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African resource nationalism: A very old idea posing as new information

When I got married in 2015, I was deluged with congratulatory messages from friends and acquaintances. One of these messages, from a Togolese friend of mine still stands out in my memory five years later. It read, “Congratulations David. Now please make sure to make lots of African babies.” This was not your bog standard “We are expecting twins” tongue-in-cheek message. The sender genuinely meant every word of it, because in his view, expanding Africa’s population was crucial to ensuring the long term survival of this continent and its inhabitants.

China and Australia alone have a mineral base to put all of Africa’s alleged mineral riches to shame. Add in the Americas, and in resource terms, Africa might as well not exist. The reason that so much mining and extracting goes on in Africa relative to other industries is that the resources in question are easily accessible and cheap here due to Africa’s location and low state capacity

He regularly used to make the point that Africa’s population density (50 people per sq km) compared to Europe’s population density (105 people per sq. km) showed that Africa was in fact severely underpopulated. In his view, this apparent lack of population was why Africa was losing in the global game of capitalism, because the denser the population, the greater the amount of economic interaction going on.

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I did not and still do not believe in such deterministic population economics because in my opinion, it is also possible for a very large population to be an economically redundant liability if they lack the skills and infrastructure to make them productive. He always dismissed such concerns saying something to the effect of: “Have you ever seen a man fail to feed his children no matter how many they are? If you have them, you will find a way. Africa is rich, but it is being controlled by neo-colonialists. We need more people so we can get rid of them and claim our riches.”

Wakanda, but with 0il instead of vibranium

In the heady early days of the post-colonial African state, an era that lasted from the early 1960s to the early 1990s, this “abundance mindset” was clearly evident in the way Africa interacted with the world. The economic model continued to follow the colonial model of natural resource extraction and export, with the new class of post-colonial leaders expressing similar thoughts to the effect that there was no end to Africa’s mineral riches, and with the colonialists out of the way, Africa was now free to invest in itself and achieve development.

In Nigeria, Yakubu Gowon’s administration not only said so but embarked on perhaps the most wasteful programme of public expenditure the developing world has ever seen. Living off the sole income source that was petroleum in the oil boom era of the 1970s, Nigeria funded Pan African liberation movements across the continent, paid the salaries of striking Jamaican public employees, and exponentially hiked civil servants’ salaries via the infamous Udoji Award.

Gowon’s administration also ordered up to 20 percent of the world’s entire cement supply in 1975, leading to the infamous cement armada period where over 420 ships laden with cement waited off the coast of Lagos for up to a year until they could discharge their cargo – which had often gone bad by then, making it an absurdly expensive waste. Nigeria was so sure of its cash-flush, oil-funded future prospects that it hosted a vanity arts and culture festival in 1977, and built an entire city for it. You know, just because.

Long before the 2018 box-office success of the fictional Wakanda, Nigeria and much of Africa were already attempting to follow an economic and political model that had striking resemblances to T’Chaka’s cinematic African kingdom. Just like in the movie, peaceful and drama-free transfer of power was unheard of. Whenever the strongman died, an almighty squabble often involving his direct progeny and several armed men ensued. Like in the movie, African economies were generally run along the principles of central planning, with the state dominating the economy, making the Head of State the richest person in the country.

Most importantly, like vibranium was Wakanda’s sole lifeblood and source of prosperity, so was oil to Nigeria, cocoa to Cote d’Ivoire, diamonds to Sierra Leone, and so on. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, vibranium was so valuable that somehow, this tiny hermit kingdom was the wealthiest and most technologically advanced civilisation in the world despite never actually trading it for money on the market, as it happens with natural resources in the real world. In the real world, however, no such creative license exists, hence when the era of high commodity prices came to an end in the early 1980s, Africa found itself hoisted by economic collapse and political instability.

For the first time in Nigeria’s history, people began exiting the country en-masse in search of better lives. To those from the oil boom generation and to many of us their descendants, “resource wealth” is as central to being African as vibranium is to being Wakandan. Due to the inflated standard of living Nigeria experienced for a single decade in an era of extraordinary geopolitical conflict that fortuitously raised commodity prices, we got the false idea that we are “oil rich” in a manner comparable to the Saudis or Qataris.

