AFRICA: Mass Protests Against EU-enforced Neo-liberalism

On 7-8 January, protests took place in African countries against the planned Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union (EU). In Dakar (Senegal) 50,000 people took part in a demonstration. Several thousand people went onto the streets in Ougadougou (Burkina Faso), and in Mauritania and Bamako (Mali) large Social Forum meetings have been organised. In total, people in 20 countries protested against the agreement which will be a further neo-liberal attack.

The EU intended that the EPA already should have been voted on by 31 December 2007. But because of the growing protest of the countries affected, they could not keep to this timetable. Until now, only a few countries signed the EPA.

The Economic Partnership Agreement negotiations started in 2002, as a part of the Coutounou negotiations, according to the rules of the WTO (World Trade Organisation). Seventy seven countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific are affected. The EU already threatened those countries that did not sign with severe sanctions. The EPA is supposed to replace the so-called preferential trade, which ensured small export advantages to countries (mostly former colonies of the European powers).

EPA = pauperization programme

The effects of the EPA on African countries will be disastrous; it will expose local production further to big international corporations, boosting the market and profits for the imperialist powers. The banning of restrictions on exports will include lifting quotas on the amounts of raw materials which have to stay in the country. The majority of the population in the countries concerned work in agriculture (e.g. Burkina Faso 80%, Mali 70%) and will be hit twice by the Economic Partnership Agreement. According to the agreement, it is not allowed to raise taxes on imports or to subsidise the domestic agricultural sector. The result is that the African markets will be further inundated by cheap vegetables, eggs, and meat from Europe.

Already, in recent years, cheap European products replaced many of the local products. In Mali, a country where there is a cow at every street corner, it is, today, nearly impossible to buy milk. Instead, people have to buy cheaper milk powder from Nestlé. Coffee from the neighbouring Ivory Coast is, at best, available in tourist cafés. In Ghana, the import of tomato paste increased from 26,000 tons to 40,000 tons, from 2002 to 2004.

A consequence of this is that food safety will become further dependent on the big European corporations and it will also destroy the basis of existence of many peasants. That is why Aminata Traoré, spokesperson of the Forum For Another Mali, explained at a press conference in Bamako: “There is a close connection between the EPA and immigration. In destroying the workplaces of many young people, it creates new reasons to migrate.”

At the same time, through the abolition of import taxes, the Economic Partnership Agreement-hit countries will loose one of their main tax revenues. Under pressure, the EU has now promised to compensate for the losses. But nobody believes this will be done for the long term and many people see this will be nothing else but a direct gift to the big European enterprises, which do not have to pay import duties, any more.

In addition, the service sector and the rest of the public services will be completely opened up to European corporations. It is true, during the last years, under pressure from the neo-liberal Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), everything which promises any kind of profit has already been privatised. In Bamako, since the privatisation of refuse collection, waste often remains discarded in streets and is collected by locals using donkeys and carts.

Growing competition over the African market

Behind the Economic Partnership Agreement negotiations is the growing competition over the African market. In recent years, China, especially, gained influence through increased trade with Africa. During a visit to Africa by the Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, in January, China announced that its trade with Africa grew, in 2007, by about 30% to 50 billion euro. China agreed on a most ‘favoured nation’ clause with 41 countries, and it is negotiating a free trade agreement with South Africa. These are key reasons for the EU to try to ensure its influence.

But the European countries also compete against each other. The German Ministry for Economic Cooperation (BMZ) declared: “The engagement of the German economy should be much stronger, taken into account the manifold market opportunities in Africa.”

Trade unions and bosses together?

The planned EPA goes so far that even neo-liberal politicians, like the Senegalese president, Wade, protested against it. Wade published an open letter against the agreement, which the South African president signed, as well. In addition to the protest of unions and peasant organisations, many well-known managers signed a petition against the EPA. The Senegalese government distributed free T-shirts against the EPA and many government members took part in the 7 January anti-EPA demonstration.

But while the government and the managers are outraged because only the profit interests of European enterprises are taken into account and not those of local Senegalese companies, and because they fear for state finances, it is the workers and peasants who suffer from neo-liberal policies, from the Senegalese government and the EU. This is the reason why a general strike was called in Senegal for 9 January, against the rise in the cost of living. The unions postponed the strike because of the anti-EPA demonstration and offered time for new negotiations with the government until March. But it is a mistake to think that the government could be a reliable partner in the fight against this agreement. Instead, a general strike should have been used to build up pressure on both the Senegal government and the EU.

A clear example of the Senegalese government’s neo-liberal policies is seen in the higher education sector: the students in Senegal were on strike for several months, last year, against the lack of space in university buildings and against a university reform, which among other things, threatens students with the introduction of tuition fees.

African market ‘counter-weight’?

Many opponents of the Economic Partnership Agreement negotiations are full of hopes in the creation of a functioning African market as a “counter-weight” to the EU, US and China, which they hope would lead to rising living standards.

It is absurd that African fruits are exported to the EU if there is a local market. Of course, all attempts to further exploit the African continent in the interest of European capitalist profits have to be resisted. Therefore, the importance of the current protest is not to be underestimated.

But, within the capitalist system, it is an illusion to think that an African market, insulated from international competition, could be created. The big economic powers, the EU, US and China, will never accept that a region they exploit becomes a strong competitor. They made this clear with their recent threats to those who will not sign the EPA. In the past, they big powers proved they do not hesitate to provoke conflicts and wars when it is in their interests.

However, a harmonious African market is not the motivation of the current African rulers, either. South Africa, for example, established itself as a regional imperialist power. In countries like Namibia it is hard to find products without the label “made in RSA”. The South African capitalists do not want to lose this market to European, or any other, competitors.

This is why a part of the mass movement against the agreement is drawing the conclusion that they have to find other partners in the fight against neo-liberalism. At a conference in Bamako, several speakers from peasants’ organisations and unions pointed out that in Europe workers also protested against neo-liberal attacks, and cited the protests against attacks on pensions in several countries.

Aminata Traoré, from the Forum for Another Mali, compared the EPA with the undemocratic attempt to impose an EU constitution. “We need a coalition with other forces in the north, who know that this economic system is a blind alley.” The coalition we need is an international one, of the working people and poor, that struggles against capitalism and for a socialist alternative that can truly liberate humanity from poverty and crisis.

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