” African Leadership University’s Fred Swaniker says, “the Africa Rising narrative presents the most compelling argument for the continent’s prosperity.”
Their statements come at a time when commodity prices have crashed to record lows. This has left societies like Nigeria in profound crisis. And in spite of petroleum falling below US$30 per barrel earlier this year and hovering at $40 today, Standard Chartered Bank economist Razia Khan argues that Uganda should keep pumping scarce investment funds into oil exploration. Production in the country will cost an estimated $70 per barrel.
The 2016 World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa, hosted in Kigali, claimed the “fourth industrial revolution“ – the use of “cyberphysical systems” like artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and biotech – as Africa’s future. This is because the continent is “the world’s fastest-growing digital consumer market”. Yet fewer than a third of sub-Saharan Africans have electricity in their homes. The summit merely reinforced extractive-industry and high-tech myths.
But there is widespread social resistance under way in Africa. Grassroots protesters are questioning the logic of export-led “growth” and renewed fiscal austerity. They are demanding that policies meet their basic needs instead.
Since 2011 the continent has witnessed a dramatic spike in social protests, as recorded by the African Development Bank. The wave has not receded. The bank said in its 2015 “African Economic Outlook” that there were five times more protests annually between 2011 and 2014 than in 2000. And after the dramatic “Arab Spring” – the 2011 North African democratic uprising that was especially acute in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Morocco – protesters picked up the pace in Algeria, Angola, Chad, Gabon, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda and many other countries.
The power of protests
Press reports collated by the bank confirm that almost all protests since 2011 have been about inadequate wages and working conditions, the low quality of public service delivery, social divides, state repression and a lack of political reform. A few examples illustrate the impressive results of recent protests.
In Mozambique, water and food price hikes in September 2010 catalysed consumers. Text messages proposed a mass “strike”. This paralysed Maputo for a weekend. The protesters were met by lethal police violence. But they won: a price freeze was imposed and new state service subsidies were introduced.
In Senegal, sustained demonstrations in 2011-12 prevented authoritarian neoliberal president Abdoulaye Wade from serving a third term.
In Nigeria, the International Monetary Fund imposed the doubling of local petrol prices in January 2012. This caused an uprising that, in the subsequent fortnight, nearly overthrew the government before the increase was reversed.
In 2014 the most spectacular protest was in Burkina Faso. In the spirit of 1980s revolutionary Thomas Sankara, mass demonstrations overthrew president Blaise Compaoré. The protests had begun in 2011 with vigorous Burkinabé food riots. These were put down by lethal police force that left more than a dozen people dead. Compaoré’s attempt at a comeback in 2015 was similarly foiled.
In October 2015 South African students and low-paid university workers won the battle for a 0% fee increase for 2016 and “insourcing” of casual employment.
Some social turmoil is localised, taking place in the vicinity of mines and oil wealth. This is correlated in recent mappings by the London-based Centre for Economic Policy Research, based on data gathered by University of Sussex researchers, and on more than 200 studies in the Environmental Justice Liabilities and Trade research project’s “EJ Atlas”.
Labour also regularly protests in Africa. The WEF’s “Global Competitiveness Report” authors ask businesses in 140 countries each year how they rate labour-employer relations in terms of cooperation versus confrontation. Of the third most militant countries in the world, African countries typically account for 40%, far higher than any other region.
Since 2012 – the year in which 34 miners were killed in the “Marikana Massacre” – the South African working class has been ranked angriest. The 2015 WEF rankings for the other most “confrontational” workers include those from Algeria, Tunisia, Mozambique, Guinea, Chad, Liberia, Mauritania, Lesotho, Morocco, Cape Verde, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Seychelles, Ethiopia, Kenya, Cameroon and Gabon.
The pressures on many African societies relate to the continent’s fiscal stresses, since declining commodity prices lower state revenues. These stresses also reflect the massive outflow of funds by multinational corporations via tax dodges and other illicit routes. The African Union Panel on Illicit Financial Flows last month raised the estimate to $80 billion lost each year.
There is also the matter of licit financial outflows: the profits and dividends taken offshore legally by multinationals thanks to deregulated exchange controls, which must be paid in hard currency. In South Africa, these have driven the past 15 years of current account deficits – the trade deficit plus the outflow of profits – which in turn led to a huge increase in the country’s foreign debt: from $32 billion in 2000 to $140 billion today.
What to do next? The IMF’s April 2016 “Regional Economic Outlook for Africa” suggests that
a substantial policy reset is critical in many cases … Because the reduction in revenue from the extractive sector is expected to persist, many affected countries also critically need to contain fiscal deficits and build a sustainable tax base from the rest of the economy.
Precisely this neoliberalism – a policy “reset” that in reality is more of the same – is one reason for what US academics Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly term “Africa Uprising”.
Even if it is ignored in Kigali, or repressed on the ground, the popular risings against the WEF’s dubious “Africa Rising” rhetoric await the solidarity of those with a more patriotic perspective on the continent’s prospects.