Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: As We Celebrate Africa Liberation Day, Continent Still Enslaved by Debt By Salih Booker
May 25th marks 45 years of the celebration of Africa Liberation Day and the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Yet decades after Africa’s so-called liberation, the continent is still in chains. Africans may have shed the formal shackles of colonial rule, but they remain enslaved by the bondage of foreign debt claimed by rich country creditors. African countries are trapped beneath a crushing debt burden of some $300 billion, in a continent where many subsist on less than $1 per day. The All-Africa Conference of Churches has called this debt "a new form of slavery as vicious as the slave trade."
Just as was the case with slavery and colonial rule, we will never have an exact account of the death toll resulting from Africa’s debt crisis. This much we know: While African countries are required to continue their historic role of financing the development of northern countries, thousands of African children die each day from easily preventable malnutrition and diseases. As African countries pay $15 billion each year in debt service to the world’s richest countries and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), half of Africa’s population lives without access to safe water or basic health care, and half of the continent’s children do not attend primary school.
Africa is ground zero of the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, yet African efforts to cope with this crisis are undermined by the continent’s massive debt burden and the consequent hemorrhaging of resources. Sub-Saharan Africa has just over 10% of the world’s population, but is home to more than 60% of all people living with HIV—some 25 million people. As long as African countries are forced to prioritize spending on debt repayments over HIV/AIDS programs, they will be unable to turn the tide of this deadly pandemic, and increasing numbers of lives will needlessly be lost each year.
Much of Africa’s debt is illegitimate in nature, having been incurred by unrepresentative and despotic regimes during the era of Cold War patronage. Loans were made to corrupt leaders who used the money for their own personal gain, often with the full knowledge and support of the U.S. and other lenders. These loans did not benefit Africa’s people. Yet, African countries are required to repay these debts by rich countries and institutions that wish to retain control over the continent’s resources and over its future. As Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere put it exactly 20 years ago, “economic power is used as a substitute for gun-boats in enforcing the unilateral will of the powerful.”
Civil society organizations have been making strong calls for debt cancellation for years now; it is encouraging that African government officials have finally joined the chorus. Two statements from meetings of African Finance Ministers, first in Dakar and then in Abuja this month, unequivocally repudiate Africa’s debt. They agree to urge their governments to adopt a "militant and forceful position" on debt cancellation.
In recent years, the Group of Seven (G-7) wealthy countries have finally begun to bend to civil society pressure for debt cancellation. Yet, for all their effusive commitments to ending poverty in Africa, George W. Bush and Tony Blair and other leaders have failed to take action on this urgent priority. They make pronouncements about “freedom” and “liberty” even as they sit on the throne of a pernicious system of global apartheid that has kept the majority of Africans in bondage. When the G-7 (plus Russia) meet in Scotland in July, Africa’s debt crisis will again be on their agenda, and nothing short of 100% cancellation will be acceptable.
The cancellation of Africa's illegitimate debt is both a moral imperative and an economic precondition to Africa’s liberation. As we celebrate Africa Liberation Day, let us heed the words of Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa, who noted recently, “In this new century, millions of people in the world’s poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved, and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free.” Debt cancellation for African countries is a critical first step to achieving this freedom.
Salih Booker is Executive Director of Africa Action, the oldest Africa advocacy organization in the U.S. (http://www.africaaction.org/)
Tuesday, May 24, 2005