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Opinion

African Coups and Resource Rights

What Africa needs is deep systematic changes in land governance. Communities need to control the disposition of their territories; peace will never happen if populations are stuck in economic instability. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/IPS

What Africa needs is deep systematic changes in land governance. Communities need to control the disposition of their territories; peace will never happen if populations are stuck in economic instability. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/IPS

WASHINGTON DC, Sep 25 2023 (IPS) - When the heads of state of all United Nations members spoke in front of the UN General Assembly last week, a number of African leaders were not able to attend, having been removed from office in military-led coups.

On the surface, these nations do not share many similarities outside of geography and colonial histories. Consider Gabon and Niger, the most recent countries to experience “regime change.” Gabon is a small, biodiverse nation; the president under house arrest and his father before him have been in power since 1967. Niger is a much larger, mostly desert country; the president under house arrest had been elected in 2021.

While France, the U.S., Russia, and China have condemned or worried about the wave of coups, they have mainly focused on the need to restore “constitutional order” and democracy. The root cause of the coups and conflicts in Africa is about resource extraction that drives poverty and human rights violations

This instability, taking place across West and Central Africa, has drawn plenty of attention, both regionally and internationally. But missing in the debates on which international power is behind each coup or whether they should be tolerated is the far more basic question on resources.

While France, the U.S., Russia, and China have condemned or worried about the wave of coups, they have mainly focused on the need to restore “constitutional order” and democracy. The root cause of the coups and conflicts in Africa is about resource extraction that drives poverty and human rights violations.

There are now seven African countries whose militaries have removed national governments, and all of their economies are largely dependent on resource extraction. Mali and Burkina Faso are among the world’s leading producers of gold. Chad and Sudan depend on oil extraction. Niger is the world’s fourth largest producer of uranium. Guinea holds between one quarter and half of the world’s bauxite reserves, the primary source of aluminum. Gabon is the second biggest producer of manganese in Africa and its economy also depends on oil and gas extraction, even as the government was exploring ways to tap emerging carbon credit markets for the tropical forests that cover almost 90% of its land.

The land needed for resource extraction, and the labor needed for the mines, drilling operations, or refineries—this economic activity comes at a cost. Families eking out a livelihood based on agriculture or forest products have little recourse when larger economic interests swoop in and take their land and resources.

In these countries, the rural communities have lived on and tended the land for generations—far longer than the governments have been in power. Land and property ownership is the basis of individual wealth in the Global North. But in the Global South, legal systems that disenfranchise rural communities are accepted because of the resources that their land contains.

The resource extraction sector does not provide a suitable replacement for the livelihoods that community members lose when their lands are taken. We have yet to see an example where miners, for example, are adequately compensated and protected from workplace hazards.

In the Sahel, Niger is often commended for its recognition of customary tenure rights. Niger has a progressive Rural Code adopted in 1993 that set innovative land governance systems, legislation and institutions.

A Rural Land Policy was adopted in 2021 with provisions to recognize rights and prevent land conflicts. Niger also has the most progressive pastoral law in the Sahel, adopted in 2010, that recognizes the rights of nomadic communities dependent on livestock. Burkina Faso and Mali also have strong protections for community rights, but enforcement was lacking in all three countries.

Foreign investors are always happy to exploit these countries’ resources; enforcing community rights is never their priority. Equitable sharing of the benefits from the extractive sector, to provide local youth with gainful employment or land ownership, and respecting rural land ownership arrangements, are rarely on the table.

I look at Senegal, where I was born and raised, and all the ingredients are there for the country to join this string of coups. Government revenues depend on resource extraction—phosphate mines drive most of the economy.

Natural gas and oil have been discovered off the coast and the government ambition is to make Senegal an oil, gas, and hydrocarbon giant. While Senegal has been the most stable country in the Sahel, we are seeing democratic rollback with arrests of opposition political leaders and citizens, which triggered massive street protests.

And, Senegal’s legal system does not protect the land rights of rural communities—leaving them without a basis for wealth. Senegal has struggled to come up with a new land policy and law to take into account the current political and economic context and give ownership rights to the communities. The land law in force is the “Loi du Domaine National,” adopted immediately after we gained independence from France in 1964.

Ultimately, it’s not about who is in power and is certainly not limited to former French colonies. This is all about how resource extraction is prioritized. What Africa needs is deep systematic changes in land governance. Communities need to control the disposition of their territories; peace will never happen if populations are stuck in economic instability.

“Africa is a beggar sitting on a gold mine,” said Birago Diop, the 20th century Senegalese poet and storyteller. Despite their natural riches, four of these seven countries—Mali, Niger, Sudan and Chad—scored in the bottom 10th of the global “Prosperity Index;” the other three score in the bottom 40%.

The challenge before all of us—for Africa’s regional bodies like ECOWAS and the African Union, and for global institutions like the UN—is how we can leave these outdated economic models in the 20th century. Two decades into this century, we still haven’t embraced the need for a more equitable approach to natural resources. Until we do so, no government is safe.

Dr. Solange Bandiaky-Badji, PhD is Coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI). She holds a PhD in Women’s and Gender Studies from Clark University, Massachusetts, and an MA in Environmental Sciences and in Philosophy from Cheikh Anta Diop University, Senegal.

 
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