What Recent Struggles in Gambia and Zambia Teach us About Neo-Colonialism Today

Nearly a century of lead mining and smelting in Kabwe, Zambia has made the town one of the most toxic in the world. Photo credit: Larry C Price/The Guardian
Nearly a century of lead mining and smelting in Kabwe, Zambia has made the town one of the most toxic in the world. Photo credit: Larry C Price/The Guardian

On June 20th, a fatal mining accident in Black mountain, an infamous mining zone in Zambia, killed 10 miners, and injured 7 others. Mining is the lifeblood of the country’s economy, and accidents happen far too often. Mining accounts for eighty percent of Zambia’s export earnings and about 12% of its GDP. It is also the source for the largest number of industrial accidents since Zambia won its independence in 1964.

The recent mining tragedy and a longer history of exploitation raises the question: Did colonialism ever end in Zambia?

Shortly after independence, Zambia’s first President, Kenneth Kaunda spoke of an African path towards socialism. The West Indian intellectual C.L.R. James said that Kuanda realized African development would not come through “the attempt merely to ape European ways.” As Kuanda himself put it, “The traditional community was a mutual aid society,” and if Africa was to modernize and become independent it would do so through an idealized vision of Africa’s supposedly libertarian socialist past.

However, Kuanda ended up becoming a dictator, ruling for 27 year and forgetting his youthful political idealism. Instead, he paved the way for Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines Investment Holdings (ZCCM-IH), the very state mining company that would sell off most of the country’s mines to foreign capital. Today, 80% of Zambia’s mining industry is under the control of four foreign companies, all of which have names which were made to sound Zambian. Bamick Lumwana is owned by Bamick, a Canadian company which holds the title of the world’s largest gold mining company; FQM Kansanshi is owned by First Quantum Minerals, another Canadian mining company; Konkola Copper Mines is under the control of Vedenta Resources, an Indian company; and Mopani is owned by Glencore, a Swiss-based mining company.

In all of these companies, the state owned ZCCM-IH is a minority shareholder.

The additional smaller mines in Zambia are mainly divvied up between one Brazilian company, one South African company, and various Chinese companies.

This is colonialism. The economic exploitation of Africa which marked centuries of foreign rule has indeed continued past the time of many of the region’s independence struggles. Though foreign rule politically and officially ended with many nations’ independence, primarily in the decades following World War II, economic colonialism has continued throughout much of the continent – particularly where natural resources are concerned.

Now, the careful observer might note that the aforementioned corporations are transnational, not nation states. Some may say that these companies operate independently from the interests of the nation states of their birth. To the toiling African, however, it makes no difference. Their bodies are used to extract capital for some other entity’s gain, and they get only a tiny fraction of what they produce. They are used and abused for resource extraction, to be sent elsewhere, away from their villages, towns, even countries. And besides, these transnational corporations often do answer to nation states. Just look to China.

For China, transnational corporations (TNCs) work together with a foreign policy that the Chinese government likes to call “strategic partnerships.” Many Africans have called this plain old colonialism. Just last year, in July 2017 the Chinese Foreign Ministry publicly condemned the Zambian authorities for arresting Chinese managers of a China-owned firm. Two managers were accused of employing and abusing child labor. After the managers were detained, Lin Songtian, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s director-general for African affairs, demanded an explanation from Stephen Kampyongo, Zambia’s Home Affairs Minister.

In fact, Zambians have long complained about the government-supported environment of impunity that surrounds Chinese mining in the country. In 2005, 52 Zambian workers were killed at an explosives factory, and little was done about it. In 2010, two Chinese managers opened fire on striking Zambian workers, leading to over a dozen people being hospitalized, with two in critical condition. The events outraged the country. In fact, journalist Alexis Okeowo reported for the New Yorker that Zambia’s former President Micheal Sata “won the election in 2011 partly by capitalizing on anti-Chinese sentiment.”

Did Sata truly address the issue of human rights and sovereignty in the country as president? Human Rights Watch said no, at the time alleging that while “President Sata ran on a populist campaign to protect workers,” it was disappointing that there was no “meaningful progress” in protecting the rights of miners. With Zambia’s latest president Edgar Lugu, these problems persist, although the Zambian government has been more vocal in its condemnation of Chinese corporations.

It is necessary to understand that this is not treachery on the part of the Zambian government. These are decisions that must be made due to the very structure of the global capitalist economy.

In fact, the Zambian government ought to be commended for courageously confronting China while trying to maintain bilateral trade. In 2000, Zambian exports of copper to China amounted to $100 million, and by 2016 that number had grown to $4 billion. The country can criticize China to a certain degree, but not too much. The economy after all is in a state of dependency.

But what does this tell us about a nominally free continent? How does one benefit their nation while appeasing to transnational capital – capital only interested in exploiting that nation? As China races against the US’s AFRICOM project in enlarging its military footprint across the continent, Africans are regularly asking themselves: did  they exchange European colonialism for a colonialism of another kind?

The Living Legacy of Colonialism

If a mining accident in Zambia poses such questions about national economic independence, then what is the solution to these forms of neo-colonialism? Some Pan-Africanists respond with one proposal: nationalization, nationalization, nationalization. In their view, the problem isn’t capital itself, but that it is transnational. They argue that a patriotic business class could motor national development and usher in a new era of continental unity. Others may argue for national state control, in a world where nation-states would be expected to compete with the transnational corporations of the world (under the same exploitative rules, of course). Either way, the result is the same: the continuation of the same processes of exploitation but under a different colored whip.

To approach this topic, let’s shift our focus to the western African country of Gambia. In Gambia, first they nationalized, and then they distributed the capital to the so-called “patriotic business class.”

