Extracting Profits – imperialism, climate change and resistance in Africa

In an extract from the preface of the African edition of her book, Extracting Profit: Imperialism, Neoliberalism and the New Scramble for Africa, ROAPE’s Lee Wengraf writes about the failure of the system we live under to resolve the crises it produces, and the centrality of resistance to build an alternative to capitalism in Africa and worldwide.

By Lee Wengraf

2018 seems like a lifetime ago. When Extracting Profit came out that year, the Covid-19 pandemic was two years away. Since then, the world has been plunged into a devastating crisis, with 4.5 million lives lost globally, including close to 200,000 reported deaths on the African continent. The depths of loss and destruction have been immense, both in human and social terms. The overall theme of the book, however, remains the same: the failure of the system we live under to resolve the crises it produces, and the centrality of resistance to build an alternative to capitalism in Africa and worldwide. A number of trends have become more pronounced in the context of a pandemic in the neoliberal era. African economies heavily reliant on oil and other commodities were thrown into recession as the world economy ground to a halt; the inequality of access to healthcare, jobs and services has only accelerated under a system of global vaccine apartheid; and, finally, the fall-out has produced a new round of indebtedness among African nations to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, as well as G20 nations including China who holds the largest percent of bilateral African debt. Some older debt payments have been rescheduled but only a tiny portion have been forgiven. The economic pain is sure to reverberate well into the future as African governments turn to budget cuts when loans come due.

Within the span of the pandemic to date, the economic volatility experienced by oil producing countries has seesawed at lightning speed. By mid-2020, global oil prices had fallen into negative territory when a significant drop in demand led to a glut in supply. The gross domestic product (GDP) of many oil-producing nations in Africa crashed to levels not seen in years. Countries such as Nigeria imposed brutal cuts and retrenchments on workers. According to the IMF, the country’s GDP shrunk in 2020 by 1.8%, with predictions of a 2.5% growth in 2021. Since that time, oil has “re-bounded”: as of August, 2021, the price of Brent crude had climbed back to $65 per barrel. Yet the IMF does not expect most African countries to return to pre-pandemic per capita income levels until 2025.

African economies are unevenly integrated into the global system, meaning that the centers of capital accumulation primarily lie elsewhere. The deeply unequal global distribution of Covid vaccines mirrors this unevenness: the lack of access to vaccines across the Global South has been nothing short of criminal. By late summer 2021, when countries in the Global North began rolling out plans for booster shots, only about 24 million people in Africa, just 1.7% of the population, were fully vaccinated. Activists are now re-visiting the lessons of successful struggles for full access to generic HIV drugs such as South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), demanding an end to Covid vaccine patents and free healthcare for all.

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The pandemic has erupted at a moment of climate emergency. The inextricable connection between fossil fuels and environment-destroying extraction has been well-established for decades but the crisis has unfolded since 2018 at a breath-taking pace. Sites of extraction have devastated communities across the continent, from gas flaring and oil spills to ground-water and soil contamination. In 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a stunning warning that the globe is approaching permanent, irreparable harm, and that a major structural intervention is the only hope to avoid disaster. The evidence for these conditions has never been in short supply in Africa, as elsewhere: the Amazon Basin, now a net emitter of carbon dioxide; unprecedented levels of hazardous weather conditions, from flooding to fires; and the frightening rise in global temperatures.

The scale of the crisis has become so massive that capital and the ruling class are now compelled to grapple with the problem. Fossil fuel producers and political leaders have set targets for reduced emissions. But to date, globally, the proposed “solutions” are limited to the same market-based framework of carbon off-sets: machinations which provide a way to maintain fossil fuel production under the guise of “net zero.” Shell, for example, plans on growing its gas business by 20% over the next five years despite its declared emissions targets. That fossil fuel industries are even contemplating emissions curbs is a testament to the power of the global climate movement who have long demanded a just transition to truly sustainable resources. Yet activists have rightly denounced the non-solutions on offer as greenwashing distortions by the oil industry.

