Africa Today: Information and Analysis

Source: Political Affairs

One cannot sum up developments in Africa in a single article, report or even book. Africa is an enormous continent, the second largest both geographically and by population, being home to nearly 900 million people.

It is also the least understood continent among the US people. There are more myths and misunderstandings about Africa than perhaps any other place. In fact, while most places in the world are identified by country, Africa is often treated as one big place. This ignorance is largely due to racism and the legacy of slavery. Of course, it is also due to the racist inattention by the media and US foreign policy, which is in equal measures dismissive and scandalizing.

But things are changing. There is a new interest in Africa among the US public today and a new focus in government policy. Beginning with President Clinton’s historic tour in 1998, there has been more debate and discussion of African issues than since the end of apartheid. The debate over trade with and aid to Africa has been in Congress as well. This June, Africa was on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine in a special issue edited by popstar and UN peace ambassador Bono. Of course, the highly public campaigns against human rights violations in Darfur, Sudan have also been a major factor in putting the continent on the US political agenda.

2007 is also a historic marker. It has been 50 years since Ghanaian independence. Ghana is the first liberated country in sub-Saharan Africa. The architect of Ghanaian liberation, Kwame Nkrumah, was also the champion of continental unity and Pan-Africanism. The golden anniversary of Ghana’s independence has been celebrated around the continent because that country’s freedom symbolizes the beginning of the era of African liberation. The General Assembly of the African Union (AU), the continental governmental organization made up of 53 member states, recently met in Accra, Ghana partly in honor of the occasion.

African History

I cannot give a serious account of African history here, but some broad conclusions can be made. The history of colonialism, conquest and foreign domination plague Africa today and is the source of many of the root causes of the conflicts and crisis throughout the continent. And of course, the ongoing political, military and economic intervention of the imperialist powers continues to affect African developments.

One of the main challenges before us is to understand how Africa went from being the frontline of the international struggle for national independence and against imperialism to becoming a continent of crisis, corruption, poverty and war. African nations like Ghana in 1957, Algeria in 1962, and Kenya in 1963, were beacons of anti-colonial struggle worldwide and were examples to liberation movements in Asia and the Middle East.

The Pan-African movement throughout the 20th century played a key role in creating continental unity to solve the problems of colonialism, neocolonialism, racism and poverty. Also, it should be noted that the Soviet Union and other socialist countries financed and trained many of the national liberation movements. Many of those movements not only had Marxists in their leadership, but several enshrined Marxism-Leninism in their statutes and principals. Many of them, however, abandoned Marxism in name and practice following the crisis in socialism in the early 1990’s.

The newly liberated peoples of Africa were united for the last half of the 20th century against apartheid and its clients in Southern Africa. The front line states of Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, bordered South Africa and were destabilized by military and covert intervention by the apartheid regime. They also provided support for the African National Congress (ANC), South African Communist Party (SACP) and other liberation forces, which often operated from exile in their countries. With the unprecedented victory over apartheid in 1991 and the subsequent collapse of the UNITA in Angola, RENAMO in Mozambique, the racist regime in Southwest Africa (now Namibia) and other right-wing forces propped up by apartheid, conflicts between the frontline states and within them came to the fore. One example is the internal discord in Zimbabwe that has gained so much attention in the ruling circles in the US and UK.

At the Treaty of Berlin in 1884-1885, the European powers carved up Africa into colonial holdings. Previously, Europe mostly traded with existing African states and tribes, staking claim to coastal fortresses and ports. The Treaty of Berlin mandated that European powers hold agreements with local leaders and stake claims to physical territory in order to solidify their claim to a colony. The scramble for Africa began. By 1900, nearly all of Africa was under direct colonial control by European countries. There was also notable economic and political influence of the US, including its near-puppet state in Liberia. Within 100 years, Africa was transformed. By 2000, nearly all the continent was independent. It went from being a massive landmass of hundreds of peoples, languages and cultures with little to do with one another, to being a continent dominated by foreign powers, carved up into arbitrary nations, united in their common experience of slavery, brutality, imperial control and struggle for freedom.

