Food for thought: As young black women from the Southern tip of Africa, we were excited by the notion of being in the same room where many influential African leaders sat, spoke, decided on the state of the continent and formed the Organisation of African Unity.
We were taking part in the African Regional Forum on Business and Human Rights, hosted by the UN and AU, in Addis Ababa. This forum is intended to allow Africans the opportunity to voice their views on the human rights impact of corporations’ activities on the continent.
As we sat in the room, we could not help but consider the calibre of African leaders who have occupied the same room, including renowned and revered Burkina Faso President, Thomas Sankara. In 1986, shortly before his assassination, Sankara made a powerful speech telling African heads of States to unite against paying foreign debt.
He said, “Those who lent money to us are the same people who colonised us, are the same who for so long managed our states and our economies; they indebted Africa with donations of money.” Seated in this room, we reflected on his words and their parallel to the activities of multi-national corporations on the continent.
Africa has what has been called the “resource curse”. We have a plethora of natural resources but Africans continue to live in poverty and in conditions that belie the wealth beneath our feet. In an effort to improve the living conditions of its people, African states grant corporations the right to mine our minerals and thus contribute to GDPs and economic development.
Some of these companies are from the Global North, some emanate from our former colonisers. The countries are developed countries. The growth of these economies occurred by means of the use, and at times abuse, of African states and people; be it by means of colonisation, slavery or Apartheid.
This situation has robbed Africa not only of its resources, but its identity, dignity and people. Some of these corporations come to the continent, profit from the land and indebt Africa. They are responsible for oil spills in Ogoniland, Niger; child labour and slavery in the cocoa farms of the Ivory Coast; and conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This is indeed indebtedness. It is one that denies Nigerians the right to consumable water, land and food; denies Ivorian children the right to education, and denies Congolese people the right to peace and security. It is a debt that will burden Africa for years to come. So as we sit in the Africa Hall, we can’t help but think that the situation to which Sankara spoke continues. It is simply clothed differently.
*Nomonde Nyembe and Wandisa Phama write in their own capacity. Nomonde Nyembe is an attorney in the Business and Human Rights Programme and Wandisa Phama is a Candidate Attorney at the Centre for Applied Legal Studies.