Like the fictional Wakandans in the movie practically worship vibranium – they eat it, wear it, cure disease with it, build technology with it – Africans in the 20th century convinced themselves that Africa’s “rich resources” are front and centre of what it means to be “African.” I call this phenomenon the “Wakanda Complex.”

Africa’s ‘Wakanda Complex’: A surefire route to poverty in the 21st Century

Unfortunately, 20 years into a new century that is already sending internal combustion engines the way of the horse-drawn chariot, Africa’s Wakanda Complex is still fully present in our public discourse. This time, it is not driven by Soviet-trained university professors reading from 40 year-old books written by Amilcar Cabral and Sekou Toure, but by a new set of social media savvy individuals whose strategy is to use emotionally potent 20th century Pan-Africanist rhetoric to build platforms for different types of political grift.

These populist dissemblers who rant about imaginary foreign bogeymen “stealing Africa’s resources to power Europe” have amassed a huge following in the youth population. In 2020 – a world where diamonds more perfect than anything in Botswana can be created in a lab – many Africans my age are fully convinced that Africa’s future lies in expelling an undefined foreign enemy (Chinese this week, French the next, Afrikaner the week after) and demanding higher commodity prices, as though that is how the global economy works. The greater the following these grifters amass, the more young Africans become convinced that their future wealth prospects lie in the dirt under their feet and the chemical compounds therein, as against the ideas in their heads and their ingenuity in bringing these ideas to life.

Speaking on his Twitter account in April, Kenyan economist David Ndii attempted to explode the foundation of the Wakanda Complex when he stated that if all of Africa formed a commodity cartel and withdrew African minerals from the global market in an effort to raise prices, global commodity prices would spike all of about 5 percent, and life would move on without us – because our minerals are in fact also available elsewhere and in even greater quantities. He also shared World Bank data showing that North America’s average mineral wealth per person is $10,600, while Sub-Saharan Africa’s mineral wealth per person is just $2,800.

Expectedly, his point did not hit home in the unique environment of social media, so it is worth reiterating: China and Australia alone have a mineral base to put all of Africa’s alleged mineral riches to shame. Add in the Americas, and in resource terms, Africa might as well not exist. The reason that so much mining and extracting goes on in Africa relative to other industries is that the resources in question are easily accessible and cheap here due to Africa’s location and low state capacity.

In other words, as long as Africans remain lost in the metaphorical Wakanda sauce, convinced that the future lies down a mineshaft instead of in R&D and regional trade integration, the only competitive advantage that Africa will be able to offer the world is price. This is exactly how the presence of ‘rich resources’ in many African countries has only made said countries significantly poorer. This is especially so because people in these countries also end up making economically disastrous procreation decisions, secure in the idea that it is possible to build a thriving economy for 1 billion people from nothing but mineral resource extraction.

In case there is any ambiguity whatsoever about how disastrous this Wakanda Complex is to long term national planning, consider the following numbers from an April 2020 SBM Intelligence report titled ‘The Economics of the Kidnap Industry in Nigeria.’ The Nigerian army is currently engaged in four active operations against armed enemies across the country, while the air force has three active operations. Between June 2011 and the end of March 2020, at least $18.34 million was paid to kidnappers in (known) ransom fees.

Tellingly, the report expressly identifies youth unemployment as a major factor responsible for the growth of kidnap cases. Nigeria’s unemployment rate rose from 18.8 percent in the third quarter of 2017 to 23.1 percent in the third quarter of 2018. It would seem that contrary to my friend’s assertions, people do in fact have children based on a faulty abundance mindset, and then completely fail to care for them – making them everybody else’s problem.

Clearly, the only place in 21st century Africa where you can dig up something from the ground and become wealthy for doing nothing more than extracting it is in a fictional country from a movie – a movie by the way, that made over $1.2bn in actual money for the non-extraction entity that produced it.

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