African Economies and Resources

In the American popular imagination, Africa is perhaps most associated with poverty. And of course, there, poverty is a massive crisis plaguing millions of people. But Africa is also resource rich, and the national economies vary greatly from industrialized Egypt and South Africa to agrarian countries like Malawi and Burundi and the "great middle" like Ghana and Kenya – which like many others have extreme uneven development with the majority living in subsistence in small villages, but large concentrations in urban industrial and semi-industrial centers. Africa is a continent of poverty among riches.

First the riches. Africa is home to some of the greatest mineral and resource reserves in the world and exports huge amounts of aluminum, iron, copper, gold, titanium, diamonds, oil, etc. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mauritania, Guinea, South Africa, and Chad have some of the largest mineral resources. In nearly every country, extraction is controlled by foreign corporations and have brought little wealth to the average citizen. Some countries like Sierra Leone and The Democratic Republic of Congo have had almost wholesale rape of their mineral wealth. In other countries, governments or despotic rulers have been able to retain some amount of wealth locally. Some Africans are certainly getting rich from mineral extraction.

There is very little manufacturing in Africa, and the industrial centers are centered mostly in South Africa and the Arab countries of North Africa. While some small-scale manufacturing exists in most African countries, few countries export manufactured goods. Many have manufacturing industries that find it hard to compete with low-cost commodity imports from the US, Europe and Asia. There is, of course, as resulting imbalance in almost every African economy. There is a classic model of economic dependence, with nations dependent on foreign imports of commodities and even for the infrastructure, technical knowledge and capital to extract the natural resources they possess. An increasing problem is the flooding of African markets with agricultural goods from Europe and the US. Industrial farming techniques and government subsidies often make imported grain cheaper than the local variety. This has devastated many local farmers and even led to the replacement of traditional crops with foreign varieties.


Oil has become the new blessing (or curse) of Africa with its reserves are estimated between 100 and 120 million gigabarrels, which depending on the estimate is equal to or greater than reserves in South America or North America. Africa has "proved reserves" of 75.4 billion barrels (7 percent of the world’s total) and in 1998 it produced 7.8 million barrels per day (381 million tons/year) of over 40 types of crude oil. The top five producers, Nigeria, Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Angola – in order of decreasing output – account for 85 percent of the continent’s oil production. Nigeria along with Algeria, Libya and Angola are the African members of OPEC.

Nigeria is by far the biggest oil producer on the continent. It is the 12th largest producer of petroleum in the world and the 8th largest exporter, and has the 10th largest proven reserves. Petroleum plays a pivotal role in the Nigerian economy, accounting for 40 percent of the GDP.

Like nearly all African countries, this wealth is controlled by foreign corporations who have contracted to extract the oil and a few Nigerian elites who benefit from the relationship. The Southern Delta region where the oil is drilled, is one of the poorest in the country. The economic disparities, cultural oppression by the central government and some level of banditry have all led to armed attacks by the local population against the oil compounds, pipelines, etc. Nigeria’s recent elections put for the first time a southerner into the office of president. In 2006 Nigeria became the first African country to pay off its debt to the Paris Club, some $30 billion. It boasts the continent’s third largest GDP behind South Africa and Egypt.

Recent oil discoveries in Ghana, and elsewhere show where the race for new oil sources is leading. European petroleum companies, which have been the traditional "partners" in oil extraction in Africa, have new competition. China has made big inroads into oil development throughout the continent, particularly in Sudan.

Poverty and Starvation

Despite the mineral and resource wealth of the country, most Africans remain poor. Thirty-eight of the fifty United Nations designated Least Developed Countries are in Africa. 36.2 percent of all Africans live on the equivalent of US$1 a day or less. As of 1998, foreign debt accounted for a massive 60.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product continent-wide. African debt is a major factor in why Africa is poorer today than 20 years ago. Total GDP for all of Africa was $558 billion in 2004.

