Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Armies are no solution

Over the past year, Africa has seen the decomposition of states from coast to coast. A belt of war, coups and large-scale spontaneous demonstrations has emerged across the Sahel, from Guinea-Bissau to Somalia. These political processes have a variety of localised causes, yet they have some commonalities. All of them emerge in a context of failed agricultural markets and a boom in mineral and oil extraction. Fundamentalist Islam is merely a complicating factor: not a cause.

Frantz Fanon
wrote in 1959 that:
"Colonialism hardly ever exploits the whole of a country. It contents itself with bringing to light the natural resources, which it extracts, and exports to meet the needs of the mother country's industries, thereby allowing certain sectors of the colony to become relatively rich. But the rest of the colony follows its path of underdevelopment and poverty, or at all events, sinks more deeply into it."

This is the basis of "combined and uneven" development: a state in which most of the continent still finds itself.

Current policies have resulted in growing inequalities and increasing poverty throughout Africa. Elections have therefore only offered the electorate a chance to choose politicians who continue to impose increasing poverty upon them. As a result, in some places, people are actually nostalgic about the years they were living under dictatorships - because they remember them as times when they had more food. Neoliberals like the World Bank had thought movements for democracy would chop away the burdensome state, freeing natural propensities to trade, allowing capitalism to flourish. The reality is that neoliberal policies destroyed existing local markets while leyying highly sinister elements flourished.

African states contain a wide variety of variables. They have diverse geographies, cultural histories and economic foundations. peasant-based economies have integrative tendencies. In contrast extractive industries around valuable commodities have greater tendency toward disintegration. There are few places in Africa where mineral industries have had a positive impact.

One does not need to look far to see that agriculture across the region is in crisis. Famine has already been declared in Somalia. The Sudans are at war, while refugees have fled their herds and any crops they could scrape from the ground after years of drought. UN FAO notes that last year the Horn of Africa experienced a food crisis that left an estimated 13 million people dependent on humanitarian assistance. Currently there are 15 million people facing food insecurity in the countries of the Sahel. These famines are compounded by refugee crises. Altogether some 284,000 Malians have fled Northern Mali, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: 107,000 of them are thought to be displaced within Mali; 177,000 in neighbouring countries. New arrivals have pushed refugee numbers to 56,664 in Burkina Faso, to 61,000 in Mauritania, and to 39,388 in Niger, according to UNHCR. Around 810,000 Senegalese are facing hunger, according to a joint study in February 2012 by the Senegalese government and the World Food Programme (WFP). In the 2011 harvest season, cereal production fell by 36 per cent compared with 2010, and the production of peanuts, Senegal's main cash crop, fell by 59 per cent. One figure shows the latest harvest was 120,000 tons, down from a previous yearly average of 800,000.

Guinea Bissau's coup has disrupted the marketing of cashews - an important plantation crop in that country - but the story not being told is that the indigenous rice economy has already been seriously battered. This is the case with all the rice-growing economies in West Africa, as shown by USDA figures. Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Mali, Ghana and Senegal all show declines in production. In the past year, imports have soared to meet local consumption. Mali's importation has risen 50 per cent. The Ivory Coast is importing a massive 80 per cent of their consumption. As Bryceson noted in 2009, sudden market shocks, gradually worsening terms of trade, market disincentives, "continue to undermine personal welfare, leading to social upheavals and political destabilisation". This has led to a process of de-agrarianisation, or more specifically, "de-peasantisation", whereby "peasant households and communities have lost their coherence as social and economic units". These patterns fuel burgeoning global unemployment rates. A recent report of the International Labour Organisation shows that youth are particularly badly hit. Between 2007 and 2010, youth unemployment increased by 5.1 million.

Armies are not signs of hope for those who have recently lost their land in mining concessions and land grabs, because in the experiences of the disposed, militaries have tended to come in to support those who are taking from them.

As much as those of us on the Left would like to believe otherwise,  poverty rarely produces pleasant political responses.

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