After a brutal colonialism that lasted for tens of centuries, in recent decades Africa has become a stage for an intense land and resource grabbing carried out by the lethal alliance between large transnational corporations (TNC’s) and the political elites of the continent.
Thanks to it’s economic power – anchored in the political power of governments, elites, and financial institutions of the global North – TNCs have been able to shape markets, governments, communications and legislation to suit their interests. These corporations are already more powerful than many States and, in fact, out of the 100 largest economies on the planet, 69 are companies and only 31 are States!
Discussing the power and the impunity of large corporations is particularly important to our African context due to a number of factors:
First, because the corporate capture (or should we call it recolonisation?) of our governments by large TNCs of the global north is currently one of the main threats to our sovereignty. Often made possible by the policies of institutions such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (and their structural adjustment programs, austerity measures, and other neoliberal packages), this promiscuity between African rulers and TNCs results in very high costs for the environment, for the majority of the population and for our young and fragile democracies. A neo-colonialist dynamic prevails in Africa, as we continue to observe the same mechanisms of dependence on foreign capital, exportation of raw materials and importation of manufactured goods between African countries and industrialized countries + new emerging powers. Understanding the ways and means used by TNCs to interfere with and undermine the political agenda of African countries is, therefore, critical to understanding the broad phenomenon that is the corporate capture of our decision-making spaces.
Secondly, Africa’s historical, social, cultural and economic contexts make the impacts of corporate power in the continent particularly acute. In a continent where the vast majority of the population is rural (about 70%), and where small-scale farmers produce up to 80% of all the food, the land and resource grabbing by TNCs is a threat to our food sovereignty, to our traditional and millennial knowledge and customs, and a severe attack on the human dignity of millions of people already in vulnerable situations. Africa’s traditional rural populations are both mutually dependent and protective of nature. Numerous studies show that traditional practices and knowledge are most effective for protecting and restoring the environment while, in contrast, industrialized agriculture and extractivism are having an overwhelming impact on our rivers, forests and ecosystems. In the agricultural sector, foreign donors are exerting enormous pressure to try to convert Africa’s predominant family farming model into profit opportunities for the global agri-business sector.
Furthermore, as we examine the continent’s circumstances, it is essential to take a close look at the intrinsic dynamics of oppression and exploitation of certain social groups by others. In particular, patriarchy and gender oppression, which are well rooted in the social dynamics of most African countries, are a constant impediment to achieving a just and egalitarian society. It is in patriarchy that neoliberal capitalism finds fertile ground to proliferate as it feeds on and depends on these power imbalances within a society. A gender-based division of labor that makes women –particularly those of lower class – free providers of a variety of care services (for children, the elderly and the sick), is a convenient tool for the extractive economy.
Thirdly, the climate crisis we are experiencing reminds us that in order to solve the greatest challenges of our time we need to address the structural and systemic causes behind these crises. It was the northern industrialized countries that, in their race for development, emitted the most CO2 into the atmosphere – the great catalyst for climate change. However, this crisis’ greatest injustice lies in the fact that the peoples of the global South (therefore those who have contributed the least to it) are the first to suffer its impacts, and those who will be hit the hardest.
In Africa, the climate crisis is not a problem of the future – it is happening now, in a brutal, oppressive and highly unequal manner. It is therefore crucial that African civil society demand that their governments be aligned with the real needs of their people, not with the unlimited greed of corporations profiting from the exploitation and burning of fossil fuels. This greed is fundamentally incompatible with the search for real, fair and inclusive solutions to this crisis.
And fourthly, we urgently need to deconstruct the narrative that Africa is a poor continent in need of help – a narrative that greatly benefits the maintenance of a North-South dependency status quo. This dangerous, long repeated and commonly accepted premise both inside and outside the continent, paves the way for all sorts of “market solutions” as corporations are seen as the major promoters of progress and development. Africa is not poor – it is a rich continent whose wealth has been historically assaulted by the great imperialist and colonialist powers, century after century. Recent studies indicate that illicit financial outflows from the continent total US$50 billion each year, a figure that has been growing since the beginning of the century. This is far more than the total of foreign aid that the continent received during that same period!
This capital flight can take many forms, from product or human trafficking, to tax evasion or price transfer, among others. This means that an absurd amount of wealth generated in Africa is being diverted off the continent without a trace and, therefore, without being subject to taxation that could be used to improve social infrastructure and the living conditions of the population.
In general, the expansion of capitalism, especially in its neoliberal form, brought about an exacerbation of social inequalities and the deepened exploitation of certain social classes by others. Despite claims that globalization and free trade would be the solution to all problems, we are witnessing the exact opposite: the architecture of free trade is intrinsically contradictory to human rights legislation as it seeks to erode and weaken the role of the State – which by definition is primarily responsible for the promotion and protection of human and peoples’ rights.
However, important movements have emerged as a counteroffensive to the supremacy of corporate power on the global stage, in a more or less articulate manner. Several organisations and social movements around the world have been denouncing and exposing the impacts of corporate encroachment on their territories, bringing criminal corporations to court, resisting free trade agreements, creating more just and egalitarian cities and societies, defending the right to say NO to destructive projects, and showing that the solutions to the crises we are experiencing cannot be built using the same logic of the market – they must come from collective constructions based on respect for human rights and nature.
An interesting response to this threat, posed by the power of capital, is the Global Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power. The Global Campaign – a network of organisations, movements and people affected by TNCs – has mobilized itself massively to take part in the process of drafting an international treaty to regulate the activities of TNCs and hold them accountable for human rights violations and environmental destruction. This process has been taking place at the United Nations (UN) and we have already written about it in various occasions.1
At this point, what is worth noting is that, at the last negotiating session over the text of this binding instrument, in October 2019, the African region has established itself even more sturdily as a driving force in this process. In addition to expressing itself as a regional union in support of the treaty (the declaration of the region was read by Angola, which chairs the African group this year), numerous African States have individually contributed with concrete and substantial proposals to improve the treaty and strengthen the instrument.
For all the reasons explained above and many more, the African continent should be more than keen to push for a normative instrument such as this, aimed at ending the impunity of TNCs. One thing is certain, the message that African countries have been reverberating year after year at the UN in Geneva is clear: this binding international instrument must address the enormous asymmetries of power between TNCs and the people affected by their activities. In order for the materialization of this process to meet the needs of Southern countries – those most affected by corporate impunity – it is crucial that these countries take the reins of this intergovernmental process in order to establish the necessary legislation and mechanisms to reverse the current scenario, and that they do so in close cooperation with civil society and the populations affected by corporate crimes. In this last session, perhaps even more so than in previous ones, several African countries showed they were up to the task and willing to face the challenge.
Are the so-called developed countries prepared to provide the “foreign aid” that Africa really needs, and to punish their corporations for human rights violations worldwide?