The Labor Movement

One of the main factors in the conditions of the average African is the size and strength of the organized sector of the African working class. The organized labor movement in Africa is a reflection of the low economic development in general. Labor unions are larger and more influential in industrial South Africa and oil giant Nigeria. Several African countries restrict or outlaw trade unions or have established "official" – and accordingly loyal – unions that do little to defend the interests of working people in their countries.

ICFTU-AFRO is the African Regional Organization of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which is now part of the newly formed International Trade Union Federation. Originally founded in 1957 it was reinitiated in 2003. Its member unions represent 15 million workers in 45 countries. Many of these unions are left-leaning and don’t fit with the old idea of ICFTU unions as being "yellow unions." Several of the member unions are also in the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU).

Another continental federation is the older Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU). Its forerunner was founded by Kwame Nkrumah and merged with other federations to form the OATUU under the auspices of the Organization of African Unity, a precursor to the AU. Based in Accra, it has affiliates in Egypt, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Congo, etc. It is not affiliated to WFTU or the ICFTU, although they have a working relationship with WFTU.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is one of the most influential and powerful trade union federations in the continent with over 1.8 million members. Part of ICFTU-AFRO, COSATU has been an advocate for unity among the various international trade union federations and also with the OATUU. Their tripartite alliance with the ruling ANC and the South African Communist Party reflect the organizations emergence with and from the anti-apartheid movement, and their ongoing involvement in the political life of the country. The alliance is not without tension. Recent massive strikes in the South African metals and public service industries show the impact of the contradictions within South African society and the pace of social change. The Egyptian Trade Union Federation is also significant. Their 2.5 million members within 23 member unions is the only national union federation in the country. Oil industry workers are the most significant sector. They are members of the OATUU.

The enormous Nigeria Labour Congress with a claimed 4 million members is probably the largest trade union organization. Its history is one of resistance to government repression and pressure for democratic reforms.

Reform of draconian labor laws was ushered in with broader democratic reforms in Nigeria following the exit of dictator Sani Abacha in 1999. Since then, the NLC has called for a number of general strikes in opposition to government oil policies and rising gas prices for Nigerian consumers. Oil workers are a key sector, given oil’s strategic role in the Nigerian economy.

The AIDS Pandemic

AIDS has largely fallen off the political radar in the US. AIDS is still a crisis here, but new drug treatments and media inattention have made it almost invisible. Not so in Africa. According to the World Bank, "Sub-Saharan Africa has just over 10 percent of the world’s population but is home to more than 60 percent of all people living with HIV 25.8 million. In 2005, an estimated 3.2 million people in the region became newly infected, while 2.4 million adults and children died of AIDS." By 2005 22.9 million Africans had died of AIDS, comprising 91 percent of all deaths worldwide.

The country with the greatest HIV prevalence is Swaziland, where one out of every three adults aged 15-49 has contracted the virus. South Africa’s conflict with US drug companies over licensing of protease inhibitor drugs demonstrates the corporate interest in this crisis. They were more concerned in making a huge profit of the drugs in Africa than actually having an impact. South Africa has insisted that they will allow generic companies to copy the drugs without paying licenses because of the dire human need. Studies show that Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa and Namibia have all had compounded economic slowdown due to the impact of the AIDS pandemic. The long-term human, economic and social impact will be staggering.

Zones of Conflict

Africa has been plagued by internal conflicts ever since the independence movements led to victories in various countries. Hardly a single country has been free from internal strife, coups d’état and military dictatorships. The causes of these conflicts are many.

Probably the bloodiest war on the globe in the past decade has been the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In fact, this has not been a Congolese war alone, but a regional conflict plaguing the entire Great Lakes region and involving at least 10 African countries. This war has claimed nearly 4 million lives since 1998, dwarfing the body count of Iraq or Darfur. And the war in Congo has been virtually invisible in the US media, nor talked about by the US left.

The refugee crisis after the Rwandan and Burundian genocides is one of the factors that instigated the war between rebel groups on both sides of the Congo-Rwanda border. The conflict was exacerbated by the assassination of Laurent Kabila in 1998. The internal conflict created an opportunity for rebels in the east of the country. The power sharing agreement in Congo DR and attempts at reconciliation in Rwanda have created hope for peaceful development.

