Africans talk tough over foreign miners

May 13, 2010 at 3:01 PM
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NAIROBI, Kenya, May 13 (UPI) -- As China, Brazil, India and other scramble to lock down Africa's mineral wealth to fuel their expanding economies, some African states are talking about forming a cartel similar to OPEC to control prices and secure more foreign investment.

One of the leading advocates is President Abdoulaye Wade of uranium-rich Senegal, who favors a pan-African body that could influence the price of metals such as cobalt. Some 90 percent of that comes from Africa.

ABC News reported that at a mining conference in Senegal in March, Wade sat through a speech by the chief executive officer of a multinational mining conglomerate extolling the benefits that foreign companies bring to Africa.

When he sat down, Wade delivered a little ditty, in French, to the 500 delegates: "I never said, enrichissez-vous (enrich yourselves). I said enrichissons-nous (let's enrich one another)."

Some might interpret that as a paean in praise of the corruption that is endemic among African elites, but ABC said the African delegates cheered.

"There's been a quarter-century of where a certain investment-friendly road has been taken," said Bonnie Campbell, professor of political science at Canada's University of Quebec and an African specialist. "Now there's a recognition that there needs to be another focus."

The concept of a pan-African body to regulate the price of metals dug out of African soil has found some support, although it seems that putting it into practice will take some time.

"It's an ambitious but feasible idea," said Mazou Yessouph Faudi, geological director of Niger's Mining Ministry. "Our economy is falling. As a producer of uranium, it would be good to involve ourselves in a union of producers that could set the price."

A large part of the problem is the highly organized, deeply rooted corruption in many regimes across the continent, including oil-rich Nigeria, uranium-rich Niger, just-about-everything-rich Congo, or Guinea, which has the world's largest bauxite reserves, to name but a few.

Poor governance and inept economic management contribute to the problem. Too often, it seems, the Chinese offer perks to the elites of their target African states, with apparent little real concern for the population at large.

In 2009, a Namibian newspaper disclosed that Beijing secretly awarded expensive scholarships to study in China to the children of nine top officials in the southern African state. These included the daughter of the President Hifikepunye Pohamba and two young relatives of former president and national patriarch, Sam Nujoma.

In an impoverished state where five-out-of-every-six high school graduates cannot afford to go on to college, the scandal triggered a national debate over deals with the Chinese government already under scrutiny by Namibian prosecutors over corruption allegations.

In part, this move toward maximizing the benefits for the host countries is in reaction to the Chinese juggernaut that over the last few years has secured access to vast amounts of oil and other raw materials across Africa.

Unlike most of other countries struggling to recover from the global meltdown, China is rolling in cash and is thus able to lead the pack.

But this has led to widespread accusations the Chinese are plundering the continent's oil and minerals in a neo-colonialist invasion. In November Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao pledged $10 billion in low-cost loans to Africa over three years to counter such criticism.

There have charges, too, that Beijing's financing, which comes without the political conditions that Western governments impose, often shores up repressive, highly corrupt and unsavory regimes in Zimbabwe, Angola, Sudan, Guinea and elsewhere.

Many African countries have only recently emerged from the decades of conflict that have afflicted the continent since the colonial era ended in the 1950s and '60s and remain vulnerable to foreign treasure hunters.

In March, the Financial Times noted that among states once dependent on Western aid, there is a "shift toward foreign state-backed investments where natural resources represent the most promising catalyst for the construction of essential national infrastructure …

"Many African governments are attracted to the Chinese development model but there is also a desire to avoid going from one form of dependence to another.

"This is an opportunity for Western and other macro-finance investors willing to engage African governments as economic partners."

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