A farmer friend of mine living in Kayunga district in central Uganda recently had his agriculture businesses collapse. The once self-sustaining farmer and emerging local elite found himself constrained and squeezed out of life like those who tried before him. Indeed, Mahmood’s collapse ought to be understood as the plight of most young folks across the continent—mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, where tilling the land employs over 70% of the population. Most of these young men and women still struggle to realise the full benefit from their labour especially because of the difficult business environment but also, and most importantly, the meticulously disguised shackles around them. It is not true that Africans are lazy, ignorant about business or have failed to add value to their raw produce. These are the buzzwords of exploitation. Their failures have nothing to with the so-called “poor saving culture” or “corruption”; neither is it a question of “bad governance” –– and thus democracy will deliver us from evil. Not at all.
As Franz Fanon would argue for revolution, in the typical Marxist tradition, protests and revolutions have often been the only window through which ‘the wretched of the earth’ are able to turn the course of history and liberate themselves. Thusly, the ongoing protests across the continent ought to be appreciated as imagined in the spirit of liberation. But while we look forward to, and participate in these protests with anticipation, our goals ought to be carefully articulated and unwaveringly sustained. If the protests were sparked off by the immediate pains of electricity outages, a very expensive cost of living, and massive levels of unemployment, we ought not to focus on these pains but rather strive to cut down the tree which bears these poisoned fruits. This tree is the continued violent scramble for African resources, both underground and above ground—in DRC, Somalia, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, etc––which sadly are all explained in simplistic terms as a problem of “greedy” or “incompetent” local politicians. (Colonial compradors—or our so-called democrats in most subaltern continents—have no agency in these matters). It is things such as GMOs masquerading as agricultural innovations, in the so-called “drought resistant” or “high yield” crops. It is environmental colonialism disguised as saving the environment. It is things such as banking colonialism masquerading as free markets. These should be the target of protests—making visible and dismantling or at the very least, disrupting these chains around the continent. But let me finish telling Mahmood’s story.
After graduating from university in 2007, and trying, unsuccessfully, to eke an existence in Kampala, Mahmood decided to return to the countryside to get involved in farming. Like several other semi-peasant farmers, he would rent sizeable plots of land from his neighbours for contracts of 7-10 years. He planted mostly pineapples and tomatoes, which he normally sold to South Sudan, and the local markets in Kampala. Big tracks of exporters—taking produce to South Sudan, DRC, and Rwanda—would come and harvest their produce from the different farmers who had specialised in growing the same things. After fifteen years of this life, Mahmood had achieved a meaningful livelihood of which many folks of his graduation year could only dream. He had finished building himself a fairly modern house in the centre of town, and a local retail shop he had started for his wife was thriving. He had also bought himself a motorcycle to ease his movement. If one isn’t a thief or a lucky government contractor, this personal growth, in all its smallness, is fair and expected. But it was a matter of time before the shackles would catch up with him.
Intense fighting soon erupted in South Sudan, which made taking produce to this country difficult. European-copy-pasted Covid-19 lockdowns in Uganda did not help matters either. Thus, when the crops matured, harvesting became difficult ending in mostly excess supply on the local market. Prices plummeted. Remember also that while Ugandan farmers have constantly rejected the use of Genetically Modified seeds in the country, Uganda is overflowing with GMO seeds in downtown Kampala where farmers come for their seeds. I know this because I once was a semi-peasant farmer myself. To grow these GMOs, one needs, among other things, tons of fertilisers and tons of pesticides. Traditional seeds have been set alight so as to have all of hooked to these high-maintenance, and embarrassingly tasteless things. I could not imagine the sight of Howard Buffet in Uganda advising local Ugandan farmers and claiming to “help them” with “drug resistant” crops. Is it not baffling to see a man who has no agriculture pedigree, whose only claim to fame is being born in the wealth of his father in an excessively colonialist country, advising people whose entire lifetimes have been preserving seeds and reproducing themselves in their eco-system! Mind boggling.
Anyways, with the markets in South Sudan rendered difficult by the endless spates of violence, and the Rwanda-Uganda border closed, plus the debilitating lockdown, Mahmood did not make enough money from the seasons that followed. Despite his apparent growth, he had continued a life of precarity––just a year away from penury—like many of his peers involved in the same industry. While he had most of his rented plots of land still fully contracted to him, he struggled with procuring more GMO seeds (especially for the tomatoes), and when he did manage to get the seeds, he struggled with the pesticides. And the tropical rains make spraying even more expensive because when the skies open without warning—which they normally do—they can wash pesticides off the leaves of a plantation which has been sprayed only a couple of hours earlier. Early this year, I visited Mahmood and found him standing nonchalantly in his garden—about five acres of tomatoes—which he failed to spray satisfactorily, and the entire garden succumbed to a well-known bug. He just didn’t have enough money to buy more pesticides as he had always done.
