Breaking the influence of international capital in Africa – an interview with Japhace Poncian

ROAPE interviews the Ruth First prize winner Japhace Poncian about the crippling influence of international capital on the continent, resource nationalism, and the need for Africa to break its dependence from foreign direct investment and technology and to harness its own resources. Japhace argues that Africa must build up its own technical, financial, and human capacities to master its own fate.

ROAPE: Can you please tell us, Japhace, about yourself, and your background? 

Japhace Poncian: I was born and grew up in a rural village in northwestern Tanzania. I had all my primary and ordinary secondary education there before going for my Advanced level secondary education. After my A-level education, I joined Mkwawa University College of Education, which is a constituent college of the University of Dar es Salaam for my BA (Education) degree in 2006, majoring in History and Geography. Right from my ordinary secondary education, history had always fascinated me. I was always fascinated by leftist perspectives on Africa’s marginalization in the international political economic system. After my BA degree, I was recruited as a Tutorial Assistant of History at Mkwawa University College of Education, which is a constituent college of the University of Dar es Salaam.

From Dar, I went for an MA in Global Development and Africa at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom to further my intellectual curiosity about Africa’s place and role in global political economy. Taught and supervised by the likes of Raymond Bush, I slowly developed interest in the political economy of extractive resources. I subsequently wrote my MA dissertation on Tanzania’s then mining law which was enacted in 2010. I problematized the content of the resulting law in light of the then public and political outcry about the infamous neoliberal reforms that had characterized the mining sector since the mid-1990s. Building on this background, I moved to Australia for my PhD at the University of Newcastle in 2015 where I researched the government-community engagement dynamics in the governance of Tanzania’s natural gas.

A common strand running through my research was my focus on how extractive resource politics impact unfairly on the communities, how these communities organize to fight back, how the state responds and what this means for the broader processes and national and international political economy of resources. I have continued to work along these lines but have extended my research into resource nationalist politics which my recent ROAPE paper draws. Apart from this research, I also teach undergraduate courses in Development Studies and Political Science at Mkwawa University College of Education.

Tanzania was the ‘incubator’ of ROAPE in our early days (with comrades like Issa Shivji involved from the start). Before ROAPE was founded, many of our comrades were inspired and schooled in Nyerere’s Tanzania. There was much continental hope for radical and socialist changes from Dar es Salaam in the 1960s and 1970s. Coming from a later generation, can you tell us about what it was like growing up in the context of this history and environment and how it has influenced you, your family and your work? 

I must say from the outset that growing up in this context was inspirational. Even though I did all my schooling in the post-socialist era, the memory of Nyerere’s socialist policies were still very much intact and commanding public support. Some policy practices of the socialist era were still being practiced at the time. I remember we used to study for free and were usually provided with free exercise books and school equipment at the beginning of each year until around 1994 when this practice was abandoned. Yet socialist ideas continued to be at the core of our primary school songs.

Even though President Mwinyi [Ali Hassan Mwinyi was the second president of Tanzania from 1985-1995] was the presiding leader, the general community in which we lived and interacted still held Nyerere in high esteem. The national radio broadcasting, Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam, used to broadcast Nyerere speeches every day after the 8pm news bulletin. Being the only radio station at the time, this meant that the ideas we were exposed to were mostly those of Nyerere. So, growing up in this context influenced my future perspective about development and the international system. So, it is not surprising that even when I went for my secondary education, I gravitated to Africa’s history from what we used to call back then an Afro-centric perspective. This also explains why I have continued to conduct my research building on the legacy and heritage of Nyerere’s socialist policies.

Your own research has looked at the much spoken about ‘resource nationalism’ in Tanzania in recent years – there was an expectation, or at least political hope, that this was a radical measure that would take back for the country’s poor its own wealth and resources. Can you describe the political context of these measures, and what has really been revealed (and achieved) by such politics?

