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What is the Moral Imperative in Africa?

Exploitation of African Natural Resources by the U.S: Is China Following the Same Path?

A moral imperative is something that must be done because it is right, regardless of opposition or difficulty. While we debate whether this exists as a justification for the U.S. and NATO involvement in Libya, the economic problems in Africa caused by years of political strife and the resulting humanitarian disasters continue to go essentially ignored by the western world. The moral implications for the U.S. government to act in Africa go unrecognized. The latest case is the Ivory Coast.

The West African nation of Ivory Coast (Côte d'Ivoire) is rich in natural resources and once was a magnet for multinational entities to bring prosperity to the region. But since a 2002 civil war, the country has been divided between north and south and wracked by strife. The crisis escalated in November 2010, when the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to step down after his defeat in a presidential election he had postponed for years. Despite declarations by the UN, the African Union, the U.S. and European Union that he lost to opposition leader Alassane Quattara, Gbagdo clinged to power much in the same way as now deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak had done in Egypt and Moammar Gaddafi is still doing in Libya. Finally on April 11, Quattara's forces were able to find Gbagbo where he and 50 family members and associates were hiding and they were arrested. The road back will be a long one for the Ivory Coast as pockets of militias still exist and the death toll estimated at 1,500 will undoubtedly rise while the country begins to rebuild. "We need to open up a humanitarian lifeline to the many Ivorians who are now the victims of alarming shortages of food, water and other basic needs," said UN World Food Programme executive director, Josette Sheeran.

Over the years and in many African countries the U.S. government has failed to act to save lives and relieve suffering. Instead, the government has chosen to partner with multinational entities to exploit natural resources. The regions' scarce economic resources are exploited to gain access to oil and other minerals without regard for giving back to the community, building infrastructure, or creating sustainable economic development. While this is occurring, competing political forces fight it out for control of the country, as happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda, as one side or the other pillages villages and commits atrocities.  The U.S. government stands idly by and watches instead of acting out of a moral imperative. Rather than leading the way to an open and free society with economic benefits for all in Africa, U.S. multinationals pursue their self-interests and some even financially support one side or the other in the conflict -- the one that promises access to the country's abundant natural resources.

The U.S. media is complicit by virtually ignoring the moral failure of the U.S. government and multinationals. For example, very little was reported about the attempt by western multinationals to cash in of the wealth of Congo's resources, including petroleum and natural gas, that some blame for the so-called Africa's World War that began in August 1998 and ended in July 2003. The war involved eight African nations and led to 5.4 million deaths, mostly from disease and starvation, making it the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II. Millions were displaced from their homes or sought asylum in neighboring countries. Where was the moral outrage? The U.S. government remained on the sidelines while multinationals did nothing to prevent the carnage all the while they were reaping the benefits of the exploited resources? They acted solely in their own interests and ignored the humanitarian red flags that existed over many years.

The DRC is rich with minerals including tons of diamonds, copper, cobalt, zinc, manganese, uranium, niobium, and tantalum also known as coltan. Coltan has become an increasingly valuable resource to American corporations. Coltan is used to make mobile phones, night vision goggles, fiber optics, and capacitators used to maintain the electrical charge in computer chips. The DRC holds 80% of the world’s coltan reserves, more than 60% of the world’s cobalt and is the world’s largest supplier of high-grade copper. With these minerals playing a major part in maintaining US military dominance and economic growth, minerals in the Congo are deemed vital US interests.

The U.S. government has commercialized military activity as part of its strategic foreign policy to exploit needed resources in Africa, a charge also levied against intervention in Iraq. You can bet the offending multinationals would not be engaged in these exploitive activities without the implicit approval of the government. In all fairness, I must mention that rebels in warring countries sometimes sell the rights to natural resources to western multinationals so they, too, are complicit in the immoral acts occurring under the guise of somehow benefiting the people of Africa. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the aftermath of the displacement of one political power in African countries and the fallout for multinationals, China has now stepped in to fill the void and quench its thirst for natural resources to spur economic growth. China's rising demand for Africa's natural resources helped to re-establish Africa as a source of valuable commodities for the global market. Chinese manufacturers rely heavily on imported raw materials. So Zambia's abundant supplies of copper are appealing, as are Congo's cobalt and other precious metals. China is tempted by the fertile farmland in Angola and Zimbabwe where productivity would soar with better investment.

Is China good for Africa? Will it succeed where others have failed, especially U.S. multinationals, to reverse years of poverty, sickness, and illiteracy? China's interests in the once-forgotten continent are obvious. China is now Africa's second-largest trading partner after the United States, importing a third of its crude oil from Africa. Further, Africa needs the investment, in particular, to rebuild its decrepit infrastructure. A November 2009 World Bank Report states: "The poor state of infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa—its electricity, water, roads and information and communications technology (ICT)—cuts national economic growth by two percentage points every year and reduces productivity by as much as 40 percent." To close the infrastructure gap, an annual spending of $93 billion would be required. Thus, Chinese investment in Africa's infrastructure should be most welcome but at what cost to the African people? Is this simply a "neo-colonialist" adventure by China rather than a good faith effort to recognize Africa's aspirations?

Blog by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, April 12, 2011