30 September 2002

African Voices in the Streets of Washington

Washington — A South African unionist protesting the privatization of electricity, a Cameroonian development expert protesting an oil pipeline and a Tanzanian activist protesting plans to allow private companies to buy public water delivery systems were among the people marching in Washington against the World Bank and IMF in late September.

"We don't want privatization. We want water to belong to the public. We want electricity to belong to the public. We want health care to belong to the public," declared South African Anti-Privatization Forum activist Bangali Liguthilu in a speech from a pick up truck that led a march of many thousands through the center of Washington, DC. "When governments privatize, the poor don't get access."

As activists flanked by police in riot helmets marched past the building where the U.S. Treasury is located, he added "Down with NEPAD. Away with Thabo Mbeki. Away with Obasanjo. Away with George Bush." Liguthilu was one of more than a dozen different representatives of African organizations participating in and speaking at rallies and forums here in Washington.

The failures of World Bank and IMF policies in Africa have become a centerpiece of protests by anti-corporate globalization activists. Signs and T-shirts protesting water privatization in Ghana, criticizing Coca Cola for refusing to provide HIV/AIDS medicines for its workers in Africa and questioning large mining projects in Nigeria could be seen scattered through the crowds of protestors gathered in front of the World Bank on Saturday evening.

To get a clearer perspective on why Africans participated in these protests, AllAfrica's Jim Cason spoke this week with Demba Moussa Dembele of the Forum for African Alternatives in Senegal, with Asume Isaac Osuoka of Environment Rights Action in Nigeria and with Carola Kinasha of the Tanzania Gender Network Program. Below are excerpts from those conversations.

Demba Moussa Dembele. You are director of the Forum for African Alternatives. Can you tell us a little about this organization?

The Forum is dedicated to challenging the neo-liberal agenda in Africa and to proposing alternative policies. We have been involved in these activities for a long time. Almost three years ago, in December 2000, we organized a conference on debt cancelation in Senegal. I was the co-ordinator of that conference.

That conference organized a big march in Dakar in which over five thousand people participated. Since then we have had other marches in Africa - in Nigeria, in Ghana. In South Africa a few weeks ago, during the World Summit on Sustainable Development,we organized a big march that overshadowed the official march sponsored by the government.

What is your work now in Senegal?

I am doing research on economic globalization and training for other activist non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The training is not only for Senegalese NGOs, but for NGOS throughout the West Africa sub-region: Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, the Gambia and so forth.

You said in one speech here this week that you thought the World Bank should just get out of Africa. It has done enough damage. But the World Bank people query whether Africans really want to cut off the more than $3 billion in money the bank sends to Africa?

But the World Bank money going to Africa is not helping Africa. Poverty has never been as high, as acute, as since the World Bank and IMF came to our continent. They themselves recognize that they have failed, that their policies have led to much poverty. But they call this collateral damage! They have destroyed industries in Senegal, in Zambia, in Tanzania, in Burkina Faso, in Uganda, in Nigeria and Mauritania. Everywhere they go they have the same kind of policies: trade liberalization, investment liberalization, privatization. The policies have failed.

They talk about aid, but the aid is conditional on governments implementing destructive social and economic policies. Right now most of our states [in Africa] are not functional. They have been destroyed by the World Bank and IMF. The civil services have been almost eliminated in many countries, because of World Bank and IMF imposed conditionalities.

But the World Bank also provides, for instance, a billion dollars for HIV/AIDS, along with money for water and roads. Are you saying Africa does not want that money?

This so called aid is not aid. It is a loan, like any other loan. And, for instance, some countries are excluded from the loans for HIV/AIDS because their income per capita is high according to the World Bank. Or they are in arrears [they are behind on repayments] to the World Bank, on outstanding loans.

Even some of the most affected countries are excluded. South Africa is excluded because their per capita income is too high. The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia are excluded because they have arrears . So it (the promise of big money) is just propaganda.

World Bank spokespeople say they are changing their lending goals, moving toward a greater emphasis on poverty reduction. They say they are focusing on the Millennium Development Goals and particularly on water, education and health. I find it hard to believe that Africa is still saying that it is better not to have this money than to have it?

When they tell you that they are focusing on the Millennium Development Goals, that they are putting new emphasis on water, education and health, they are telling you only one part of the story. What they are not telling you is that each of these loans has strings attached to it.

Take the example of Tanzania. To get debt relief from the World Bank, Tanzania was told it has to privatize its water delivery system. The World Bank told Tanzania it would provide a loan to upgrade the water system, thus making it more attractive to foreign investors. So Tanzania has incurred a debt to the World Bank to upgrade its water delivery system so that it can be sold to foreign investors. So what is the outcome? To increase Tanzania's dependency on the World Bank and at the same time sell this vital infrastructure, water, to foreign companies. This is what the World Bank is doing.

They say focus on water, but at the same time they tell us privatize. We have to liberalize more. We have to open our economies. We have to remove subsidies. (In other words) they take more than they give.

But if this money is so harmful, why do African governments keep coming to these meetings and asking for more money?

Because, they say, they have no choice. These institutions are very powerful. They represent and are backed by the most powerful nations.

These institutions are so powerful, our elected officials feel they have no choice (but to negotiate). But the results are damaging.

Take Senegal. When it deals with the World Bank it has no power. But if African countries dealt with the World Bank collectively, they would have a more powerful voice. The World Bank doesn't like that. They treat debt, for instance, on a case by case basis. So let's get together and speak with one voice, and then they will listen.

But African countries have gotten together and formed NEPAD. The World Bank says they are working with NEPAD. And the South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel comes to Washington and says he wants the World Bank to fund NEPAD. These are African governments working together and they are asking for money.

