Three great factors are coming together to constitute what may be a whole new, and final chapter in the book of horrors that have been visited on the African people since the birth of Western European capitalism.
If Native Africans do not begin to think very deeply about what this is going to mean for what is left of them, in terms of their livelihoods and ways of living, then the recent past will seem like a small piece of paradise.
Unlike our ancestors, who are often blamed — opportunistically — for the original conquest of Africa and the trade in enslaved Africans that came before it, this time round, there will be no excuses or debate. Africa now knows what colonial conquest is and what it does, in a way that our unfortunate ancestors could not.
The first factor is that capitalism is fast running out of things to destroy in order to make profits. The climate crisis is the best evidence of this. This has been a long-term trend, certainly since the 1960s. However, the most recent financial collapse of 2008 certainly intensified it. Of the grand things and sectors left for capitalism to ravage, there is the production of food for the masses of people crowded into the towns and cities of the West, with no space, time or fundamental skills to produce it for themselves from scratch.
The global corporate food industry is based on one key assumption: that the human race, as it continues to grow in number, will become less and less able to independently produce food for itself. These is because of embedded assumptions about the inevitability of intensive urbanization, as well as time and lifestyle choices, themselves often culturally encouraged, if not imposed, by the same industry.
Food, that indispensable need, is now recreated as a guaranteed industrial commodity.
And so, a lot of corporate interest and money has migrated into the corporate agriculture sector, globally. Global big money is now trying to colonise food production itself, on a global scale, in order to find new ways of keeping its money valuable. Writing in mod-2011, the late Dani Nabudere perceives a deeper conflict:
During the first three months of 2008-the year the global economic crisis intensified, international nominal prices of all major food commodities reached their highest levels for fifty years. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation-FAO reported that food price indices had risen, on the average, by 8% in 2006 compared with the previous year. In 2007, the food index rose by 24% compared with 2006 and in the first three months of 2008, it rose by 53% compared with 2007. This sudden surge in prices was led by increases in vegetable oils, which on the average increased by 97%, followed by grains with an increase of 87%, dairy products with 58% and rice with 46%.
This means that investing in food, or the assumption of the future existence of food as a commodity to be traded. In short, what is known as the Futures market. But the problem with futures is that at some point, the commodity will have to come into existence.
The second thing native Africans need to be aware of, and arising from the first, is that African land is going to be in demand in a way not seen even at the height of the period of European colonial domination.
Most of the world’s arable land is now found somewhere in Africa. It is unclear if by this is meant arable land under use, or also land that can be put to agricultural use (but may be located under a forest, or something, at present).
The March 2012 issue of Finance & Development Magazine sheds some light on that equation:
Throughout the world, it is estimated that 445 million hectares of land are uncultivated and available for farming, compared with about 1.5 billion hectares already under cultivation. About 201 million hectares are in sub-Saharan Africa, 123 million in Latin America, and 52 million in eastern Europe. . .
The third factor is that arable land is only arable if it has fresh water near it. And it is only viable for corporate exploitation if it also has no people on it. Africa is therefore the prime target: plenty of fresh water, and very few real land rights.
In my estimation, the area of Africa between the Western and Eastern Rift Valleys running along the length of the Nile valley below the Sahel has been identified as on the last open, near-virgin territories, ripe for intensive mechanized agricultural exploitation.
That area’s human settlements have historically originated around the pattern of freshwater bodies. A lot of Uganda was once a wetland. As a result, the country will find itself located at the very epicentre of any such an enterprise.
Dr Mike Burry, a now legendary American stock market operator is reported in the Farmfolio website to have said, “I believe that agricultural land – productive agricultural land with water on site – will be very valuable in the future . . . . I’ve put a good amount of money into that.”
The website goes on to report quite sarcastically,
Over the next three decades, the UN forecasts the global population to increase to about 10 billion. How do you imagine farmland investments will benefit from an over 30% increase in mouths to feed? Good luck feeding two billion people with Bitcoin or gold nuggets.
In this sense, colonialism was just the attempted start, with the former white settler farm economies of Kenya and southern Africa as the increasingly decrepit leftovers. The goal now is African land in general, wherever land can be turned over to large-scale (and therefore mechanised, “scientised” and corporatized) production of the commodities needed to make factory food.
The implications are clear: the goal of the huge capitalist formations that dominate public and foreign policy in the industrial countries, and whose agribusiness interests have a global reach, is to turn Africa into a huge farm, both as an opportunity, and as a response to an internal crisis.