A new race for these so-called green investments is escalating, fueling competition between oil and gas companies aiming to diversify their portfolios. In early 2021, corporations such as BP and Total spent unprecedented amounts to lease offshore wind projects. The same dynamic is unfolding with other products such as water and solar-based energy supplies. Unsurprisingly, oil and gas companies are not exiting the world stage quietly. The scale of their investment in a polluting industry is just too large. The world’s largest banks have provided $3.8tn to fossil fuel companies since the signing of the Paris agreement in 2015. In a highly competitive “green” future, these corporations are relying on their climate-destroying businesses to fund the inevitable and costly “transition” to a more sustainable, albeit market-based, one. And much as the prices of primary commodities like oil are subject to the boom and bust cycles of the unplanned and unregulated market under capitalism, today there’s a glut in renewable technologies. The over-supply in the renewables industry will inevitably face the same contradictions as fossil fuels: the same cycles of declining profitability, collapse, and job loss.

African nations are among the least prepared for a shift to renewables because of the scale of the investment required and fossil fuel-producing states in Africa are heavily reliant on those exports for revenue; nations such as Angola, Nigeria and South Sudan rely on oil for almost 100% of their foreign exchange earnings. Yet according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the African continent represents the most dire need with regards to access to electricity: they project that by 2030, up to 650 million people – 80% of the global total – will not have access.

The contradictions of sustaining fossil fuel-based economies in an evolving climate crisis have compelled an array of what environmentalist Nnimmo Bassey has called “techno-fixes”: so-called “clean” geoengineering technologies representing innovation and industrial growth in some African nations. Yet a strategy that seeks “value adds” in environment-destroying industries places economic growth on a collision course with any possibility of a sustainable transition. As activists and critics of extraction-based economies have long pointed out, “green” strategies cannot be merely layered upon destructive industries; the underlying basis of the economy must be undone in its entirety, and quickly. 

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In May 2021, the IEA made a stunning announcement: in their report Net Zero by 2050, they declared that to realize this goal, all fossil fuel projects must cease by 2021. For the energy body to issue such a warning underscored the accelerated reckoning confronting the oil and gas industry. But for the Global South in particular, as Namibian activist Ina-Maria Shikongo has pointed out, the framework of “net zero” grants a cover to corporate practices to pollute still further. The dynamics of colonial and post-colonial state-building in Africa tended to produce nations with a weak regulatory environment, reinforced with structural adjustment conditionalities imposing privatization and liberalization. At a moment when fossil fuel production is under fire, high profile extraction projects in Africa are making headway, seemingly beyond the glare of regulatory scrutiny. Harmful exploratory drilling is currently underway in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Okavango spanning Namibia and Botswana, threatening to displace the San indigenous people and the area’s extensive wildlife. The French oil giant Total along with the Chinese state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation are building the controversial East African Crude Oil Pipeline through regions of Tanzania and Uganda rich in biodiversity.

As Shikongo suggests, the growing pressures towards tighter corporate emissions standards beg the question of whether their “carbon footprints” will be exported to Africa and elsewhere in the Global South. In many ways, this is not a new development: studies have shown that the continent has long been a dumping ground for pollution from the Global North. As oil prices experience a new boom and consumption surges relative to a decade ago – the pandemic-driven price volatility notwithstanding – pressures to hold onto fossil fuel investments will continue, intensified by the cost of transitioning to sustainable technologies that will run into the trillions of dollars. The political leaders of poor nations like Namibia – currently without any onshore oil extraction – will be compelled to navigate the tension between their own environmental commitments and the revenue-generating opportunities drilling offers.

The “new scramble for Africa” of the twenty-first century has been a rush for fossil fuels: oil, minerals and natural gas. With an accelerating turn to sustainable energy sources, the global race for raw materials used in clean energy is on, many of which are plentiful on the African continent such as lithium, copper and cobalt for electric vehicles. But just as the drive for raw materials has been an engine for imperialism in Africa in both the colonial and post-colonial eras, the dynamics of the current global turn to renewables echo those historical relations: extraction and export with minimal industrial development. Oil majors’ massive investments in the manufacturing and marketing of green technologies predominantly takes place in the Global North and China. Construction in Africa of urgently needed alternative energy plants such as wind and solar farms are a minuscule portion of global development. The need for a world based on renewables is urgent. But as long as these energy sources are tied to the oil industry, and the market in general, the limitations and contradictions of meeting human need in a capitalist society will prevail.

