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Why Africans are envious of farmers’ protests in Europe

African farmers are struggling to sustain themselves and sell some of their produce to the market as they used to do with the help of governments and cooperatives
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Since the beginning of 2024, farmers across Europe have been protesting against their governments for threatening to leave them to the dictates of the market.  In short, they are protesting against attempts to treat them like fellow farmers in Africa. Demonstrations have taken place in France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Italy and Greece.  While the farmers’ specific demands seem to vary from one country to the other, the common thread running through the protests is that farmers in Europe do not like any free-market ideas. They are willing to fight to the end. And their governments have not implemented so-called free-market ideas despite pushing for their implementation on the African continent, with which they share close farming-market relations.

Explaining these protests, Politico reported that “farmers are being burdened by debt, squeezed by powerful retailers and agrochemical companies, battered by extreme weather, and undercut by cheap foreign imports, for years now — all while relying on a subsidy system that favours the big players.” Voice of America noted that “unfair competition from large amounts of imports from Ukraine, for which the EU has waived quotas and duties since Russia’s invasion,” and added that farmers, especially in Belgium, have taken issue “with excessive climate change regulation. They demand that farmers should “leave 4% of farmland fallow, which means not using it for a period of time,” every season.  In Germany, the key issue is fuel prices that see farmers buy diesel for their tractors and other farming vehicles at a subsidized rate lower than the market rate for other motorists. The German government had threatened to remove the subsidy, which aroused the ire of their farmers. The graph below from Politico underscores the different demands, although all point to one reality: free markets are not welcome.

Looking at these motivations behind the protests, as a child of peasant farmers in Uganda, whose grandparents thrived between 1960-1990 but fell on bad times after the victory of the capitalist block and the rise of the IMF and the World Bank as great influencers of how African economies are managed, I was the most envious. During the 1990s, African governments were forced to collapse farmer cooperatives, trade unions, privatise farmer’s banks, and end free extension services to farmers.  These had been the bedrock of the success of my grandparents. And every time I walk past the now desolate premises and rusted equipment of East Mengo Growers Union, or Busoga Cooperative Union, I’m overcome with anger and pain. These white folks duped us. They collapsed our lives and privileged theirs. We are not playing by the same rules if one imagines that every single cow in the EU is subsidized at €500 per year, when in Mali or Uganda, free extension services were simply folded up.

Across Africa, despite our soils and weather being the most conducive for farming, and indeed giving life to plenty of food and cash crops, peasant farmers (in coffee, cotton, sugarcane, vanilla, or other) are struggling to sustain themselves and sell some of their produce to the market as they used to do with the help of governments and cooperatives.  It is not because they are peasant farmers and not large-scale farmers (this argument has been debunked plenty of times), but simply because farmers were left on their own. Governments can neither help them with things beyond their reach (credit, pesticides, fertilizers, protection from foreign competition) nor can they bargain collectively and protect themselves, because there are no cooperatives.  Sadly, because of these free-market claims, among them that a farmer can sell their produce wherever they want, African farmers have been out-competed by their European and North American counterparts who are heavily subsidised. The Chinese have picked up from here and taken the competition to another level.

In his urgently written book—just a year after the 2008 economic crunch—First as Tragedy, then as Farce, Slovenian theorist, Slavoj Zizek explores and exposes pointedly and sharply, the delusion of free market economics. Written essentially for a Western audience, Zizek cheekily laughs at the free market delusion. He shows how so-called free markets collapse and have to be propped (?) up politically. He often mobilises examples from Africa to underscore the double standards and outright imperial character of the same markets. Indeed, what is well-known now is that Western powers not only do business and subsidise key services such as public transport, education, and health for their nationals, they also offer their “private sectors” immense amounts of protection from foreign competition. In addition to offering subsidies in the form of cash, they tend to look the other way when concerns about climate change are raised. In one poignant section, Zizek compares the Malian farming industry against the Euro-American. He shows how farmers in Mali who receive no subsidies have to compete with their counterparts in France and the US, yet these Western farmers are so heavily supported by their governments.

The two pillars of the Malian economy are cotton in the south, and cattle in the north, and both are in trouble because of the way Western powers violate the same rules that they impose on impoverished Third World nations. Mali produces cotton of top quality, but the problem is that the financial support the US government gives to its own farmers amounts to more than the entire state budget of Mali, so it is no surprise that they cannot compete.  In the north, the culprit is the European Union: Malian beef cannot compete with heavily subsidised European milk and beef. The EU subsidises every single cow with around 500 Euros per year—more than the per capita GDP of Mali.

The double standards are simply outstanding. It is not that Mali should subsidize its farmers to the same magnitude the US or the EU do for their farmers. Rather, they ought to be free to implement the same policies as they deem fit within their means. Indeed, Zizek cites the Malian Minister for the economy arguing: “We do not need your help or advice or lectures on the beneficial effects of abolishing excessive state regulation; please just stick to your rules about the free markets and our troubles will be over.” Imagine that even in these moments of intense crisis—where Mali’s major producers were suffering the same malaise as European and American businesses—the IMF and the World Bank insisted that the government of Mali does not help them in any way. Consider that Europe and North America, after 2008 or too actually emerge out of 2008 crunch, were giving free money to commercial banks straight from the taxpayer’s purse.

If there are any lessons to take from the farmer’s protests in Europe, and the successes they have so far registered, it is that we have lived under a free-market delusion for a long time.  In truth, the claim of free markets is how western corporations and big businesses thriving on support from their governments killed our parastatals, knocked our grandparents out of business, and established monopolies. All these western businesses have continued to benefit from both political and financial support from their governments, because business is politics. Farmers—like all other businesses—need protection from foreign competition. Peasant farmers, who have sustained our economies for long (growing both food and cash crops) need to be given a chance and facilitated to organise themselves, democratically and sustainably, so as to collectively bargain for better prices in the market. As I wrote before, we need to seriously start discussing African governments actually doing business to generate capital and support the other sectors.

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