In a May 2017 opinion piece published in the UK Guardian newspaper, then United Nations Environment Programme Head Erich Solheim made a similar point:
Several scenarios for cropland expansion – many focusing on Africa’s so-called “spare land” – have already effectively written off its elephants from having a future in the wild. These projections have earmarked a huge swathe of land spanning from Nigeria to South Sudan for farming, or parts of West Africa for conversion to palm oil plantations.
All this speaks directly to the immediate future of the African people. Put bluntly, in order to put industrial agriculture in place here, there will have to be genocide, massive environmental damage, widespread human displacement, and therefore repression and conflict as the tools of implementation.
African land is going to be in demand in a way not seen even at the height of the period of European colonial domination.
The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), calls the bringing of the US agribusiness model to Africa “a grave mistake”. They describe the model as “the single largest cause of biodiversity loss worldwide,” that “also fails to solve hunger, negatively impacts small-scale farmers, and causes environmental harm.”
It is in this context that the debates in Uganda and Kenya, for example, about land use and policy, can then be appreciated.
In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has launched a political offensive (once again) against the Kingdom of Buganda, describing its neo-traditional land tenure system as “evil” and in desperate need of reform.
This should not come as a surprise to anyone. First of all, Mr Museveni has firmly established himself as the pre-eminent fixer for imperialist ambitions in the Great Lakes Region. Whatever the owners of Western capital want here is what he will always try to deliver, no matter the collateral damage. Secondly, whenever the Ugandan president hatches a plan targeting the wealth and resources of native Ugandans, he begins with an attack on Buganda. Not because there is anything more valuable there, but because it enables the ideological seduction of a useful section of Ugandan political society: Ugandan “patriotism” was built on the notion that native identities are a bad thing, and that the Ganda identity is the worst of all.
It worked in the process of marginalising native voices in the independence movement and replacing them with smooth-talking “pan-Africanists”.
It then worked again with the creation of the culture of dictatorship between 1966 and 1979. Voices raised in opposition were easily dismissed as “divisive”, or retrograde. The mission now, was to build the new non-ethnic nation.
More recently, it has been deployed again to justify global neo-liberal designs on African land, through dismissing native resistance to it as “backward” and “parochial”.
Once it has been politically established that the overriding of native objections to anything is an essential and desirable part of development, then the “principle” can be applied in practice, to all other parts of the country.
Through its loyal and devoted client, the National Resistance Movement regime, Western capitalism is targeting all Ugandan land, regardless of which natives own it and under what system.
The same principle works differently in Kenya, but towards the same end. Initial white settler-based agriculture was never successful. Part of the story of Kenyan independence is actually the story of the Empire at headquarters becoming increasingly unwilling to deploy the economic, political and military resources needed to maintain a colony largely for the benefit of a small group of unproductive, self-regarding “middle-class sluts”, as one of the British commanding officers is alleged to have described the settlers.
However, a legacy of that time is that unlike in Uganda, vast areas of Kenya’s potentially productive land are still in white and foreign ownership. And a lot of this is in areas historically within a pastoralist ecosystem.
A succession of Kenyan governments neglected to address this historical injustice. In fact, through corruption, key individuals in a number of those regimes actively took advantage of the situation and joined the white families in becoming big landholders themselves.
Put bluntly, in order to put industrial agriculture in place here, there will have to be genocide.
Today, the three-way contestation between native (often pastoralist) communities, dogged white and other land oligarchs, and a wavering, uncaring state, rumbles on.
Co-author of The Big Conservation Lie: The Untold Story of Wildlife Conservation in Kenya, longstanding Kenyan conservation biologist, and land rights activist, Mordecai Ogada, has long argued that the whole wildlife tourism-based “conservation” industry run off the vast settler-leased native landholdings is basically a landgrab. The question will be Is this just for tourism, or will it be open to other ventures, like industrial agriculture?
It could lead to something deeper. Arguments for “development” and “rangeland/wildlife conservation” will be mobilised as a cover to carry out large-scale land grabbing and the eviction of peasants and pastoralists from lands they have historically occupied. Not just for the parochial descendants of the original white settlers now turned “conservationists”, but the kind of mega-scale mechanised planting that has been so central (and destructive) to the American mid-west, the Amazon basin, and native Canada.
This was also partly how the war that eventually split Sudan played out in the now separated south, and still plays out in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. A significant section of Arab-descended northern economic elites was centered on the production of wheat. According to the Sudanese intellectual Dr Fatimer Babiker Mahmoud, in the late 1980s, this sector was making millions of dollars annually from the large-scale planting, harvesting and export of the grain to Europe, Asia and the Arab world.
