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Africa’s resource curse: why we should worry

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Picture credit: Chris Huby/Le Pictorium/Cover Images Displaced people leave the port of Pemba after being checked by the authorities. The region of Cabo Delgado, in the northeast of Mozambique, has been experiencing an unprecedented humanitarian drama for the past four years. Al-Shabab jihadists affiliated with the Islamic State since 2019 are wreaking havoc there.

By Ndzalama C Mathebula

In the twenty-first century, it has come to be known how political risk is not only generated by governments, but the evolution of the discipline has enabled numerous state and non-state actors to generate risks. The notion of the resource curse in Africa is not an alien one. Instead, it has characterised the discourse of resource governance in Africa since independence across numerous regions.

Resource discovery in some African states has been pronounced a resource curse for the longest time. In most cases is complemented by weak state capacity, mounting social, and inadequate state security. The foreign direct investment inflow in poorly governed mineral resources continues to perpetuate a culture of the paradox of plenty. African societies continue to face risks from multiple actors threatening their livelihoods, peace and security, and home security.

Contrary to the traditional doctrine of governments, policies, or civil society generating risks for investors, the resource curse trajectory of Africa flags how investors can cause a humanitarian crisis for natives of the country. This can be traced to the investor’s blissful ignorance of the deadly discovery and extraction of these resources to the natives of that country or province. This is witnessed in the case of the Cabo Delgado insurgency over the discovery and poor governance of the liquid natural gas and the blood cobalt of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The humanitarian crisis triggered by the emergence and prominence of the Islamist insurgency fuelled by a resource curse plague in Mozambique, Cabo Delgado, and neighbouring provinces since 2017 has threatened social cohesion and resulted in the killings of 850,000 Mozambicans (including 400,000 children displaced). The ruptures caused by this insurgency led to regional intervention by the SADC states and the Rwandan military that the Mozambique government initiated.

This insurgency has destroyed Cabo Delgado’s livelihoods, creating all kinds of human insecurity. One key finding from the research conducted by the United States Institute of Peace pointed to the internal enabling factors that continue to maintain a conducive environment for an insurgency. The prominent factors include the national government’s lack of urgency in responding to the rebellion, an under-resourced and inadequate police force in Caba Degaldo, weak security capacity, lack of trust for the national government by the civilians, youth unemployment, and low political participation. At the same time, corruption further inflames resentment and prioritises providing security to businesses. However, the role of the companies investing in the LNG project cannot be overlooked since it remains significant in perpetuating the ongoing insurgency in Cabo Delgado.

Though making a profit is a business principle, the latter changes when the profits disadvantage the rightful beneficiaries of those resource gains. Numerous companies such as TotalEnigies, Total, Shell, Anadarko, and Exxon may be resuming operations, ignoring coups like the Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamamah and jihadists continue to cause upheaval in Cabo Delgado and neighbouring provinces. Instead, the state security allocated is said to protect these investors and companies, not the people, by Cabo Delgado residents.

Picture Credit: REUTERS/David Lewis – A local miner can be see carrying a bad at a mine site in the DRC.

A similar case is seen in the cobalt rush in the DRC, where the discovery of cobalt has attracted amorous investment but also unleashed a pattern of resource exploitation, underpaid labour, child labour, and endangering local communities. Cobalt is a vital ingredient in lithium-ion batteries that power everything from smartphones to electric vehicles. Congo contributed about 70 percent of the world’s cobalt last year, shadowing its closest competitors, Australia and Russia.

Cobalt is in high demand as the globe rushes to implement green energy technology in the battle against climate change. Battery use already accounts for more than half of worldwide cobalt consumption. With electric vehicle sales expected to increase from 6.5 million in 2021 to 66 million by 2040, the world’s need for metal is only growing. More than 100 armed groups are active in eastern DRC, a volatile region where war has raged for decades but has recently worsened. M23, an armed group in eastern DRC, is accused by Human Rights Watch of summarily murdering at least 29 people between mid-June and July 25. According to the Kivu Security Tracker, which tracks war and human rights abuses, about 8,000 people have perished brutally since 2017.

According to the United Nations, more than 5.5 million people have been displaced, including 700,000, this year alone. The Norwegian Refugee Council named the Democratic Republic of the Congo the world’s most ignored and under-addressed refugee issue in 2021, a title it also held in 2020 and 2017. A convoluted stew of geopolitics, ethnic and national conflicts and the struggle to control eastern DRC’s enormous natural resources are fuelling the unrest. Indeed, the high cost of the harness green energy transition and environmentally friendly technologies is compensated by native Congolese.

The above mentioned phenomenon is not alien to Africa; however, the angle explored in this piece is under-explored. One common factor highlighted in both case studies is the indirect risk emanated by investment and the growing global demand for natural liquid gas and cobalt. Informed by the global harness of the fourth industrial revolution and high accelerated economic output, countries make strides to recover economically from the Covid-19 pandemic and geopolitical shocks from the Russia-Ukraine war.

However, evidence from Cabo Delgado and eastern DRC has shown an opportunistic culture of economic recovery, which is at the expense of Cabo Delgado and DRC natives’ civilians. Both resource discoveries have resulted in the rise of coups, mass killings, home displacements, and refuge seeking. Therefore, as countries and the globe adore advanced environmentally friendly technologies, we should never forget the human expense of extracting these raw resources.

Undoubtedly, it can be affirmed that resource investments can counter effect African countries with poor resource management, which requires urgent risk management, mitigation plan, and collaboration from multiple stakeholders involved. A strategic partnership between Africa’s mineral governance actors, such as the African Mineral Development Centre and the Africa Mining Vision, remains significant in advancing resource management mechanisms.

A comprehensive research approach to understanding the socio-economic condition of these countries and the ongoing insurgencies, which have ramifications beyond the country’s borders, can open a different scope of understanding the root causes and surveying solutions. Thus, collective action and rendering urgency to these risks remain vital in combating this humanitarian crisis.

Mathebula is a master’s candidate from the University of Johannesburg, Department of Politics and International Relations.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.