Sub-Saharan Africa is Losing Ground

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)

Cross-posted from the February 21, 2012 blog post by Ambassador John Price


“When the missionaries came, the Africans had the land and the Christians had the Bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.”        – Jomo Kenyatta, Founding Father and First President of Kenya, 1964-1978

In June 2011, I traveled to Zimbabwe and by private charter flew over miles of arable land, as far as the eye could see. Most of it lay fallow since Mugabe’s confiscation policy towards the former owners, immigrants from Europe, but having a long history of living in the country. Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia in its prime, was considered a bread-basket of Africa, a major exporter of agricultural products. While I was there, rumors ran rampant that China was in the process of a land-grab, gaining access to millions of hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres). From the air I could see many streams and tributaries emptying into the great Zambezi River, which waters flow into Lake Kariba, the second largest man-made lake in Africa, spanning over 6000 km2; bordering between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Water for agriculture cultivation seemed abundant.

Since the 1950s, China has had an economic and military presence in sub-Saharan Africa, with a major base in Tanzania. In more recent years China has stepped-up its influence in the continent, pursuing numerous oil and mineral concessions, such as in Sudan, Nigeria, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. China is currently working in over forty countries locking up the natural resources.

In 2000, China launched its First Ministerial Meeting in Beijing, inviting a number of African leaders. That followed with the Second Ministerial Meeting in Addis Ababa in 2003. Since then China has held similar conferences every three years, to advance its economic interests in the African countries. Forty-eight African leaders attended the 2006 Beijing gathering; and in 2009 fifty leaders showed up at the Egypt event. To ingratiate themselves with the leaders, China has pledged more than $15 billion in new loans for capacity building, and promised to cancel the debt of some of the poorest African nations. Reportedly, China has infused more capital into the sub-Saharan African countries than the IMF and World Bank.

China’s efforts have now turned to acquiring control of thousands of acres of arable farm land (at bargain prices) in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Madagascar and elsewhere on the continent. India and Saudi Arabia are also pursuing large concessions of arable land to also feed their people, using the African’s land and water resources.

Notably the Saudis and neighboring Arab countries have been busy leasing tracts of land in Kenya, and in Sudan which is one of the poorest-destitute countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The West Darfur region of Sudan is where more than five million people have been displaced, and thousands have died from genocide and starvation.

Since 2004, the United States has poured over 4 billion dollars of humanitarian assistance into Sudan, with little to show for it. Now the benefits of our food-aid dollars spent to alleviate hunger in Sudan are going to “unjustly enrich” China, India, Saudi Arabia, Emirates, South Korea and others, who are taking arable land which should be cultivated to feed the starving Sudanese people. In addition the Saudis have been active seeking land deals in Senegal, Mali, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, all of which also have food shortage issues.

The Tsunami-wave of “neocolonialism” is sweeping over sub-Saharan Africa’s precious resources. China’s race to acquire arable land will ultimately gain it twice as much as all the other countries vying for similar farm land. These countries however, should be more humane in their approach to sub-Saharan Africa; not just become land-grabbers but responsibly infuse Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) dollars into the African communities for sustainable development programs. This will enable the people to eat and allow them to sell their remaining production at fair-market prices. China and the other rich countries would be well-served to undertake this humanitarian gesture, and still be able to share in Africa’s bounty for their own growing population.

China has a long history of not interfering with the internal affairs of a country, turning a blind eye to corruption, cutting deals with dictators, overlooking genocide, and avoiding participating in humanitarian aid programs. China however, will provide technology and infrastructure assistance, if it benefits their extraction of resources. Chinese contractors and workers currently account for over one million transplants to sub-Saharan Africa, taking jobs away from the poverty-stricken Africans. Even when the Chinese contractors employ Africans, they do not teach them any skills, keeping them working at the lowest paying jobs, for long hours a day. In addition Chinese immigrants have now gravitated to operating retail shops selling their imported Chinese goods; others are pursuing the service sectors which further diminish local job opportunities.

Beyond tying up mineral and oil resources, the new focus on agricultural land is very concerning. “Controversial land acquisitions were a key factor triggering the civil wars in Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone…conditions are ripe for new conflicts to occur in many other places,” says Jeffrey Hatcher, director of global programs for the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI). International land rights specialist Liz Alden Wily notes, “local land rights are being repeatedly and tragically ignored during an astonishing buying spree across Africa.” She further notes that it is “affecting a minimum of 428 million of the rural poor in sub-Saharan Africa.” Land rights experts further note, “the indigenous and traditional communities are generally excluded from a process…deprive them of land and resources essential to their survival.”

It is important for these land-grabbers to understand there are thousands of years of history with the many different ethnic groups and cultures; the impact of the European traders, missionaries, and colonialists has already been felt by the thoughtless partitioning of the historical ancestral lands. Wily proffers, “With the speed and scale of this surge into Africa in the last five years, the chief concern should be that investors are cutting deals with governments for land that really belongs to individual rural communities.”

Alfred Brownell, an attorney and director of Liberia’s Green Advocates notes, “You don’t need guns to kill people. When you take food from a village by destroying farm lands and cash crops, you are starving its people. If you destroy their grave sites, poison their drinking water, obliterate their cultural heritage…there is no doubt you are removing an ethnically defined population from their land.”

The United States on the other hand, has withdrawn from a number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa because those countries lack democratic institutions or has perceived security concerns; because of congressionally mandated budgetary cutbacks; because a country has been labeled as a supporter of terrorism and had economic sanctions placed on them.

We cannot give up our long-established democratic principles and tenets of freedom, but we need to stay actively engaged in sub-Saharan Africa, and work within the framework of understanding other people’s cultures–not necessarily to enhance access for our own economic gain, but rather to help address the people’s struggle to survive; and encourage government leaders not to seek the short term benefit from selling land concessions, but look at the long term benefit of helping their people find a way to escape the trap of poverty.