Horn of Africa and Sudan

Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti are the countries on the Horn of Africa. The area has a long-standing border conflicts as well as internal struggles over culture, religion and resources. The Horn of Africa has been called the most militarized region in the world. The climate is dry and the rampant drought in the 1970’s led to a long-term destruction of food crops and agricultural capacity. The ongoing border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia following its independence seems to have cooled down, but Ethiopian military claims has been a platform of subsequent administrations.

Now the largely Christian Ethiopia has nod a far-reaching military incursion into the territory of its Muslim neighbor Somalia, at the urging of the Bush administration. On July 31 the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to send peacekeeping forces to the Darfur region of Sudan in East Africa. The 26,000 UN and African Union (AU) troops will constitute the largest peace keeping force on the globe today and will replace with the 7,400 AU peacekeepers already stationed in Darfur. Their mission is to protect the six million civilians in the region who have been the main victims of the ongoing conflict there, resulting in as many as 400,000 deaths. President Omar al-Bashir who was commander of the military coup that took power in 1989, established a version of Islamic fundamentalist rule and subsequently became president in 1993. By most accounts his regime funded loyalists in the region to brutally put down local resistance. Despite calls from some US sectors for military intervention, solutions to the crisis in Darfur require addressing the broader issues of Sudanese democracy and resource conflicts in the region.

US African Command

US imperialism today clearly has plans to return to dominance in Africa supplanting European and Asian interests. One key sign of that is the announcement of a US Military Command in Africa, or "Africom."

Despite platitudes, the plan is clearly aimed at expanding American military influence and open another font in the "war on terror." A US Department of Defense Press Release quotes a Pentagon official as saying, "US Africa Command’s foremost mission is to help Africans achieve their own security, not to extend the scope of the war on terrorism or secure African resources." But African governments don’t seem convinced. The US envoy returned from Africa recently with bad news for the president. According The Guardian (UK) no nation seemed ready to host the US military forces. One, they were all concerned about the role US forces would play in the region, and two, they were worried about becoming a target of terrorist attack. Libya and others have cited the need for an "Africa-only solution."The administration is now reframing the proposal as "’a distributed command’ that would be ‘networked’ across several countries."

Whatever you call it, it spells more conflict and less security for Africans.

Western Sahara, Africa’s Last Colony

As mentioned earlier, nearly all of Africa has formal independence today. There are, however, exceptions. A few small islands in the Indian Ocean remain colonized by France. Another island outpost in the Gulf of Guinea is maintained by the UK. There are the cities of Melilla and Ceuta in Morocco that remain under Spanish control and are disputed by the Moroccans. But the last real colony in Africa is Western Sahara, which has been occupied illegally by Morocco since 1975. The Saharawi people, led by POLISARIO, have led a political and military resistance to first Spanish, then Mauritanian and Moroccan, and now Moroccan rule. The organization represents the country in the General Assembly of the African Union and organizes a government in exile from Algeria.

The African Union & Continental Unity

While the glory days of the Pan-African movement have passed, many of the goals and principals of Nkrumah and his compatriots live on in the African Union. The AU is the successor organization to the Organization of African Unity, which was founded in 1963 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Today, Nkrumah’s vision of a continental government of Africa has been given life. The final declaration of the African Union Summit in Ghana July 1-3, stated, "that the ultimate objective of the African Union is the United States of Africa with a Union Government as envisaged by the founding fathers of the Organization of African Unity and in particular, the visionary leader, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana." Whether continental governmental structures or a single African currency is possible in the short term or in the long run beneficial to the working people of Africa is doubtful.

The challenges for Africa are certainly great. But the opportunities are great as well. Increased unity of the African peoples for their common goals of democracy, independence, and peaceful development is essential. African leaders and people can certainly begin to solve their own problems with the financial and political support of the world community. Most importantly they need relief from the age-old imperialist economic and military encroachment of the West.

Libero Della Piana is the organizer of the Communist Party in New York.

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