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China currently dominates clean energy manufacturing and technological development, and controls access to large shares of the world’s “green minerals.” China’s long-term strategic orientation on primary commodity extraction and infrastructure development in Africa, for one, shores up their competitive edge in a sustainabls- dominated landscape. These conditions further sharpen the rivalry between China and the United States; the dynamics of a competitive global system under capitalism promises that a “green” imperialism and a struggle over control of those resources will emerge.

When Extracting Profit was written, the Obama presidency in the US had recently concluded, a period marked by a widened military footprint through the US military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) and an escalation of drone warfare. Yet in 2018, the US declared a shift in global imperial strategy from “counter-terror” to a focus on “peer competitors,” chiefly China but also Russia and other powers. For Africa, the US foreign policy establishment recognizes that China’s investments are a long-term, strategic priority, one that it has been pursuing on a range of fronts and from which it will not easily retreat.

As the Daraja edition of the book was going to press, the 20-year US war in Afghanistan was brought to an ignominious end with the return of the Taliban to power. With US credibility weakened, how the geopolitics of the inter-imperial rivalry between it and China will unfold, and the implications for Africa, is unclear. On the one hand, if the center of gravity of these tensions shifts more decisively to the Pacific, the strategic importance of Africa’s proximity to the Middle East – and US concerns with “stability” on the continent in general – may also shift. On the other hand, US support for “war-making” in Africa has taken on a dynamic of its own, where states and the African Union now have an apparatus to pursue their own security agendas including safeguarding energy resources. As Samar Al-Bulushi has pointed out, “While each of the governments in question are formally allies of the US, their actions are not reducible to US directives.” More broadly, intensifying inter-imperial rivalries – compounded with the drive for sustainable resources and the instability of the climate emergency – promise to reverberate globally. The world’s major powers undoubtedly will still aim to project power and minimize instability threatening investment potential in Africa through alliances with local ruling classes nurtured in the name of “partnership.”

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In 2021, oil and gas corporations suffered a series of stinging losses in decades-long legal challenges brought by residents of oil producing communities.  Most recently, a Nigerian court settled a 30-year-old claim against Shell for a spill that took place during the 1967-70 Biafran war, ordering damages of over $111 million. All of these legal victories are the culmination of grassroots organizing sustained and grown over a long period of time.

The current fight to stop drilling in the Okavango in Namibia has birthed a coalition of indigenous and environmental justice organizations across southern Africa, determined to halt potentially irreversible harm. Across the continent, activists are demanding a carbon-free future for all, Global North and South alike. They have also been forced to take on the state violence of governments relying on repression to manage the crisis of poverty exacerbated by the pandemic lockdown. The Nigerian police deployed their Covid task force to confront the massive #EndSARS revolts against police brutality. Social movement forces such as the Mathare Social Justice Centre in Nairobi have reported on heightened violence of the police under lockdown conditions including the murder and detention of those who resist. Struggles against policing and militarization resonate far beyond their borders, against a backdrop of the global Black Lives Matter movement.

Since the book’s original publication, the scale of the climate emergency has accelerated a consciousness of our shared future. The solutions on offer from the ruling classes worldwide are proving utterly bankrupt in both the immediate and the long-term, growing an awareness that a sustainable transition must be driven by social need and not profit. Beneath the empty promises for a cleaner environment and the pandemic’s end, the contradictions of the twin crises have exposed how deeply wedded corporations are to accumulation at all costs. They will not voluntarily break from a system that has served the capitalist class so well. It will require resistance and organization on a previously unseen scale. Linked struggles across borders – from pipelines to public health demands – are gathering strength, at a moment when they are desperately needed. The urgency of an alternative to extraction and the climate nightmare, inequality, imperialism and the war on terror was the original impetus for writing this book. That reality is no less true today.

The new African edition of Lee Wengraf’s book Extracting Profit: Imperialism, Neoliberalism and the New Scramble for Africa published by Daraja Press is available here

Lee Wengraf is an activist based in New York City, contributing editor to the Review of African Political Economy and author of Extracting Profit: Imperialism, Neoliberalism, and the New Scramble for Africa (Daraja Press, 2021)Follow her on twitter here.

Featured Photograph: The photo shows an oil spill from an abandoned Shell Petroleum Development Company in Olobiri, Niger Delta (Ed Kashi, 2004). The image is taken from the cover of Wengraf’s book. 

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