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African nations’ journey from colonial exploitation to transnational dominance in mining

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In the early years following independence, African governments reclaimed sovereignty over their metal and mineral resources previously exploited by European mining corporations. However, since the 1990s, a resurgence of transnational corporations has reshaped the mining landscape, marking a significant shift in ownership and management of major projects.

Ben Radley’s research on economic transformation in Central Africa, detailed in his book “Disrupted Development in the Congo: The Fragile Foundations of the African Mining Consensus,” outlines a three-stage process that facilitated the return of transnationals. This process began with a misinterpretation of African economic stagnation from the mid-1970s onward, attributing blame to African states and portraying African miners negatively.

Stage one: Blame the African state

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In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), President Joseph-Désiré Mobutu initiated measures to nationalize resources. The Bakajika Law of 1966 mandated foreign-based companies to establish local headquarters, and major mining entities were nationalized, including Union minière de Haut Katanga becoming Société générale Congolaise des minerais (Gécamines). By 1970, the Congolese public sector controlled 40% of national value added.

Initially, nationalization showed promise. Copper production in the DRC and Zambia grew, and state revenues tripled by 1970, funding expansive social programs like healthcare and education. However, economic challenges arose with oil price spikes and global recessions, causing copper prices to plummet and debts to escalate, leading to stagnation and decline by the 1990s.

Stage two: Liberalize and privatize

From 1980 onward, the World Bank heavily influenced African mining policies, advocating for privatization and deregulation. This shift aimed to attract foreign investment and modernize mining operations. Mineral exploration in Africa surged, and foreign direct investment soared, reshaping economies increasingly reliant on external financing.

The World Bank’s strategy persisted into the 21st century, emphasizing capital-intensive, foreign-owned mining as pivotal for development. Ongoing reforms across African countries reflect this framework, prioritizing institutional changes to facilitate foreign investment dominance.

Stage three: Criminalize African miners

The final phase saw transnational corporations confronting labor-intensive miners, who historically played a crucial role in mining sectors across Africa. Despite their significant contributions to rural employment and mineral production, these miners were marginalized as “primitive” and “inefficient,” facing displacement and restriction to less productive sites.

In conclusion, Radley’s analysis underscores how African mining has evolved under the influence of global economic policies, shifting from state control to foreign dominance. This transformation, while promoting economic integration, has also marginalized local labor and exacerbated dependency on external investment, posing challenges to sustainable development and economic sovereignty in Africa.

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