Popularizing new neo-colonial governance processes for African minerals?
An analysis of Canada’s North-South Institute’s ‘Governing Natural Resources for Africa’s Development’ conference
Paula Butler and Evans Rubara
2013-06-11, Issue 634
On May 9-10, 2013 Canada’s North-South Institute hosted a conference in Ottawa called ‘Governing Africa’s Natural Resources’. Held in the elegance of the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, Ottawa’s premier hotel, the event’s line-up of panellists featured representatives of the Canadian government and of selected African governments (Nigeria,  Liberia, Ghana); multilateral agencies (notably OECD/DAC and UNECA); selected civil society groups (for example Transparency International and Revenue Watch); academics; and the mining sector. The event was sponsored by two Canadian mining companies, Teck and Kinross; two federal government agencies, CIDA and EDC (Export Development Corporation); and one civil society organization. Notably absent from the conference were well-known academics with long experience and expertise on African mining, and representatives of leading civil society organizations such as Third World Network-Africa, Miningwatch Canada, etc. Moreover, there was no formal representation from any communities in African countries where Canadian mining or exploration is occurring. In fact, only 18 of the 187 attendees at the conference were from African countries. Any possibility of a wide-ranging debate over the terms of the African mineral resource sector was thus largely precluded by the composition of panellists and participants.
For those who have been following the neo-liberalized burgeoning of foreign-investment-led mining in African countries since the late 1980s, there was nothing particularly new or startling about the content of this conference (apart, perhaps, from the fact that it was being run by the North-South Institute). In our view, the conference presents a good example of the continuing institutionalization of a set of managerial mechanisms and discourses aimed at maintaining control of African mining by and for largely private, foreign interests. It offered a few insights into some of the latest strategies, or strategy refinements, of Western (particularly Canadian) mining interests.
First, there is no question that private foreign interests – particularly Canadian companies, who currently operate some 700 mining projects in 35 African countries, want access to African minerals, and that there is competition among foreign nationals for such access. It is now a cliché to identify the African continent as the last great untapped mineral frontier - a treasure trove of resources. This situation should, and to a limited degree does, give African governments more bargaining power vis-à-vis a range of foreign investors. For Canadians and other non-African investors in African mining, these circumstances require careful positioning and a shrewd game-plan. In our view, the unspoken goal is to prevent control of mining policy throughout the continent from falling into the hands of nationalist, pro-African, pro-community political forces who will promote a vigorous ‘resource nationalism’ agenda. Significantly, there was a deafening silence throughout the conference with regard to South Africa’s mining regime (with its Mining Charter, ‘Black Economic Empowerment’ quotas, veto powers of communities vis-à-vis new mine developments, etc) in comparison with Tanzania, which was touted throughout the conference as the darling of Western advisors on African mining policy. (No mention of course of the aggressive role played by Canadian mining companies, Canadian lawyers and Canadian diplomats to establish the pro-foreign-investor content of Tanzanian mining codes since the mid-1990s.)
If the unspoken goal is to maintain control of the terms of African mining policies, a key problem facing foreign interests is to avoid the charge of neo-colonialism. Thus a classic strategy – used extensively during the formal colonial period – is to put an African face on African mineral policy. In this regard, it is significant that the term ‘African agency’ was used by various speakers throughout the conference. At first glance, the term seems to suggest an important shift toward greater control of mineral policy and development by citizens, communities and governments of African countries. But, used by a group of neoliberal bureaucrats and technocrats, the term functions as a sophisticated rhetorical and institutional strategy: it circumscribes what it purports to support. As used throughout this conference, ‘African agency’ is something that can be exercised only by African government bureaucrats, consultants and academics who have internalized and accepted the logic of neoliberal policy prescriptions for African mining sectors – prescriptions that keep foreign investment (and foreign investors’ terms) the central feature.
