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African Workers And Scholars Unite


At Workers University in Cairo, a mid-May gathering of 100 trade union leaders and intellectuals from across Africa adopted surprisingly common radical language, exhibiting a pent-up desire to jointly fight global neoliberalism.

The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria) has been an extraordinary network for 5000 members who are the continent’s core of progressive academics. From its head office in Dakar came the executive secretary, political economist Adebayo Olukoshi, and Carlos Cardoso, one of the leading scholars on the work of Amilcar Cabral from his native Guinea-Bissau.

Cosponsoring was Hassan Sunmonu, the charismatic Nigerian leader of the 33-year old Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (Oatuu). He noted his group’s unusually open relations with social change activists elsewhere in civil society: as a founding member of the World Social Forum’s Africa regional network and member of the WSF International Council, and founding member of African Trade Network with twenty NGOs, as well as networks on debt and economic policy.

Each intervention attacked their double oppression, stemming first from international economic pressure and second from local accomplices in comprador-state regimes. Changing these governments was a perpetual task, said Sunmonu: ‘In our Arusha African Charter for Popular Participation in 1990, we announced the need for a people-empowered democracy. Those rulers elected by the African people must be at their service, not in the service of multinationals, donors or the World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Those leaders unwilling to work on this basis must now go!’

For Sunmonu, this is a chance to unite with academics, to remind all Africa’s producers of the unfair conditions they labour under. ‘France formally apologised to Africans this last week for participating in slavery. We want to hear from Queen Elizabeth, the Portuguese, the Spanish, Brussels, Washington and others involved in the slave trade. You researchers have to document who were the slave traders; how many have been put in slavery; how many died; how many survived. We need reparations for millions of Africans put into slavery, and for all the resources and artefacts stolen from us since.’

The challenge of ending contemporary economic slavery is witnessed in the reluctance of the IMF and World Bank to fully cancel Africa’s debt, charged Sunmonu: ‘They imposed the crudest form of neoliberalism on Africa! It has worked nowhere!’

One rare area where struggles to reform Bank policies achieved real results was permission for states to fund education without dreaded cost-recovery provisions, formerly a ubiquitous condition imposed by Washington. User fees had drastically cut girl participation rates in primary and secondary schooling.

Yet new problems soon arose, according to Wanyonyi Buteyo, secretary general of the Kenyan Union of Post-Primary Teachers. A 20% increase in teaching staff is needed to provide quality education for expanding enrolments following Kenya’s implementation of free education in 2002, he testified: ‘Government is under outrageous pressure from the World Bank and IMF not to employ extra teachers, much as it is known that we have this urgent need. I believe that advice and conditionality should be disregarded completely.’

Sunmonu explained, ‘The debt is still the main way that the IMF and Bank saddle our countries with orthodox structural adjustments including conditionality. All the gains made after independence were wiped out. As early as 1987, the first international trade union conference on debt was held by OATUU, and called for total cancellation.’

Seven years earlier, the Lagos Plan of Action – a progressive, regionalist economic platform – had been adopted by African leaders. It was countered the following year by the Bank’s Elliott Berg Report, codifying the ‘Washington Consensus’ formula for Africa.

Said Olukoshi, ‘We have lived with this neoliberal experience since Sierra Leone in 1978, with virtually every other economy in Africa since. In 1983, the Codesria declaration on why structural adjustment can’t work spelled out ten reasons. This was very influential on me. Years later, Joseph Stiglitz says much the same thing. The wasted time! That’s the basis for our frustration.’

Periodically, alternatives are suggested by progressive intellectuals, trade unions and social movements. The African Alternative Framework was produced at the UN Economic Commission on Africa in 1989, with drafting support by this conference’s keynote speaker, economist Ali Abdel Gadir Ali. Now based at the Arab Planning Institute, Ali provided a demolition job of the Washington Consensus, claiming imminent victory in the ideological wars, as greater attention to planning and genuine development economics is emerging in the discipline.

Olukoshi expressed growing confidence in this critique: ‘We’re not appealing any more to the Bank and Fund to listen. We will reserve the right to go on a campaign against our leaders who sell out the continent.’

Two additional problems were recorded: the Pretoria/Johannesburg subimperial axis, and labour’s sometimes narrow self-interest.

‘Who is the agent of the World Bank in Africa today?’ asked David Nkonjo, a leader of the Ugandan trade union movement. He answered: ‘South Africa. They have spread their tentacles everywhere. They come and protect capital. The agenda is continued exploitation, looking for the soft ground. The minute you rise up – tear gas, police. African leaders are working under the dictates of capital.’

Agreed Mahlomola Skhosana, general secretary of South Africa’s National Council of Trade Unions: ‘We have no sentiments favouring the New Partnership for Africa’s Development [Mbeki's neoliberal plan for Africa]. We have not been involved, it is not relevant to us.’

To be sure, there are some in labour, including the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), who advocate ongoing consultations and even work inside the World Bank. Early this month they issued an insipid statement designed to show concern about the Bank’s privatisation advice and public service layoffs (http://www.sarpn.org/documents/d0002006/).

