The second reality depicts Africa as the world’s poorest continent, where the majority of people live with no access to clean water, decent health care, education and electricity, and struggle to survive in the face of high levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality. This is the reality we see all around us in Africa. And when one looks at the countries with high growth rate they are all – with the exception of Ghana and Zambia – still facing serious challenges on the democratic front, with high instances of corruption in the extractive industries. Some are literally in the midst of civil wars such the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where AngloGold Ashanti is investing in gold in a context of acute political intractability. Human Rights Watch issued well-known reports on the AngloGold Ashanti adventure when it entered into lucrative relations with the FNI rebel movement in 1994.2 This example speaks volumes about how British companies are prepared to make deals with very dubious players and deals that undermine the national sovereignty of the host country in order to secure access to resources.
Two other British oil companies, SOCO and Perenco, also operate in the DRC. SOCO wants to exploit oil in the Virunga National Park, which is the continent’s oldest and most diverse national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Despite rejection of the project by local civil society and communities, SOCO has continued to move ahead – supported by officials in President Kabila’s government. The French Oil company Total has already pledged not to operate in Virunga – and indeed in any other World Heritage Sites – but SOCO refuses to abandon its Virunga project.
Perenco is an independent Anglo-French oil and gas company with headquarters in London and Paris. It has exploration and production activities in 16 countries across the globe. In the DRC it is active in on-shore and off-shore oil development in Bas-Congo Province. Its oil extraction has decimated fish stocks, destroyed vegetation and been conducted just behind the houses of impoverished Congolese citizens. And yet there is no outcry from the British authorities. Why does the British government allow its companies to invest in countries with questionable records on human rights and corruption, such as Angola and the DRC? And why does it allow them to operate with impunity?
The love affair between many African governments and international corporations – and the optimistic power of the Africa Rising narrative3 – are obscuring harsh realities, namely that many African are excluded from benefiting from the exploitation of their own resources. In many of these high growth countries, citizens now believe that they are paying too high a price for economic growth, which does not trickle down to them.
Most British companies in Africa are protected by private security in globally-networked enclaves, while the rest of their host countries face endemic poverty, inequality and disorder – and in some cases warfare. As James Ferguson observes, this ‘global’ model of resource extraction is not new; indeed it is quite old.4 In the early colonial period, in particular, private companies with their own private armies (from King Leopold’s
Congo to the British South Africa Company) pioneered methods for securing economic extraction in the absence of modern state institutions – and with no thought for the welfare of the local people.