The Mahmoods of the continent
Note that Mahmood’s story is the story of the region that was once bustled with agricultural activity and food productivity. This was before the late 1980s when tragedy befell the continent. Our “former” colonisers finally cracked the puzzle on how to return and continue appropriating African resources with very minimal fuss. They strengthened the push for democracy––which is divide and rule––and ideas of free markets (which is the collapse of state institutions in peasant economies while ironically keeping all of theirs in Europe and North America); and support for civil wars. Thus, enterprising Africans can only grow up to a particular point before they painfully realise the world has been designed against them. Consider, for example, Mahmood’s undoing: the wars in South Sudan and DRC or the plight in North-eastern Uganda. This is the ugly, convoluted, and deftly disguised work of the rich and wealthy of Europe and North America. Most of these are exorbitantly fuelled by the many natural resource thieves (folks like Warren/Howard Buffet, Glencore Plc. Dan Gertler International, Neumann Gruppe) all coming from Europe, Israel, and North America. Consider also the self-interested work of folks like Howard Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates as the DW documentary has shown. While ordinary folks like Mahmood often see these things as the unfortunate hand of the gods, or the incompetence of their leaders amongst them–– and may even channel their anger to the state––the truth is that the actual cause of their problems is hidden from public view and ought to be unveiled.
I am not sure I fully understand why Raila Odinga and co. maandamano protests in Kenya—every Monday. But I like what they are doing. Neither do I fully understand why Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) called for a national shutdown. But I like them much more. I only heard about the protests in Senegal, Tunisia, and Nigeria and couldn’t fully grasp the details. But I like them all. But please note that the refusal to seek the fine details of these protests is deliberate on my part. I could just Google them. But at the risk of sounding dumb, it is my sobering contention that the small details of these protests have often tended to distract us from the big elephant in the room: the foreign hand. Hear me out dear reader, our problems across the continent have appeared unique and distinct (which is especially because of different linguistic terminologies, different local actors, sometimes different sparks, different demographics, varying scales, and our scourge of mutual ignorance about each other). But our problems come from the same place: continued exploitation of the continent by reformed, friendlier, subtle, and very sophisticated hands. Even colonialism, which also came from the same place manifested differently in the different colonies, but its intentions and practices were the same.
Consider some of the issues under contention: the high cost of living especially the rising food and fuel prices, and the cost of power—ending in painfully long power outages as is the case in South Africa. South African electricity provision is monopolised by a cooperation called ESCOM, which has messed up and continues to pillage the electricity industry in Uganda. Both countries often experience major outages, and while it is expected to be out of Uganda by 2023, it is reported that ESCOM will “leave the Jinja [Electricity generation] facilities worse than they found them when their concession runs out in 2023.”
Consider things such as rising rates of unemployment across the continent, wars and violent conflicts in South Sudan, Central African Republic, Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, which have messed up the entire continent. How does one remedy these without local folks being fully in charge of our natural and human resources—the same way this happens in Europe and North America? African mineral resources are pillaged by companies such as Glencore Plc., Dan Gertler International, Exon Mobil, CNOOC, Shell, and Total for cheap, and under coercive conditions involving grand scale corruption. Multinational banks such as ABSA and Stanchart have major stakes across the continent—controlling central banks—and are thus setting banking regimes from which they profit tremendously.
Consider contentions of stolen elections in Nigeria and Kenya, where Peter Obi and Raila Odinga respectively contend the elections were stolen. What is undeniable is that it never matters who wins the election as long as the super structure of global control and patronage remains intact. This is why even places such as Somalia, CAR, or South Sudan whose major pursuit ought to be peace and stability also organise elections. Why and for whom? Sadly, it is in environments like this that folks like Mahmood are expected to operate and thrive.
Harnessing protest/revolutionary uncertainty
Finally, to paraphrase Marx and Fanon, the oppressed workers come to realise their exploitation and rise up; they refuse to work and instead decide to breakdown or set the equipment on fire. They overthrow the existing power relationships. The ruling class is thrown into trembling as the oppressed realise that they have nothing to lose except their chains. There are lessons to learn from Egypt’s revolution that led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. If it were not exploited by foreign interests especially the United States and her accomplices––as they often do––Egypt would be an entirely different place. But the shortness of the revolution notwithstanding, surely Mubarak’s Egypt can never be the same as the one that Gen. el-Sisi stole from President Morsi.
There is no doubt that revolutions cause major uncertainty. Especially when they come with resistance and violence from pre-existing local and oftentimes international interests as happened in Egypt. But what is also undeniable is that the apparent stability on the African continent actually favours the exploiters who have designed it and placed lackeys and compradors in key places of decision-making and power: it favours their banks; it favours their mining companies; it favours their mineral and weapon dealers. These firmly established slave and exploitation networks hate the smell of uncertainty because the new holders of power could be radically inclined toward complete independence. If these protests are focused on kicking foreign interests out of the continent, then perhaps Mahmood and co. should have joined them for the right cause.