In February the World Bank announced an ambitious plan to initiate a $1 billion fund to finance an effort to map the mineral resources of the African continent. Their plan is to use advanced satellite and surveillance technology to, in the words of a World Bank senior manager, “identify the areas with more profitability.”1
We are to believe that the World Bank’s efforts are designed to benefit Africa by enlighten African leaders to the extent of the mineral wealth that lies beneath the surface in their perspective countries. Given the record of the World Bank and its twin the International Monetary Fund’s dealings on the continent a degree of doubt about their true motives is expected. The hope for this endeavor is to unearth $1 trillion worth of new mineral resources that will be for the benefit of… Africans? An examination of African history over the last 150 years will quickly reveal that this is a story we’ve heard before.
In the latter years of the nineteenth century three organizations were founded by Leopold II, King of Belgium. The Association Internationale Africaine (AIA, African International Association), the Comité d’ Etudes du Haut-Congo (CEHC, Study Committee of the Upper Congo), and the Association Internationale du Congo (AIC, International Congo Society) were proposed as benevolent organizations dedicated to the “civilization” of central African peoples.2
The reality, of course, was that these were tools used by Leopold to exploit the resources and control the population of the Congo Basin. The result of Leopold’s political maneuvering was the Congo Free State was formed in 1885. The term “Free” of course had little meaning to the African citizens who became literal serfs in what was actually a private fiefdom of Leopold II. The Congolese lost their sovereignty to all lands outside their villages as all land and resources became the property of the “state” which, in reality meant, personal property of King Leopold II. Congolese men labored in slave-like conditions on rubber plantations while their wives and families were held hostage to guarantee that they met their production quotas. When these conditions stoked rebellion the offending rebels and their families were hunted down and killed, their villages burned to the ground.
Not to be outdone by the Belgian monarch France, Germany, and England began to scramble for a foothold on the continent. To prevent a war over territory and resources the Berlin Conference was convened in 1884. The participants, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Great Britain, the United States, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire had come together like gentlemen to divide a continent and its spoils. As they drew up the map of Africa, that to a great extent still exist today, there was not a single African present to participate in the process.
Colonialism would go on to guide Africa into the 20th century, what was of benefit to the peoples of Africa had to be what was of benefit to the colonial powers and the corporations that grew with them. It would take over seventy years before the walls erected by this system of greed and exploitation could be breached by the struggle for African liberation.
Great voices would arise, among them Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Samora Machel, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Steve Biko. Their radical idea was African lands and resources should be for the benefit of Africans. These voices and their legitimate aspirations were met in two ways by the colonial powers. The first, most direct solution was to silence those voices and indeed most met with violent, premature deaths. The second solution, and the most far-reaching, was to abandon the colonial effort in favor of the much more efficient method of neo-colonialism.
The aspirations of Africa for strong leaders to lead them out of the colonial nightmare was coopted and in their place was substituted leaders of high rhetoric and low morals. For example when Congolese President Patrice Lumumba was kidnapped and executed by Belgian and American interest in 1960 for daring to push for real independence he was replaced by Joseph Mobutu. Mobutu would guide the Democratic Republic of the Congo into the new neo-colonial reality where compliant leaders would do the work once the responsibility of resident colonial administrations. The neo-colonial leaders are lavished with personal wealth and power while their people remain in the colonial agony that independence was supposed to release them from.
This is the reality of Africa today as the World Bank initiates its search for the mineral wealth that has so far eluded the neo-colonial powers and the multi-national corporations that now direct their policies and procedures. Today in the Congo Joseph Kabila resides over the rape and pillage that continues to envelop the Congolese people 54 years after Patrice Lumumba was sacrificed on the altar of western capitalism.
Across the continent the struggle continued; in South Africa, Nelson Mandela fought for access to the ballot but the neo-colonials retained the keys to the money and resources. In Libya, Gaddafi was determined to lead the African Union away from neo-colonial control and paid for the effort with the loss of his nation and his life. In Nigeria. Ken Saro-Wiwa became the nemesis of the petro multi-nationals that continue to lay waste to the Nigerian Delta 19 years after the Nigerian government executed him on behave of these same corporations.
So it is in the context of this neo-colonial reality that the efforts of the World Bank must be evaluated. As to this new generation of African “leaders” that will supposedly be the recipients of the largesse of western technology, one need look no further than Uganda whose legislature, instead of tackling the substantial issues that face their region and their people, have surrendered their souls to the dictates of American evangelicals and have embarked on a homophobic crusade or the South African authorities who massacred striking miners at Marikana in 2012. It is not the voice of the African people that are being heard but the voices of neo-colonial interest from mining corporations to religious radicals.
With French forces reengaged in West Africa, the U.S. military entrenched on the continent under the auspices of AFRICOM, and Chinese economic interest spreading rapidly there is little reason to doubt that the World Bank’s interest align not with the peoples of Africa but rather with the neo-colonial powers and the multi-national corporations that direct them. Chances are that this new map of Africa will have a great deal in common with the one produced in Berlin in 1885.
- Roelf, Wendell, “World Bank eyes $1 billion African resource mapping fund in July.” Reuters, 5 Feb. 2014 (accessed 26 Feb. 2014). [↩]
- Schimmer, Russell, “Congo Free State, 1885-1908.” Yale.edu, 2010, (accessed 26 Feb. 2014). [↩]