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Pillage of a Continent

How the former colonial powers and the International Monetary Fund have undermined the economic autonomy of Africa - and thus destroyed the health care systems, chances for education and food souvereignity of millions of people: We talked with Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International und awardee of the Right Livelihood Award, Nigeria, Wangui Mbatia, People’s Parliament, Kenya, Eric Toussaint, Committee for the Cancellation of Third World Debts and Immanuel Wallerstein, World System Theorist, Yale University, USA.


Nnimmo Bassey (Chair of Friends of the Earth International, Nigeria, and awardee of the Right Livelihood Award), Wangui Mbatia (People's Parliament, Nairobi), Eric Toussaint (Committe for the Cancellation of Third World Debts, Belgium), Immanuel Wallerstein (Yale University, USA)


David Goeßmann: Poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa is partly even more dramatic than in North Africa. But the well-known images of poverty say little about the structural causes of impoverishment which often have to do with old and new forms of colonialism. Structural adjustment programmes lead to the destruction of public infrastructure and pauperization – and to massive protests against IMF and World Banks as in Niger in 2005. At the World Social Forum in Dakar, we talked to Wangui Mbatia from Kenya, Nnimmo Bassey from Nigeria und Immanuel Wallerstein from the US about the pillage of Africa and the role the European Union plays in this.

Wangui Mbatia: It’s hard for Europe to discuss poverty in Africa without feeling a little guilty. It’s a fact that most of Europe has been built with resources from Africa and in some parts of Europe, essentially countries like Belgium are the beneficiaries of theft amongst Africans during the colonial period, and the amount of theft and cruelty that was met against the African peoples is part of the reason why the discussion is not very open in Europe. If you want to start discuss it openly, Belgium would have to give up a lot of its wealth what King Leopold stole from the Congo for instance. But that’s across the board. I mean, you could look at West African ivory trade and coco and you could get exactly the same. The trouble with Africa is that the theft is still continuing. What King Leopold did with the rubber, other people are doing with oil. In Nigeria, in the south part of Africa, in the Sudan. So the stealing from Africa is continuing. I think the policy from most of the Western countries is not to discuss Africa so much, because you have to give up some of the bad policies that are enabling the societies, I think that’s part of it. But Africa, besides the fact that it has a base in colonial settings of Africa, Africa of course when a lot of countries were getting independent, they ended in a lot of debt from the colonial governments. In my country for instance, the British government did cause certain agreements with the new independent government. For instance settlers, farmers would have to be compensated. So essentially Kenya had to borrow money to compensate the British settlers. And that case goes on, so we started by inheriting debt. So most of the African countries were already in debt when they got started, then there was a period for instance in Kenya, where the government borrowed heavily to support development of the people. And so for about ten years Kenya borrowed and borrowed and borrowed the Britain World Institution, the World Bank and the IMF without any discussion. Then the loans were given in the 60s and early 70s with a grace period of about ten to fifteen years so an existing president didn’t have to care about how the debt would be paid, they could literally borrow the money and steal it. So in a country like Kenya the president had the right to just talk to the World Bank, tell them "I want to build another railway", get the money and never build the railway. So we have a debt we are paying for a railway, actually three railways that have never been built, but we are paying for those debts through the World Bank.

Immanuel Wallerstein: What these bankers did - you know you have to have this image, quite incredible - the banks sent out representatives to meet with finance ministers across the world and they are saying: "You're having balance of payments difficulties. We lend you money." They lent them piles of money. Obviously the ministers of finance would accept this money because they otherwise would have had political difficulties in their countries. So that was very simple. Except that debts have the nasty habit of wanting to be paid back especially since they build on itselves. So the debt crisis comes when countries have to begin to pay back the debts.