Resource nationalism, as I and other scholars such as Thabit Jacob have argued is very much a product of failed resource liberalism. When it was adopted during the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s, resource liberalism was premised on the ‘false’ promise of job opportunities, revenues, FDI inflows and technological exchange. However, the reality what actually came about did not come anywhere near what was promised.

Across Tanzania and the rest of Africa, there was public outcry at the failure of these reforms and the need for Tanzania to take measures to address the imbalance. At the same time, opposition parties, themselves a product of political liberalization, were gaining political mileage as they built on popular dissatisfaction to galvanise popular support. From 2005 to 2010, it was becoming clear that if nothing was done, the ruling party Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) would lose many parliamentary seats to the opposition and would perform poorly in presidential elections. This being the case, the CCM government under President Kikwete (2005-2015) built on the Nyerere on international capital and its plundering tendencies to re-introduce resource nationalism to tame the growing influence and popularity of opposition parties.

The opposition Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA- Party for Democracy and Development), for instance, had organized popular campaigns dubbed ‘operation sangara’ and Movement for Change (M4C)’ in the period between 2007 and 2013. Riding high on corruption scandals and mining failure to deliver benefits to Tanzania, CHADEMA went throughout the country mobilizing the youth and poor  to the extent it was became a thorn in the side of CCM. Opposition members of parliament also became very vocal in parliament so that some top political leaders including the Prime Minister were forced to resign on account of corruption.

Together these crises pushed the government to come up with ‘resource nationalist measures’ between 2006 and 2010 and subsequently in 2015 and 2017. The CCM has held onto power, but these measures have not helped increase its electoral performance. Further, resource nationalism has not transformed the extractive sector into one that bolsters value addition and industrialisation.

Though there have been some gains due to subscription to the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) these cannot be attributed to resource nationalism. Finally, the reforms have made the sector unstable and unpredictable because they have meant that periodic revisions have become a norm. The 2017 nationalist reforms, for instance, are now being sidelined by the sitting government in favour of the market.

If, as you claim in your Ruth First prize winning article, the key element in Tanzanian political economy are ‘structural constraints’, which has undermined efforts at radical reforms, what can be done to alter and transform the continents trajectory?

You are very right on structural constraints in relation to Tanzania’s efforts to alter and transform its trajectory. Resource nationalism, and indeed broader economic nationalization programmes, has historically been adopted in Tanzania and across Africa within the constraints of structural challenges. Tanzania and Africa generally, has historically sought to fight the power of international capital by resorting to nationalistic policies and strategies without addressing the structural constraints secure capital’s control over nation-states.

Whereas resource nationalist reforms adopted recently and those adopted during the Arusha Declaration era had good intentions and represented a government’s resolve to address the negative consequences of international capital encroachment, they nevertheless were ill-thought and failed.

Looking forward, I would suggest that Africa should place more emphasis on transforming the structural constraints first before introducing radical resource nationalist measures. You do not break from the influence of the international capital if you still depend on foreign direct investment and technology to harness your resources. It would make sense, and many have written about this, for Tanzania and Africa to invest in building its technical, financial and human capacity if the goal is to take over the running of the extractive sector. Without investing in building this capacity, resource nationalist policies on, for instance, state participation, local content, resource-based industrialisation, etc. cannot produce the desired outcomes by continuing to depend on international capital. If anything, Africa should start building from below before it can flex its ‘weak’ muscles against the politically, economically and technologically powerful multinational corporations. Because this appears to be a longer term strategy whose ‘fruits’ can only be realised after a long time, Africa can pursue this while at the same time continue to negotiate fair deals with international capital without initially signaling a ‘threat of nationalisation.’

What role does agency, and the engagement of working people, play in the transformation of Tanzania? There have been some important struggles in Tanzania in recent years, can you talk about this? 

