Decolonisation: crucial prerequisite to environmental justice in Africa

Greenpeace

All across the African continent a colonial approach of extraction and exploitation continues to plague and paralyse economies. It pushes ecosystems to the edge and puts pan-Africanism on a back burner.

Action at Eskom Megawatt Park in Africa.
Greenpeace Africa activists also hold banners calling on Eskom to ‘clean up it’s act’, to “Stop Coal”, to end the South African power utility’s usage of the outdated fossil fuel

From Somalia to Nigeria, from South Africa to Algeria, households across Africa are facing a worsening climate crisis, with floods, extreme heat waves, wildfires, droughts and rising food prices. Yet our leaders are making a case for more oil and gas exploration at the upcoming climate conference in Egypt, an absurd choice that is bound to turn a bad situation even worse.

It seems that every day another multinational company is coveting African governments to dig up oil, extract gas, clear forests, or mine precious resources.

  • In Namibia, Canadian based ReconAfrica is likely to push ahead with oil drilling which will potentially devastate some of its most pristine ecosystems providing migratory routes for animals and tourism on which local communities depend on.
  • In East Africa, French oil giant TotalEnergies and China’s CNOOC are developing one of the longest oil pipelines which will destroy waterways and several communities on its tracks.
  • South African communities are up in arms against Dutch-British oil and gas giant Shell, seeking to destroy its wild coast, while local air pollution is bound to rise ever more with the surge in Europe’s imports of South African coal.
  • Senegalese watch in horror as British Petroleum’s offshore drilling threatens to compromise the livelihoods of a people dependent on the oceans for survival.
  • And the Democratic Republic of Congo has launched a mega auction of 30 oil and gas blocks, overlapping national parks and peatlands, and disregarding the rights of local communities.

The scramble for African gas, oil and coal is as vibrant as ever.

It begs the question: Can the African environmental movement suceed without decolonisation?

There are several grounds on which I argue that there can be no genuine environmental justice without decolonisation. The decolonisation of African politics, economy, and mindsets is an indispensable prerequisite to achieving environmental justice for people and climate.

In the decades since African countries officially became independent states, the colonial approach to focus on extracting what Africa’s soil and waters contain has persisted, coming at the expense of maximising the potential of our minds.

Extracting and exporting raw materials seemed like a shortcut to richness, but the resource curse has only further depressed the prospects for meaningful industrialisation. Whether it’s the minerals that are essential for building solar panels or batteries or the oil that is choking our planet – processing and refinement are done in richer countries outside Africa. With that, high-quality jobs and economic growth continue are created elsewhere.

Decolonisation will require African leaders to look inwards. It will take courage and audacity to think beyond the dominant western socioeconomic pathway which Africa desperately tries to emulate, with little or nothing to show for. It will require tapping into African values and to reimagine an economic system which isn’t built solely on profits but on the basis of collective well-being. Building a good life on African terms is a vision we must dare to articulate in practical terms.

Tapping into African values and ways of being means recognising local communities and their informal economic activities, which are really the backbone of most African societies. It means strengthening entrepreneurship and innovation through scientific excellence, building on traditional knowledge trade and agriculture.

More importantly, deep reflections need to happen on the merits of extractivism-based economic models, which have all but failed to improve the overall well-being of Africans. Shell’s legacy of violence and pollution has been well-documented in Nigeria’s Ogoniland. Similar stories of local communities losing out on their health and their livelihoods while inequalities and conflicts arise from Gabon to Angola, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Mozambique offer warning signals for governments who seek to embark on similar approaches.

The resource curse isn’t limited to oil: the DRC has the world’s second highest rate of deforestation, but it remains far from being part of the G20 forum with about 70% of its population – or 60 million people – living under USD $2 a day.

With corruption and poor governance systems still very rife in African politics, there is clear evidence that extractivism – grounded in colonial times – is not the answer. With all raw materials exported and no local industries developed, only elites who auction off nature and foreign countries are benefiting from the vast amounts of environmental destruction that follow.

African societies have historically built economic systems and remarkable kingdoms, all while living in harmony with nature. Decolonisation today does not mean leaving modern technologies and medicine behind, but rather being more audacious: to look into who we truly are and tapping into our traditional values of collaboration and respect for nature, so economic systems benefit the many and not just the few.

An economic model designed by Africans, for Africa, on African terms – that is something we must muster the courage to explore. The only barrier is the blinding lure of the feeding bowl that the old colonial masters keep shoving in our face. But can we Africans afford not to try?

An original version of this op-ed was published by commondreams.org on 6 September 2022.

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