But we, as representatives of African civil society, are against NEPAD. For two reasons. First civil society has not been consulted. The NEPAD leaders went to the G-7 leaders, twice, to present NEPAD, without talking to their own people. Second, NEPAD is a neo-liberal program. It endorses all IMF and World Bank policies. It accepts World Trade Organization policies and all these bilateral agreements that we think are detrimental to African economic and social development. So NEPAD, in a way, is just an African version of what we call the global neo-liberal agenda. And the African social forum, most African social movements are fighting against that agenda.

Asume Isaac Osuoka. Can you tell us about Environment Rights Action?

We are an organization that works with communities affected by the violence of the oil and gas industries. We work with communities to resist the oil and gas industries, to protest, to campaign.

Why did you travel here to these protests?

I am here because I live in a country that is a victim of the policies of the IMF and the World Bank. I come from an area that has been devastated by the oil and gas industry for over forty years. My community used to depend on fishing and farming for survival. But today the livelihood of my people is being destroyed by the oil and gas industry.

I am here specifically because the World Bank and IMF claim to have a poverty eradication agenda and a mission in Africa. But what we are seeing in the Niger Delta region is that the World Bank is actually supporting and financing Shell and other oil corporations to further degrade and destroy our environment.

You are talking about the Niger Delta Contractor Revolving Fund established by the World Bank's International Finance Corporation with support from Citibank and Shell? You are against that?

Yes

But the bank says that loan is specifically designed to help small Nigerian companies win contracts with the international oil companies operating in the region. The idea is that this is a mechanism for Nigerians to benefit from what the oil companies are doing in the Delta. You don't think that will work?

Definitely not. The communities are opposed to this facility. My organization, ERA, in coordination with other groups, complained to the IFC about this facility. We filed a complaint last year around April with their ombudsman. IFC compliance representatives who visited the area found much of the complaint justified; they agreed that there were issues of development, issues of human rights, which were not taken into consideration by the IFC when they made that investment.

But they did nothing about it.

For us this is an example of the way consultation and dialogue work with the IFC and World Bank. Having visited with us, met with community people, moved around, nothing happened. They issued a report which didn't make any specific recommendations, although finding that there are problems with the concept.

So what would you like the bank to do?

The most important thing that the World Bank should do is just leave Africa alone. We have seen enough of its devastation and destruction. We should be left alone to develop our own priorities and practices that would benefit our people.

You are saying leave Africa alone. But African leaders, through NEPAD, are saying no to that idea, calling for help from the World Bank. The World Bank stresses that it is giving Africa $1 billion for HIV/AIDS, $3 billion in no interest IDA financing this year. Does Africa really want all that money to go away?

We have a situation where the governments are constrained by their huge debt. So they now have to depend on aid to service the debt - (just to pay the interest every year.) We have debts that have been paid, over and over again... and yet are still hanging over the country. And this kind of situation is forcing African governments to adopt neo-liberal policies, so that NEPAD is just an attempt to domesticate the IMF structural adjustment policies that have failed over the years.

Carola Kinasha. You spoke at the big rally on the weekend. Can you tell us who you are representing here?

I work for different organization back home. The basic one that brought me here is the Tanzania Gender Network program.

I feel like I don't come from a sovereign state anymore. I feel like I am not a member of a free country. The only time I felt that I had a country to talk about was in that period from the moment in 1961 when we thought we had won our independence and Julius Nyerere became President, to when he retired in 1985. In that time we had free education from primary to university level. We had free medical care. And you must remember this was the time when we were supporting all the freedom fighters in Southern Africa. So the Western countries cut us out completely.

Despite the fact that we didn't have any support because we were considered terrorist, as we were supporting "terrorist actions", we still managed to deliver the main services to our people. We were not rich, but at least we were free and we made our own decisions.But not now.

Since Nyerere retired in 1985 and we decided to sign the deal with the IMF sixteen years ago, nothing has improved.

But what is the IMF doing?

The main thing that they do is bring in private investors under the pretext that all the nationally owned factories and industries have failed. So they say they have to bring in people with money. But I haven't seen anybody investing in education. I haven't seen anybody investing in medical care. I haven't seen people investing in anything that I would call development.

Everybody is investing in mines, in resources that people take out of the country. And they are introducing so called modern farming. Now instead of our farmers keeping some of their own seed from each crop, like we did before, farmers have to go back to the shops every year to buy seeds and there is evidence that productivity is going down.

You spoke during one of the rallies about the large, World Bank financed Bulyanhulu Gold Mine mining project in your country. We know that a group of Tanzanians have filed a formal complaint with the World Bank's independent ombudsman about this project, but can you tell us a little bit about your perspective on that project?

We are against one foreign company being given 5,000 square kilometers of land. The people who were working in that area, making their living, even if their technology was rudimentary, were taken off the land on the pretext that they did not have a license.

We are against one big foreign company being given a five year tax holiday, because the project is a sure thing. It is not a gamble. We are against these outside investors being allowed to import everything they want, duty free. We are against the very low taxes they are expected to pay.

We are against the fact that they own everything and we own nothing. We hate the fact that the people from outside are given land, because we cannot go to any other country and get land. Our people have no land anymore. So people are angry about many things.

And it is not true, that this protest reflects just a few people talking. The majority of Tanzanians know what is going on, but they don't have the support of their leaders. Because many of our leaders are themselves shareholders in this business. We are against them selling off the national resources.

Now our power is being sold; soon the water interest will be sold. Despite our protests, water is going to be privatized. In our country, even today, a lot of people don't have easy access to drinking water or have to walk miles to fetch drinking water. Can you imagine what life is going to be like for them when that water is privatized?

We are also against the fact that important economic policies are made here, thousands of miles away from the people they affect. And we object because these policies are made behind closed doors.

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