Serving God's People in Africa since 1868

Democratic governance in Africa and climate change

Presentation by Mr. Frédéric Mousseau, Policy Director at the Oakland Institute, at the Ecumenical Advocacy Days Conference April 2021. This was part of the Africa Track Workshop chaired by the Africa Faith and Justice Network of which the Missionaries of Africa are one of the founding members.

Workshop’s Abstract
“Democratic Governance in Africa will Improve the Health of Our Planet”

Africa is paying the heaviest price in the global climate crisis though historically it has not been a major contributor to greenhouse emissions. Ever since climate change has been scientifically linked to human activities, the call to reverse the trend can no longer be ignored. This workshop will explore how the application of democratic governance and participation in democratic processes is crucial for Africa’s meaningful contribution to the global effort of saving our common home.”

When we hear about democratic governance and Africa, we generally hear about coups, rigged elections, autocrats sticking to their throne, … This is the convenient narrative many of us have been fed for decades, actually since the independences, of Africans unable to govern themselves the democratic way the so-called developed countries do.

Yet, the work we have been doing at the Institute for the past 16 years on land, agriculture, and climate point to a very different dimension when it comes to poor democratic governance on the continent. We know that the majority of Africans still live today in rural communities, as farmers, herders, fisherfolks, in a way that contributes little to climate change because it relies marginally on fossil fuels, etc…

However, what we see governments doing in many parts of Africa is three things:

  1. Focusing their efforts not on supporting their rural citizens but on creating attractive environments for so called investors, so that land and natural resources can be given away for exploitation, through extractive industries or industrial large-scale agriculture, for oil palm plantations for instance.
  2. Allowing cheap imports from everywhere, including of agricultural products and textiles that come from far distances and compete with local productions.
  3. Spending large parts, in some countries most part, of their budgets on agriculture to subsidize agricultural inputs, including commercial seeds, and fossil fuel based fertilizers and pesticides, all produced and sold by corporate agro-chemical companies.

This path leads to a model that contributes to climate change because:

  1. Land and natural resources are taken away, polluted, or degraded, whereas citizens rely on these resources for their livelihoods
  2. Sustainable farming is replaced by industrial agriculture highly reliant on fossil fuels
  3. Public spending may make agricultural inputs available to farmers but at a high cost and increased debt for the countries while no investment is made on LT (inputs have to be bought every season)

This is undemocratic because it is not an objective choice made by governments who decides the best options for their country and their people, but rather a direction often taken under the pressure from outside, as the World Bank, several so-called donor countries, and philanthropic institutions, especially the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are very actively pushing for more exploitation.

There are myriads of initiatives and projects driven from outside such as New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, or the World Bank’s Enabling the Business of Agriculture project to cite just a few that demonstrate how outside forces are pressuring African governments to design policies that go against the interests of their own population and instead benefit new forms of colonialism and exploitation.

Our work at the Institute has widely documented this pressure. Several of these initiatives prescribe the policy and regulatory changes governments should do so they can receive aid. Kenya last year received $1 bn loan for COVID assistance from the World Bank, half of this for subsidized seeds and fertilizers, following changes in Kenyan regulations on seeds and phytosanitary products. In other cases, outside govts apply pressure to support the business of their companies, as seen with the Obama administration twisting the arm of the government of Cameroon to accept Herakles Farms oil palm plantations.

We should also recall that there is still much land and natural resources on the continent that are under the control of private interests through no democratic way. Just last month we revealed in a new report that palm oil plantations in DRC now controlled by private equity funds, where US universities, UK and South African pension funds, and the Gates Foundation are invested, are running on land seized in 1911, 110 years ago, by King Leopold through despicable and violent ways as we know. But same goes with Bollore plantations in Cameroon, established on land taken under French colonial rule. Same goes with large ranches and so-called natural reserves in Kenya, many of them owned by wealthy white Kenyans who got their land under British colonial rule. We could also talk about South Africa where over 80%of agricultural land is controlled by white farmers or about the Mugabe regime punished by Western countries for returning the land to the people. We have heard in western media about Robert Mugabe’s alleged rigged elections but little about the unbearable situation of a country of 12 million people where all the fertile land was controlled by 3,000 white farmers.

So talking democratic governance and climate change, we should be talking about restitution of land and resources. Also, too many African leaders, so-called experts and officials follow today the doctrine prescribed by these Western institutions and governments, considering their farmers as backward, and in need to adopt the Western way, to become modern commercial farmers. We should instead be talking about allowing and supporting Africa to produce in a sustainable way, after all African farmers are champions of agroecology and sustainable farming, this is also something we have documented through over 30 case studies. These are practices that not only avoid the reliance on expensive and polluting fossil fuel based inputs and machinery but also provide the best adaptation mechanism to the effects of climate change, by ensuring resilience to climate shocks such as droughts and floods.

To conclude, despite centuries of exploitation and colonization, most Africans have maintained values that should be central to the fight against climate change and to the path towards a dignified life in a safe and healthy environment. These include the respect for the land and natural resources seen as common goods received from ancestors that have to be preserved for the generations to come. These include also the customary systems through which these resources are managed through collective means instead of private property systems that Western countries are promoting on the continent. There is therefore only one way for Africa to tackle climate change, it is through a true emancipation from neocolonial powers and the Western way.