Agency is a very important determinant here. In fact, none of the three waves of resource nationalist reforms in Tanzania have come without such agency. Much of the reforms have been enacted in response to political and general public outcry, often with the ruling party feeling politically threatened. Struggles from within the ruling party (i.e., between party cadres loyal to the ideas of Nyerere and those ascribing to market forces), confrontation between artisanal and small scale miners and large scale miners, community complaints, civil society advocacy and popular campaigns building on the emotions of the public have all been very important in bringing about then reforms in the form of resource nationalism.

Everyone from ruling party policy makers to the common citizen has complained about Tanzania not benefitting adequately from extractive resource extraction and demanded that the government take steps to address this. Although the agency and struggles of the popular classes have been important in shaping Tanzania’s extractive reforms, the processes through which these reforms have been instituted has tended to be exclusionary. The government has consistently sought to introduce legal reforms under a certificate of urgency, systematically keeping alternative and popular voices and influence away from the process.

In effect, many of these reforms have tended to be contentious and controversial resulting in their revision within a short period of time. Therefore, one can say that civil society agency and public dissatisfaction have always pushed the government to introduce reforms. However, the government has consistently hijacked the agenda by legislating for reforms behind ‘closed’ doors. Unquestionably this is why we have not seen that much transformation coming out of these reforms.

Looking at the continent as a whole, and similar rhetoric at industrialisation (see Ethiopia and Rwanda for example), how do you interpret and understand efforts at development on the continent and the role of imperialism and structural constraints in undermining these efforts? 

On a general note, it appears that Africa has awakened from slumber and is keen to take advantage of its resources to catapult socio-economic and industrial transformation. In the period since, say, the first half of the 2000s, certain African politicians have individually and collectively made at least a rhetorical commitment to large scale transformation. Mega-infrastructural, energy and industrial projects have become fashionable across the continent. The adoption the Africa Mining Vision in 2009 has reinvigorated Africa’s desire to promote a resource-based industrialisation. Similarly, the adoption of the African Continental Free Trade Area is an attempt to address intra-African trade barriers to ensure African countries trade amongst each other to promote continental industrialisation. The global fourth industrial revolution is also exerting pressure on the continent with countries striving to cope with and take advantage of its trends for their own transformation.

On more practical level, however, these efforts are not only beset by global imperial and structural constraints but are also challenged by the nationalist orientation of individual African countries. The development challenges that Africa face today require deep partnerships to address them; yet this continental collaboration and partnership does not seem to take root. Xenophobic attacks in some countries point to the deeper intra-African structural constraints and unresolved legacies of colonial imperialism.

Further, the sluggish implementation of continentally agreed strategies by individual countries is suggestive of the lack of a Pan-African spirit needed to overcome imperialist challenges. What do you expect if, for instance, African leaders voluntarily agreed and adopted a continental Mining Vision in 2009 but none of them has fully, or in any real sense, implemented the Vision which is now more than ten years old? How can mining bolster industrialisation if resource-rich countries do not respect the decisions they made on their own volition without external influence?

How do you see your work and research, and political engagement, evolving in the coming years? What areas are you planning to move into? 

Looking into the future, I still see myself working and researching on political-economic questions regarding mineral, oil and gas resource extraction and development dynamics. My particular interest is to further pursue a line of inquiry on grassroot community organising and movements that seek to challenge the mainstream resource extraction agenda and how ‘resource governance’ seeks to integrate their voices and concerns into policy and practice, which as we have seen does little or nothing. A second line of inquiry that I am interested in is renewable energy politics in Africa in the context of global sustainability initiatives and targets and regional and local development needs and dynamics.

Japhace is a lecturer in Development Studies and runs the Department of History, Political Science and Development Studies at Mkwawa University College of Education in Tanzania. He researches on the politics of extractive resource governance and broader development issues in Tanzania and Africa. He holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Newcastle in Australia, an MA (Global Development and Africa) from the University of Leeds, in the UK, and a BA (Education) from University of Dar es Salaam.

Featured Photograph: Miners in Tanzania (23 August 2017).


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