Throughout the conference, frequent references were made to international institutional processes that appear to put an African face on the continent’s mining policies and appear to transform the African mining sector in ways that will now enable African economies to harness mining to economic or ‘developmental’ growth. The African Mining Vision, formally a joint product of the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, was referenced frequently in the conference as one guiding articulation of how mining could be conducted in the continent in ways that would benefit African communities and economies in tangible ways – that would, in short, be compatible with and foster sustainable development. However, we want to raise a few red flags about the AMV.
The AMV has emerged as one of the latest of a succession of international/multi-lateral policy initiatives – starting, in recent decades, with the World Bank’s seminal 1992 Strategy for African Mining - to develop African mining in a manner that will protect foreign and private access to the continent’s resources. Like most other continental plans and visions for the development of Africa’s mineral wealth, it was initiated by a small group of technical experts within the UN system (that is, UNECA and the AfDB). Some among these may well have had developmental objectives in mind, yet such objectives were still subject to a neoliberal policy framework – an agenda that is fundamentally serving the interests of capital. With its array of policy measures to harness mineral wealth to African development processes, the AMV appears to represent the ‘best offer’ to date that the international community has been willing to accommodate with regard to the distribution of benefits from mining. (Indeed, the African Economic Outlook 2013 report, ‘Structural Transformation and Natural Resources’ – referenced at the conference by Lahra Liberti of the OECD – identifies the new approach to African mining as ‘improving resource-rich countries’ ability to receive an enhanced share of revenues and use them to best promote broad-based development.’ This appears to assume that African countries are not in the driver’s seat when it comes to their mineral resources and can only, at best, hope for an improved ‘share’.)
In our view, the AMV will only bring developmental benefits to African communities and countries to the extent that is reflects input from community voices and ‘ownership’ by African governments backed by communities. Moreover, it would need to set common continental terms for the entry of foreign capital - recapturing what we would call the ‘African development vision’ of the early 1960s articulated by Kwame Nkrumah. Lastly, it would also need to be supported in its entirety by the international community and not in a selective or piecemeal fashion. However, although the AMV was ‘workshopped’ in 2009-2010 with African civil society and faith-based organizations, it does not reflect any significant contributions from such groups. As was indicated at the conference by Antonio Pedro, Director of East Africa sub-regional office of UNECA in his conference presentation, individual African countries are left to implement this ostensibly continental vision at the national level. This leaves the continent as a whole vulnerable to intra-African competition for foreign capital which has demonstrated its willingness to coerce policy content at the national level in many countries (for instance, through bilateral trade agreements). Overall it remains unclear as to whether the AMV will be adequately resourced, and whether it will operate on terms set by African citizens and governments as opposed to terms set, whether directly or indirectly, by outside interests. Thus one could conclude that the AMV lacks clout and potentially functions as a useful decoy, allowing foreign mining interests to pay lip service to the African Mining Vision as a way of legitimizing their presence in the continent.
At the same time, a number of competing mineral resource management blueprints are circulating. Some influential private interests have developed their own prescriptions for mineral development in the global South, including the African continent. Notable among these is the Natural Resources Charter, conceived by Paul Collier and now widely endorsed by the corporate sector and some governments. The NRC is a classic manifestation of emergent modes of pseudo-democracy that characterize private neoliberal governance. Its ‘participatory’ processes have no formal political accountability and effectively eliminate African state structures. Moreover, as Timothy Shaw noted in his presentation to the conference, there are a host of other ‘transnational and private’ initiatives to govern and manage the African mining sector. In relation to African citizens, who should be entitled, through formal democratic political processes, to exercise a voice over the governance of national resources, these transnational and private foreign initiatives are non-democratic and non-accountable in nature. The majority of African citizens are effectively excluded from mineral resource governance processes.
