The militarisation of poverty in Africa

Increasing the rewards for those forces able to capture the state, by any means necessary, inevitably leads to war – Published on Pambazuka News, by Toby Leon Moorsom, May 31, 2012.

KINGSTON, CANADA – Over the past year, Africa has seen the decomposition of states from coast to coast. A belt of war, coups and large-scale spontaneous demonstrations has emerged across the Sahel, from Guinea-Bissau to Somalia. The situation represents a significant global security threat, which for some will justify the increasing militarisation of the continent. These political processes have a variety of localised causes, yet they have some commonalities.  

All of them emerge in a context of failed agricultural markets and a boom in mineral and oil extraction. Fundamentalist Islam is merely a complicating factor: not a cause, so much as a response to the destabilisation we are seeing.

It is not a coincidence that African governments are falling apart while Europe and North America are facing financial crisis. We are witnessing are the declining hegemony of African states at the same time the competition for spoils intensifies, while the potential rewards of capturing the centre become ever more valuable. Capital is not withdrawing from Africa, but instead, the processes of extraction are becoming more obvious as the economic basis of societies are under severe strain. This is the context in which the US is devoting more resources to its AFRICOM division … //


  • While US political scientists were obsessed with liberal triumphalism in the 1990s, others were offering far more powerful tools for understanding African states, even if the empire had no use for them. Some of the most powerful analyses have been published in Review of African Political Economy. Works by people such as Catherine Boone, Mahmood Mamdani, and the late Chris Allen among others, examine ways that material processes of extraction impact political processes.
  • African state borders contain a wide variety of variables. They have diverse geographies, cultural histories and economic foundations. Nevertheless, Boone’s work (along with others such as Mamdani, Jean-Francois Bayart and Robert Fatton) shows that peasant-based economies have integrative tendencies. Hegemony is more firmly rooted in land-tenure patterns and cultural institutions of labour mobilisation (ie: unpaid family labour, or working for the chief or marabout). These patterns stem from various alliances and forms of indirect-rule set in place between colonial governments and “strong men”. Alternately, extractive industries around valuable commodities have greater tendency toward disintegration.
  • Along with agro-pastoralism, states in West Africa have forms of mercantilism that have extended back many centuries. Mining has also taken place there for hundreds of years. Until very recently, in most cases, it has been conducted by artisanal miners, who find sustenance largely through farming and herding.



  • Africa is experiencing the most grotesque contradictions of Europe’s financial crisis. The immediate consequences in the south have been a drop in aid funding, while at the same time, the world’s wealthiest are hoarding gold. The Africa Report cites a 2.7 per cent drop in global development aid between 2010 and 2011, or a drop of $3.4bn. More importantly, it is the first drop in aid since 1997, after growth of 63 per cent between 2000 and 2010.
  • “There is no doubt that many of the earth’s resources are being used to create unnecessary products for high-consumption lifestyles… Capitalist societies are producing simply for the sake of production, not need.”
  • As declining peasant production, increased war and climate change fuel dislocation, there are fewer aid organisations to fill in the gaps for people to meet bare necessities. These people are the easiest to recruit into armies and gangs of banditry and piracy.
  • Amidst this, environmentalists at the World Wildlife Fund in a recent report, claim the world suffers from over-consumption. This, however, seems to fit too easily with an ideology where those in the affluent parts of the world are told they need to tighten their belts. Austerity is being enforced to “cut the waste” in workplaces where we are told people have been taking too much – retiring too early, expecting pensions and healthcare from employers. There is no doubt that many of the earth’s resources are being used to create unnecessary products for high-consumption lifestyles in much of the world. The problem, however, is that the World Wildlife Fund has the matter up-side-down. Capitalist societies are producing simply for the sake of production, not need.
  • The current crisis of capitalism is that there is “surplus liquidity”. In other words, the rich have so much wealth they have exhausted places to store it. If it is not invested its value depreciates. This is what has led to land grabbing and investment in grain futures markets. This is why we see record amounts being spent on art (ironically art that depicts the pain and isolation of capitalist society being imposed on Europeans). This is why we see car companies pushing zero per cent financing.
  • While workers are having their jobs and wages cut and governments are enforcing austerity, companies have never held so much cash. As one author reports: “Globally, companies are sitting on more than $5 trillion.” This is a classic case of “over-production”. When investors cannot sell more cars and condos, they turn to purchasing gold and minerals.


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