By Remi Adekoya
First and foremost, Lee Wengraf’s Extracting Profit provides a breathtakingly detailed account and analysis of some of the major socioeconomic ills that have been plaguing Africa for centuries. Amongst the host of issues she tackles, arguably the most consequential are mass poverty in African societies, their indefensible economic inequalities and the steady plundering of the continent’s resources, starting from the slave-trade era up till the present-day.
With a focus on how the extractive industries operate in Africa, she shows the negative political, economic, social and environmental impact of the carting away of Africa’s mineral and natural wealth by any means necessary for the past five hundred years. The book deploys tools of Marxist class analysis to offer interesting insights into the internal and external structural environment and policies that have made this plunder and the consequent poverty it has left in its wake possible.
Importantly, Wengraf also deconstructs the myth of the so-called ‘Africa Rising’ years showing how the overwhelming majority of wealth created during that period of rapid macro-economic growth flowed to the ruling classes and their cronies rather than to African societies as a whole. In fact, poverty levels in nations like Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and a poster-boy for the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative, actually rose during that period!
According to Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics, as at 2004, which is considered more or less the beginning of the ‘Africa Rising’ years, 54.7% of the country’s citizens lived in poverty. By 2016, that figure had risen to a whopping 67.1%. How anyone could claim a continent was rising when the poverty rate in its biggest economy was expanding as rapidly as it was beats the imagination.
Wengraf also rightly rubbishes the ridiculous claim made by the African Development Bank at the time that ‘one in three Africans’ was now middle-class. This was announced following the ridiculous calculation that anyone spending between $2-$20 a day could be categorized as ‘middle-class.’ The idea someone living on $3, $4 or even $5 a day in a continent where consumer goods even as basic as food can sometimes be more expensive than in Europe, is middle-class, is so preposterous I find it difficult to comment and it is certainly good riddance that the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative has died a natural death and is no longer taken seriously by thinking people both on the continent and outside it. Wengraf’s book also does very well in highlighting the economic and military rivalry between China and the US in Africa and the consequences this rivalry has had on policies and economic structures on the ground.
However, as someone who grew up in Nigeria and experienced first-hand the awful effects of poor governance and corruption, not just at the highest levels of government, among the political one percenters, but at the lowest levels of government, namely the local government level where funds earmarked for roads, schools and hospitals are often simply stolen, I think the book does a disservice by de-emphasizing these issues, downplaying African agency and involvement in them and suggesting their scale is being exaggerated by hypocritical and moralizing Westerners.
While the Western officials and institutions doing the ‘finger-wagging’ at African leaders that Wengraf writes of may indeed be very hypocritical and moralizing, that should not distract from the fact that Africa’s resources, quite significant in countries such as Nigeria and others, have been gleefully plundered by its political and bureaucratic classes from the highest levels to the lowest levels ever since independence. These Africans plundering the continent have not waited for orders from the West to do their looting but have happily taken it upon themselves to rob their fellow Africans. And, like I mentioned earlier, this does not just apply to those at the highest echelons of government but also to those at grassroots level local government politics as well.
For instance, when I was growing up in 1990s Nigeria, the road in front of my parents’ home was unpaved despite the fact we lived in what was considered a middle-class neighbourhood in the country’s commercial capital of Lagos. That road still remains unpaved today. Why? Well, as it happens, a few years ago after countless visits, letters and petitions to the local authority governing the area my parents lived in, the residents were finally informed that in fact funds had been allocated to the local government to pave the road in four different budget years. However, every single time, some person or group of persons working within the local government had simply pocketed the money! And so, the road remains unpaved.
This is just a tiny example of the real-life consequences of corruption and poor administration at all levels of government that people face in Nigeria every single day. People die because hospitals are poorly-equipped and under-staffed and this is often, not always, but often, due to corruption and poor governance more than anything else. Money allocated to buy medical equipment is simply stolen. The same goes for schools, universities and every other sphere in which the state is the main investor. Read the social media feeds of people in Kenya, Zimbabwe or Uganda, and they will often complain of exactly the same problems in their countries.
Without a change in the mind-set of those running the continent, no true change or revolution is possible for any systemic change would, in practical life, simply mean the replacement of one set of looters by another, only this time holding up different slogans. Change in Africa must start from change in attitudes to power. We cannot simply imply Africans have no agency and are helpless in the face of Western imperialist structures. If that is the case, then what exactly is the point of this whole independence thing anyway?
However, irrespective of these elements I disagreed with in her book, I think Lee Wengraf’s Extracting Profit is an absolute treasure-trove of facts and figures about Africa and its extractive industries and a very informative read for anyone generally interested in the socioeconomics of Africa past, present and future.
Remi Adekoya is the former political editor of the Warsaw Business Journal. He has provided socio-political commentary and analysis for BBC, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Stratfor, Geopolitical Intelligence Services and Radio France International among others. Remi is currently finishing his PhD research in politics at the University of Sheffield and is a member of ROAPE’s editorial working group. His twitter handle is @RemiAdekoya1
Featured Photograph: A giant diamond pit in Gauteng, South Africa. The mine is 190 metre deep and covers 32 hectares (18 May, 2011).