Sometimes this meant the clearing of the more fertile lands of the south, the Nuba mountain lowlands and the Darfur region – all largely inhabited by Black Africans – for the mechanised growing of wheat. This is what gave the conflict its racial character, as Arab chauvinist arguments were used to justify this genocide.
But, as with the white settler projects, these should be seen as trial runs in the greater measurement of our economic history. There is a need to understand the sheer scale and scope of these operations.
What may be coming will be much grander in scale, out of both Western necessity and greed.
Of the top ten foods listed as traded the most within global trade by the Just-Food Magazine website in 2014, (fish, soybean, wheat, palm oil, beef, soybean meal, corn, chicken meat, rice and coffee) there are five key items that drive the processed food industry: palm oil, wheat, soya and corn. It seems sugar cannot be accurately measured because it features in just about anything processed.
In addition, meat production (chicken, beef and pork) is dependent on the others on the list. Cattle are fed on corn, and soya (and the soybean meal) comprises part of what is fed to chickens.
The scale of the operations means that huge sums of money are invested. In today’s world, this means money from banks and institutional investors (hedge funds, etc.) as shareholders in agribusiness corporations. Poultry factories can contain up to forty thousand chickens permanently locked in cages for laying, or just warehouses of several thousand square feet. In early 2020, some 20 million chickens were being slaughtered each week in the United Kingdom. Corn and other grain are usually planted on lots measuring thousands of hectares apiece.
When investing on this scale, certain guarantees must be put in place. These are not matters that are left to chance, or fortune. And the primary purpose of all capitalist economic activity, especially in the West, is to obtain the biggest private return possible on any investment. And also usually in the shortest possible turnaround time.
This is why “insurance” measures are locked in from the start. In particular, chemical-based fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides and also increasingly, the use of genetically modified seeds and livestock, as well as steroids and antibiotics to promote rapid growth and prevent sicknesses.
In fact, through corruption, key individuals in a number of those regimes actively took advantage of the situation and joined the white families in becoming big landholders themselves.
The goal is huge, regular volumes of uniform products to be processed and marketed to huge urbanized populations.
The whole commercialisation process begins in the West, where this industry is the most developed. The European conquest of the continents of north and South America, also mark the period when food production migrated from being a community-based activity, to an industry.
This led to the clearance of human settlement from large areas of land, as well as the destruction of forests and wetlands, all to make way for the animal ranches and very big plantations.
This way of life is now being increasingly imposed on all societies, as “the normal”.
The recent riots in the Republic of South Africa for example, are an illustration of the dangers of becoming prisoners of a privately owned, mechanised food supply system, and also an attempted repudiation of it.
The rest of Africa is quickly “catching up” to this advanced backwardness, with the increasing rate of unplanned migration to urban centers due to loss of opportunities in community-based agriculture.
In Uganda for example, this process was driven by the intentional Museveni-led neo-liberal disruptions to the adapted system of community-based agriculture that has been built up in the country over a period of nearly eight decades.
Agricultural production remains at the heart of this struggle. The Africans sought to ensure that they continued to produce their indigenous food crops so as to retain food sovereignty, while at the same time engaging in the new cash crop economy that was encroaching on their land and labour power.
Official African policy within each African state, as well as in the regional economic blocs and the various policy and finance bodies (such as the African Development Bank), remain uncritically in support (or at least not opposed) to this general strategic direction.
What may be coming will be much grander in scale, out of both Western necessity and greed.
“Africa must start by treating agriculture as a business,” wrote African Development Bank (AfDB) President Dr Akinwumi Adesina, in African Business magazine in 2017. “It must learn fast from experiences elsewhere, for example in south east Asia, where agriculture has been the foundation for fast-paced economic growth, built on a strong food processing and agro-industrial manufacturing base.”
Our official planners suffer from a tragic tendency of conflating any activity involving money and machines, with “development”. The intention is to duplicate life as it is almost universally led in the Western-style countries. They think is will bring “industrialisation”, and through that, jobs.
There are four significant conflicts or budding conflicts on the continent right now, in which arable land for mechanisation will increasingly become a factor. These are in southern Ethiopia, Congo and the whole Sahel zone, anchored on Nigeria (and Sudan), and Kenya.
If these developments are not challenged and stopped, Africa can look forward to environmental degradation, and nutritional poverty.
We will all become Africans in South Africa, and poor people in the West.
Assuming the Western industrial system lasts much longer. And that the planet also does.