The colonial origins of extractivism in Africa

There is no such thing as a ‘resource curse’ and Africans are no more corrupt than others.

Senegal protest - Reuters
There have been protests in Dakar, Senegal after the broadcast of a documentary alleging financial impropriety by Aliou Sall, brother of President Macky Sall June 14, 2019 [Sylvain Cherkaoui/Reuters]

Late last month, the Senegalese government made it clear it was not going to cave in to pressure to revise state energy contracts. This was despite weeks-long protests and calls from the opposition and civil society to take action against graft in the wake of a large corruption scandal.

In June, the BBC released a documentary alleging financial impropriety by Aliou Sall, brother of President Macky Sall, in connection to a $10bn fraudulent energy deal with predatory entrepreneur Frank Timis, the owner of energy company Petro-Tim. The exposé stirred anger across the country.

According to the BBC investigation, the president’s brother, former country manager of Petro-Tim in Senegal, has received a $250,000 lump sum payment and a $25,000 monthly salary over a five-year period from Timis.

Timis’s strategy is simple and it works. It consists of getting into business with corrupt African presidents and their families to win tenders that are ridiculously unfavourable to African countries. In recent years West Africa has become his favourite stomping ground. Timis has been reportedly linked to dirty mining deals in Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Burkina Faso.

This, like other corruption stories in Africa, are often brushed off as the natural consequence of the “resource curse” and greedy elites, but what lies beneath it is a much grimmer reality. What enables people like Timis to profiteer with impunity is a centuries-old malaise which has afflicted the continent ever since European powers embarked on its colonisation.

Extractivism: An economic model

The popular theory of “the resource curse” – that natural resources might be more of an economic curse than a blessing – is commonly used in academic and policy discourse to explain away the paradox that resource-rich countries tend to have less economic, developmental and even democratic growth than countries with fewer natural resources. 

The theory, however, downplays global structural imbalances and ignores the adverse effects predatory capitalism has on resource-rich countries with export-oriented economies.

It rests too problematically on assumptions about “African greed” and tropical fatalism. But corruption is not some virus that infects some predisposed to it and spares others with stronger immunity.

Africans are no more corrupt than others.

In fact, there is no such thing as a “resource curse”, only bankrupt policy choices. Resource-rich countries more often than not support economies that are heavily dependent on extraction – an economic model which encourages foreign patronage and rent-seeking behaviours that naturally lead to corruption.  

Extractivism remains the most enduring economic model in Africa. The continent procures the world with bodies and brains, copper and cobalt, oil and gas, diamonds and gold, wood, fish, artifacts and cultural heritage. The model not only drains resources, it also blocks Africa’s capacity to create, produce and develop. It bleeds it dry at the expense of its populations already blighted by extreme poverty.

The foundations of this model were laid during colonialism, when imperial powers, through conquest and coercion, acquired sovereign prerogatives, from levying taxes and imposing customs duties to signing treaties and administering justice. The infrastructure for extraction was a mechanism perfected by chartered companies such as the British East Africa Company, a precursor to modern-day multinational corporations. The co-opting of a docile elite trained in colonial schools ensured continued loyalty to old colonial powers in lieu of real decolonisation.

Colonialism faked its own death in Africa

In French-speaking Africa, France also developed such an extractive infrastructure. From Cote d’Ivoire to Niger, from Gabon to the Congo, France has deployed a geopolitical arsenal based on secret defence agreements and retrogressive interventionism. In fact, French colonialism faked its own death in “partnerships” that depoliticised postcolonial transactions.

In reality, a (post)colonial pact continues to govern Franco-African transactions. This pact maintains African states’ dependence on France by enforcing a system in which the former provides natural resources exclusively for the benefit of metropolitan France and imports, almost exclusively, manufactured products from the latter.

This configuration is sustained by economic, military and political mechanisms that are not subject to any democratic control. One of the most prominent symbols of enduring imperialism in French-speaking Africa is the CFA Franc cooperation, which is an arrangement that requires its West and Central African members to deposit fifty percent of their foreign exchange surpluses into a French operations account in exchange for currency stability.

The maintenance of corrupt leaders was always a condition for continued business for colonial powers in Africa. To this day, France continues to do everything in its power, including deploying its military, to protect Africa’s corrupt strongmen and the access they provide to the continent’s resources. In the last few decades France took some unprecedented steps to protect its interests in Africa, including deploying Special Forces to protect a private French corporation’s mining operations in Niger. Since 1960, the French military has intervened over 40 times in Africa. The most recent interventions such as Operations Serval and Barkhane in Mali and a rescue mission to save Chad’s president from a coup are testimonies that France is still acting like a colonial power in Africa.

In Senegal, French companies run virtually all infrastructural services, from the Dakar harbour (Bolloré) to the highways (Eiffage), from the train system (Eiffage, SNCF, RATP, Alstom) to oil exploration (Total). Macky Sall has turned Senegal into an investment heaven for French companies. In the process, he has become a staunch guardian of the French neocolonial order.

This colonial infrastructure and extraverted politics make it easy for predatory businessmen like Timis to exploit the resources of Senegal. He is easily able to do business navigating networks of corrupt officials who have already been conditioned to give concessions to foreigners in exchange for personal profit. 

Need for a paradigmatic shift

However, none of the main protagonists in the extraction scheme has an interest in systemic reform. The only way out of this dilemma is a paradigmatic shift.

As the anti-CFAcampaign has shown, only a pan-African, grassroots movement is able to push for the decolonisation of African economies. Thanks to the anti-imperialist front FRAPP-France Dégage and other pan-African civil society movements, West African states have recently pledged to adopt a single currency.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.