This brings us back to our main contention with the thrust of this conference. The focus on ‘governance’ sounds to our ears like new language for an old form of external control that used to be called colonialism. One of the indicators that we are still in the institutional and ideological realm of neo-colonialism is the emphasis placed throughout the conference on what Africa ’lacks’. Even while the continent is receiving a new spin as a place of ‘hope’ – that is, a continent ‘newly ready for investment’ - it is still simultaneously deemed to be a place dreadfully short of what is required to really bring it into developmental modernity. Thus ‘lack of capacity’ was one of the most persistent themes that ran through many of the conference presentations. African countries were purported to lack capital, technology, skills of all sorts (that is, ‘human capital’) and inadequate political will and competence on the part of African ‘host’ governments to negotiate with foreign capital from a position of strength. Moreover, corruption topped the discussion as to why African countries had to date not benefitted adequately from their minerals. In fact, Andre Bourassa, in his presentation, stated that he had travelled throughout the continent (admitting publicly that he couldn’t remember if there were 54 or 55 African countries) and had never found any ‘resource curse’; rather, he had found a ‘governance curse’. In other words, ‘African incompetence’ – a vintage racist-colonial charge – explained why African populations had not to date benefitted from their countries’ resource wealth. Such aspersions seem primarily designed to justify continued foreign control and domination of the mining sector: in short, ‘Africans’ don’t have what it takes to develop their own minerals, so foreigners must take charge and do it for them. Ostensibly to counter this problem, plans are well in hand for the establishment of a regional mineral training centre where African citizens could acquire the geo-scientific and technical skills to service the continent’s foreign-dominated mining sector.
The assertions of ‘lack of African capacity’ that were heard throughout the conference indicated frustration on the part of foreign actors who would like to get on with mining and do it efficiently – in a manner that could be, or could at least be seen to be, a ‘win-win’ situation. But this ‘win-win’ requires African host states with the capacity to manage and regulate an industrial, foreign-investment-dominated mining industry according to the interests and prescriptions of foreign capital, and a citizenry able to work in the sector. In the alleged absence of such states and capacities, foreign actors need to continuously intervene to aid the production of the relevant capacities. As indicated above, the motivation for such interventions is to protect the foreign ‘win’ side of the ‘win-win’ fiction: in other words, to maintain foreign access to African minerals, even while the impetus is made out to be developmental achievements for African host states and their societies. The rhetoric of ‘African incapacity’ thus operates simultaneously to render invisible the active suppression of mining vision capacity oriented toward the prioritization of community interests (for example notions of resource nationalism and resource sovereignty), and the existing political capacity for African self-determination. The latter remain the primary threat to foreign (Canadian) interests in the continent.
To conclude, our assessment of this conference is that it may have been designed principally to impress and garner buy-in from the Canadian corporate mining sector with a view to disseminating a progressive image for the mining sector. The concept of creating a forum to bring people together to share views on African mineral resources and development was promising. But, if this was the intention, the composition of participants and panellists was problematic. As noted above, there were glaring absences from African and Canadian civil society actors involved in natural resources issues. There were no critical voices from African governments. Panellists seemed to have been very carefully selected to reinforce the emerging dominant policy prescriptions for African mining. Indeed, the registration cost alone ($225 without the gala dinner) prevented participation from many others who would have been interested to attend, even including some African embassy staff in Canada. Those Africans who came as invitees of NSI did not present a critique of the dominant paradigm but rather seemed selected to endorse it. In short, the messaging of the conference seemed highly controlled, in subtle and not so subtle ways. Thus the ‘governance’ of African resources, as discussed at this conference, does not acknowledge the central right to self-determination vis-à-vis mineral resource wealth due to African peoples and economies.
* Paula Butler is a scholar and educator whose work encompasses anti-racism, anti-colonialism and critical analysis of globalizing neoliberal power. For close to two decades she worked in global social justice movements with a focus on North-South relations, including solidarity work with organizations in East, Central and Southern Africa. Currently, she makes her living as a university professor, teaching in Gender and Women’s Studies (Trent University) and continuing to build on doctoral research on Canadian mining in African countries.
* Evans Rubara is a social justice campaigner with expertise in policy engagement on social, political and environmental justice issues in Eastern and Southern Africa and internationally. He is a member of the larger group in Africa engaged in creating discursive platforms to address malpractices in the extractive sector related to foreign direct investment and international relations. Evans is currently a graduate candidate in environmental studies at York University – Canada, specialising in Critical Development Studies and Policy.
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