On June 18th 2018, a Gambian paramilitary police force stormed the village of Faraba Banta. For weeks, residents of the village had been protesting against an elusive business group named “Julakay.” The group had been given rights to mine in the village without the community’s consent. The villagers tried negotiating with the business group, based on due process. They protested against Julakay, pointing out that the law says that they had the right to set the conditions for business operations on their land. They complained that their livelihoods were at stake, but to no avail.

“The Julakay group was asked to stop, until the mining is done according to process,” one villager told the Gambian press “This order was not heeded and they continued with their operations, and in the process they destroyed the village football field and some compounds and fell down palm trees.”

In May, the village protesters were met with tear gas canisters and the rubber bullets of Gambia’s Police Intervention unit. The next month, when journalists tried covering the story of a police occupation, they were beaten up. Shortly thereafter, Gambian police began shooting live-ammunition which killed three activists in an event notably reported by the international press. It was clear to the world that the Julakay group and the police had some kind of connection.

But who is this Julakay group? This is where it gets complicated.

Back in 2004, the Gambian government began its Operation No Compromise, a plan to clean up corruption in the country’s financial institutions. The subsequent investigations implicated five members of the central bank in a scandal entailing illegal government contracts to five companies, a bribe in an unorthodox effort to stabilize the local currency.

Of those businesses that were implicated, one of them was the Julakay group.

The government discovered that Gambian tycoon Baba Jobe owned 50% of the Julakay group. Jobe was a man known to casually teeter between legal and illegal enterprise to build his empire. He was imprisoned and died in prison, many suspect because of a falling out he had with Gambia’s former dictator Yahya Jammeh. Known for his shady dealings with Jammeh, Jobe was once even put on a UN travel ban due to his participation in the blood diamond trade and arms trafficking.

It seems his phantom still haunts the village of Faraba Banta; Jobe’s legacy is still protected by the country’s national police. The deaths of these villagers unravels a larger picture: Gambia’s old legacy of upholding the role of the country’s national business class still seems to be largely intact.

During the colonial era, when industrial action got in the way of British profit, the state would send in the police force to put down strikes. This was the apparatus that they left behind during decolonization. When the Gambians seized colonialism’s political and economic machinery, they kept it intact and a new national business class emerged. Across Africa, these national business classes developed special privileges with post-colonial African states: they can, for example, call on death squads to execute those who get in the way of their profits.

To put it simply, despite the condemnations from public officials, Gambian police were working as the Julakay group’s enforcers.

In Gambia, unlike Zambia, the mining economy is negligible due the simple fact that less natural resource riches exist in the country. Sand mining in Gambia was pioneered by foreign capital. In 2008, the dictator Jammeh and his close circle of the country’s business elite expropriated the two leading western sand mining companies operating in the country. Two new shell companies were set up by Jammeh and his friends: Gamico and Alhamdulilah Patroleum Mineral Company. When anyone protested against the sand mines they owned, like the youth of the Kartong Coastal village once did, they were met with paramilitary police. The national business class, it seems, were only concerned with their own pockets.

What is so controversial about the tragedy of Faraba Banta is how it reminds the country of Jammeh ‘s rule. It wasn’t long ago when the current President Adama Barrow was elected in December 2016 to the outpouring of joy in Gambia’s streets. Jammeh, Barrow’s opponent, was a ruthless tyrant known for torture and enforced disappearances, and had strong ties with the local business elite which strengthened the dictator’s iron grip. Barrow represented a new beginning for a country with a troubled past. Immediately after the Faraba Banta scandal, Gambia’s police chief Landing Kinteh resigned. President Barrow visited the village to pay his tributes shortly after.

Colonialism and the State

The cases of Zambia and Gambia raise very important questions about the African state, the African business class, and the living legacy of colonialism. It allows us to revisit times of profound excitement – decolonization – and the sobering assessments of activists who looked to the future of the continent with cautious optimism.

In 1973 C.L.R James (this author’s biggest inspiration), gave a speech. He recalled that in 1957 one of his protégées, Kwame Nkrumah, had become the first head of state for the independent African country of Ghana. He talked about the many leaders he inspired, and the errors they made after inheriting the post-colonial state.

“When you were carrying on an activity under the colonial system you could always point to them and say they are responsible” he recalled, amid the euphoria of decolonization. “But when he [the African] comes into power …. He does something which is very strange … he paints it up as much as he can in red and he calls it African Socialism. It is the same system.”

Insofar as the administrative machinery of African governance was designed for extraction and export, it shall always play that role, he believed. On this point, he was also probably right. Today Zambia teaches us about what Soyinka called the oppressive boot, and “the irrelevance of the color of the foot that wears it,”  in a world where white colonialism paved the way for Chinese colonialism and transnational exploitation.

Gambia teaches us another lesson: never trust the business class even if they look just like you. Frantz Fanon, the intellectual of decolonization from the Caribbean nation of Martinique, said this long ago. He warned of a new phenomenon in Africa: the “national bourgeoisie.” He claimed that as a class, and in its own interests, it would ignore the needs of a nation, often by attacking foreign capital in the very name of that nation.

“The native bourgeoisie which comes to power uses its class aggressiveness to corner the positions formerly kept for foreigners,” he prophesized, while declaring that inevitably, “the nationalist bourgeoisies, who in region after region hasten to make their own fortunes and to set up a national system of exploitation, do their utmost to put obstacles in the path of this ‘Utopia’ [the aspirations of the people].”

Mohammed Elnaiem is an activist and editor at theregion.org. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in History from Bucknell University and has a master’s degree in Sociology from the University of Cambridge. His work has appeared in The New Internationalist, Jstor Daily, and Kurdish Question. You can follow him on twitter at @m_elnaiem.