But in the crucial case of Tanzania’s water – which was so badly privatised by the Bank and British aid that last May the London firm Biwater was booted out – the ICFTU document (quoting a local official) revealed some of the power relations: ‘The Tanzanian labour movement did not play a direct role in advocating for the de-privatization of the water company… The primary group to work against privatization was the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme [along with] “the cries from the general public as water consumers.”‘

‘This does not mean that the union was a passive player, however. Throughout the period of privatization, the union’s key issues were job security and better terms and working conditions. As a result of the union’s efforts, “we managed to ensure that there were no retrenchments after privatization,” and “no workers lost their jobs during the era of the private operator.” That is a triumph in itself.’

Such is the tradition of ‘corporatist’, self-interested union politics that Oatuu’s broader social change agenda aims to transcend. Observed Ibrahim Asila from the Union of Senegalese Workers, ‘Trade unions should go beyond our classical scope, and more should be done to bring on board all concerns.’

Meanwhile, the continent’s leaders are getting their alternative economics information from the likes of Jeffrey Sachs, at a mid-2004 African Union summit. The Columbia University professor does at least concede in his recent book, The End of Poverty, that ‘Little surpasses the western world in the cruelty and depredations that it has long imposed on Africa.’ And at his Addis Ababa hearing, he even advocated debt repudiation, with payments redirected so as to improve health and education.

However, Sachs muddies the politics and economics by presuming that the critique of corrupt African elites is a ‘political story line’ of the ‘right’, instead of giving credence to progressive, organic anti-corruption campaigning. From there, he rehearses accounts of malaria, AIDS, landlocked countries and other forms of geographically-determinist analysis. Sachs then reconciles these explanations for African poverty with garden-variety policy advice: adopting good governance plus ‘implementing traditional market reforms, especially regarding export promotion’, revealing his notorious love of sweatshops.

Complained Olukoshi, ‘If Jeffrey Sachs can be given an hour to speak to our leaders – the Sachs who wrote privatisation programmes for Eastern Europe and Latin America, yesterday’s neoliberal who is today’s social democrat – then at every summit the African Union must give us a platform.’

But will the rulers listen, if instead they enjoy their own revolving door relationships with Washington? Notable is Liberia’s new president, Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, a former World Bank official.

Recounted Isaac Williams, secretary of the Liberian union federation: ‘Just before I came here, government announced it is embarking on major downsizing. At the same time, of course, people belonging to her own political party are being brought in. We need a foreign policy for unions because these ideas are coming from the World Bank and IMF.’

Olukoshi cited the famous statement by the World Bank’s chief African economist, Deepak Lall, who in 1984 called for ‘effective, ruthless governments able to ride roughshod over public opinion.’

Added Egyptian scholar Shaheeda El-Baz, ‘Most of our countries have liberalised economics, but they have refused to liberalise politics. There is a weak or nonexistent margin of democracy and a monopoly on policy-making by a state elite, which resorts to coercive measures. Globalisation has defeated democracy. The majority of people are simply excluded.’

Continued Helmy Sharawi, director of the Arab-African Studies Centre here, ‘We must restore the responsibility and role of the state but we are not for despotism or dictatorship.’

In the streets outside, Hosni Mubarak’s half-hearted commitment to democracy is degenerating into despotism. This week his regime passed an emergency ban on demonstrations – ‘any unauthorised protest in Cairo shall be considered henceforth illegal’ – directed at the rising democracy protests.

According to a local source who preferred to remain anonymous because of potential reprisal, ‘Something is cooking. Last Friday, Mubarak’s son Gamal made a secret visit to Washington – as discrete as can be – and fortunately, Al Jazeera reporters were covering a different event: some generals meeting with Rumsfeld. It was pure coincidence that they saw the Egyptian ambassador and Mubarak junior going into the White House through a side door that leads to Dick Cheney’s office. They wanted to keep the whole consultation secret.’

The US leaders were probably briefed about Gamal’s desire to succeed Hosni, a process that may get underway within the next few months, in the wake of Washington’s approval of similar successions in Morocco and Jordan. Vast US aid investments keep the powerkey from blowing, but a new popular democratic movement – Kifaya (‘Enough’); – is pushing hard.

Next week, more protests are likely, in part because of state harassment of two dissident judges in Cairo and Alexandria (they questioned the legitimacy of the last election), and because the World Economic Forum is moving its regional meeting here (usually it is in Jordan). Activists will have an alternative critical conference, at the least.

This terrain, combining neoliberalism and eroded rights, is familiar to Africa’s labour movement and intellectuals. As Olukushi warned, ‘There are powerful interests behind the status quo, who are profiting – and they are not going to leave the terrain to us without a fight. They are powerful, transnational and sometimes even have our own governments backing them.’

‘Our strategy must be to make their policies illegitimate, ungovernable. We have a very strong advantage. In spite of all the promises of the neoliberal agenda, people in their daily lives have felt the failures, which gives both working people and the middle classes an appetite for an alternative. Our capacity to connect to the groundswell of protest is the other advantage we have.’

Olukoshi concluded, ‘Together we can shake the foundations of the neoliberal forces on the continent. Our decision to march together and strike together represents one of the most significant developments. We will also target like-minded social movements across Africa, like the African Social Forum, leading to the World Social Forum in Nairobi next January.’

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(Patrick’s forthcoming book, *Looting Africa: The Economics of Exploitation*, is available next month from Zed Books, and the second edition of *Talk Left, Walk Right: South Africa’s Frustrated Reforms* is now available at http://www.ukznpress.co.za or [email protected])

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