Wangui Mbatia: So what happens is that eventually it became necessary for governments now to start paying back, when the grace period ended, the governments in countries like Kenya found themselves in so much debt that they really couldn’t pay. And it’s at that time that the IMF came up with something creative called the ‘structural adjustment program’, that governments were required to adjust themselves so that they could pay. What that meant in developing countries is that essential social services, key public services that are available to poor people like health care, like education, like public transport, they were no longer going to be available. In Kenya they told us it was going to be cost sharing, they were going to be sharing the cost of health care – now eventually they said even at university education that we were going to share some of the cost, but you know every year the cost that we were sharing got bigger and bigger and bigger to the point where we now share more than we need to share, we are paying not only for hospitals, we are paying for medicine that is getting important and of course that means that poor people, those who don’t have extra money cannot access the services. So in 1990s for instance in my country, the institute of the structural adjustment programs, and these were the direct effects: Number one, education became simply inaccessible for poor students, because now you had to pay school fees. Some of us who are able to go to school went for free, but very quickly, because every child had to pay for school fees, a lot of people dropped out of school. In order to understand the magnitude of that, in 2003 we had a different that allowed free primary education, in one year 1.5 million students enrolled fresh, meaning that for that period of time more than one million students had been excluded from education because it was too expensive. Health care – we all have to pay for health care even now, to access the most basic of services, you have to pay. But the last part is that when you’re cost sharing since there is no money, really poor people can’t afford to pay, it also means that government hospitals have no medicine, they have no services which means technically because it is poor people that go to government hospitals, the rich people go to private hospitals, it means literally that poor people cannot access health care. The facilities exist, but there is no money, there is no medicine and there is no staff. So one of the consequences of the structural adjustment program is that more people are dying of preventable and curable diseases. Education – more students in Kenya now have to pay so much especially for university education that it has become essentially a …for the rich. The cost of education of university education in Kenya is now more than three times the cost of education in Germany, and for a population that makes so much less than Germans you can understand that right now and that’s in a public school, in a public university the cost of going to school in Kenya is more than three times the cost of the 500 Euros that Germans students have to pay a year, and that’s for the public students. So if you’re poor, even if you manage to get the grades required to go to university, you can’t pay for it. We lost a lot.

Nnimmo Bassey: They began to set up what they call the export free zones. And then they promised to open up markets in Europe, in North America for goods from Africa which would come in and compete with the goods there. You see, why this was being done African countries were being stopped from offering subsedies to their farmers for examples. Marketing produce boards that assured producers of certain minimum price ranges were srapped. So while European countries and North American countries subsedised theirs farmers to very high degree there was in Africa not allowed to subsedies anything at all. So you find the goods coming in are good that could be produced in Africa. So structural adjustment programs were clearliy designed to destroy manufacturing in Africa. So the little fortunate which was coming up were nipped in the board and could not take off at all. And food self suficiency was directly challenged. Farmers were driven off the land, impoverished to stay as subsistence farmers, and the few that would walk on aim at producing cash crops, crops for export not to meet local needs. This in a late months - where it is hard to explain structural adjustments programs - clearly acknowledge the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to have been wrong policies. But still the same kind of policies are driven.

Fabian Scheidler: At the World Social Forum, the Committee for the cancellation of third world debts called on African governments to cancel the repayment of illegitimate debts and to stop dumping their natural resources.

Eric Toussaint: Instead of aiming for an integration of African economies in a pan-African perspective, African governments submit themselves seperately to the demands of creditors. They thus undermine the economic fabric, which is extremely detrimental to the people. However, the IMF and the World Bank don’t have any means to send out bailiffs to seize the goods of countries refusing to pay. But what happens if a country refuses to pay its debts? Well, the money that used to go abroad for debt service, can now remain within the country and serve development policies, decent payment of employees, construction of infrastructure, creation of jobs, and pullout from destructive conditions imposed by IMF and World Bank. So we call on African governments to learn from Latin American countries and take a sovereign and courageous stance on creditors. Why doesn’t the South African government tell the creditors: All debts accumulated by the Apartheid regime are odious debts and must be cancelled. Why doesn’t the Congolese government tell the creditors: All debts accumulated by the Mobutu regime – which make up 80 per cent of the debt – are odious debts and must be cancelled? Additionally, African goverments should stop to dump their natural resources. And this means: to renegotiate all existing contracts. That is exactly what Evo Morales – who spoke here at the World Social Forum – and the Bolivian government did: They renegotiated all contracts with transnational corporations in the field of oil, gas, lithium and other resources. Venezuela did the same, Ecuador as well. As a result, Bolivia was able to multiply its state revenues by 5. The country didn’t have to borrow again from the IMF, the World Bank and others nor did it have to sell its securities to Wall Street. There is now simply enough money coming in regularly.