Navigating Misconceptions: Decoding Africa’s Complex Relations with the West

October 5, 2023 | Alexander


U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jonathan Braga meets with Maj. Gen. Moussa Barmou at Air Base 101
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jonathan Braga meets with Maj. Gen. Moussa Barmou at Air Base 101 | Credit: AP

The rallying cry of “Africa Rising!” has gained traction among the youth of the continent, especially in Francophone countries. This digital movement passionately discusses Africa’s reclamation of what rightfully belongs to it from the grasp of the Western world. Their fervent outcry is succinct: ‘We refuse to stand idly by as our invaluable resources are plundered by the West, all while we receive meager compensation in return.’ These declarations are often accompanied by the waving of Russian flags, along with the proclamation that ‘Putin or China alone stand as Africa’s true allies.’

However, as the dust of rhetoric settles, it becomes clear that this perspective, while fiery and impassioned, lacks the depth of understanding needed for a nuanced assessment. It is a perspective that, in its passionate pursuit of justice, fails to recognize the complexities that define international relations. In my view, this stance appears both misguided and ignorant, as it overlooks the intricate web of interconnected interests that shape global interactions. Moreover, the unsettling truth remains that those who ardently advocate for this perspective also tend to endorse military dictatorships as a preferable alternative – a viewpoint that raises eyebrows and demands further examination.

As we delve into this endeavor, we cast our spotlight onto Niger and Burkina Faso — two nations entangled in the complexities of military dictatorships. Through these illuminating examples, we will examine the narratives that frequently shroud the realities and expose the myths within Africa’s intricate geopolitical landscape.

Myth 1: France steals Niger’s uranium and leaves the country with no electricity

According to the World Nuclear Association, Niger’s cumulative uranium production from 1945 to 2022 was 156,620 tU, ranking it 8th globally. However, the country holds only about 5% of the world’s reserves. Niger is not among the top 5 uranium-producing nations, and its production has been declining in recent years by 10.15%. If its supply were to go offline, the global market might not be heavily affected due to the potential for increased production from Kazakhstan and Australia. Niger has 2 significant uranium mines: Société des Mines de l’Aïr (SOMAIR) and Compagnie Minière d’Akouta (COMINAK). The Nigerien government owns 36.6% of SOMAIR and 31% of COMINAK. Another mine, Société des Mines d’Azelik SA (SOMINA), is partly owned by the state, with Chinese and Korean companies owning the rest. SOMINA was shut down due to lack of profitability.

Production is first sold to the partners in proportion to their equity at an ‘extraction price’ determined by the government, notionally based on operation costs, but somewhat higher. From February 2012, the extraction price is CFA 73,000/kgU ($145/kgU), paid in Euros. The partners then sell or use it, in the case of the government, through a trading company – World Nuclear Associataion

In 2014, the government renegotiated a deal with Orano, the French company with the largest stake in SOMAIR and COMINAK. The deal increased the royalty from 5.5% to about 12% and included Nigerians on their boards. Additionally, this agreement encompassed $134 million for development, including infrastructure like roads. The government estimated that this arrangement would generate an extra $39 million in revenue.

Given that the Nigerien government is receiving payment and owns significant shares in the mines, the notion that France is stealing the uranium appears unfounded. It’s important to note that the government obtains extra uranium for sale on the market after extraction, often selling to private companies, including the United States.

The argument that possessing uranium warrants entitlement to a nuclear power plant is flawed. Foreign companies mining uranium in a country don’t automatically lead to the construction of a nuclear power plant. The substantial cost of building a nuclear power plant, which amounts to billions of dollars, raises the question of funding.

Myth 2: 14 African Countries Forced by France to Pay Colonial Tax

This myth is approximately 20 years old, and numerous articles have been written about it. However, many people still believe it. French-speaking countries initially pegged their currency to the French franc and later to the Euro when France joined the European Union. As a condition of this arrangement, they had to adhere to European monetary policy, which bolstered the strength of their currency. France also guaranteed unlimited convertibility of the CFA franc into other currencies, and countries had the option to opt out, as Mali did (though they eventually rejoined after a few years).

As a result of this arrangement, these countries made deposits in the Bank of France, which were meant to guarantee monetary stability and inspire confidence among foreign investors. These deposits remain the property of the respective countries and earn a decent interest rate.

That being said, it is not unfounded to criticize the monetary policies of Francophone countries as outdated and in need of reform since their independence. This is because, due to the strong currency and very low inflation, there can be a decline in aggregate demand and slow economic growth, potentially leading to unemployment. However, labeling the current system as a “colonial tax” is misleading and inaccurate.

What Next for France

Contrary to popular beliefs, France’s loss of its colonial empire in Africa should not be viewed as a strategic defeat. There were minimal advantages to colonizing these regions in the first place. Unlike the British, who strategically established trading posts like the Niger River confluence, ultimately gaining valuable territories such as Nigeria, the French colonial approach of acquiring extensive land in the Sahel region proved to be expensive. This approach necessitated a significant military presence to prevent these states from falling into the hands of jihadists and separatists, a scenario already unfolding in Mali and likely to occur in Niger and Burkina Faso in due time.

It’s not far-fetched to argue that Russia may be the biggest loser here, as France, without the distraction of African affairs, could potentially lead European efforts more assertively, particularly in its policy towards Ukraine. The primary loss for France will be the prestige associated with relinquishing its colonies, much like the British did over half a century ago.

Final Thoughts

It’s important to clarify that Africa’s progress is not uniformly on the upswing. Rather, what we’re witnessing is an increase in the affinity for dictatorial regimes and a concerning lack of critical thinking among some young Africans, who may naively view major global powers like China and Russia as allies.

When the dictator of Burkina Faso sat in front of Putin and expressed his generation’s confusion regarding his country’s poverty despite its abundant resources, someone should have reminded him that his nation lacks noteworthy substantial resources and remains predominantly agrarian. The majority of Burkina Faso’s mineral wealth remains largely untapped. The reluctance to invest in a region marked by political instability and significant security challenges is understandable.

Certainly, Western powers bear a significant amount of blame. The legacy of colonialism runs deep on the continent and will take a while to finally heal. However, we shouldn’t view the world in terms of friends and enemies. It’s crucial not to replace one form of exploitation with another due to the narratives of political elites and counter-elites.”

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