Between economic deregulation and political violence

The map of Africa is no longer divided into the colonial Empires of Europe’s self-styled Great Powers. Yet its political and economic development is more than ever controlled in the interests of the North and West. As Mohamed T. Bensaada shows, IMF and World Bank accountants, backed when necessary by UN armed intervention, have taken the place of District Commissioners and openly imperialist armies.

The bouts of violence shaking both northern and subSaharan Africa in Algeria, the Great Lakes region, Liberia, Somalia þ are far from being the irrational phenomena described in the mainstream western press. The upsurge of violence rooted in religious and ethnic manipulation in weakened, destructured societies is the indirect consequence of the redrawing of the global geopolitical map, a redefinition which is, of course, being carried out in the shadow of programmes of economic deregulation imposed by the international financial institutions.

The fall of the Soviet empire and the opening of central and eastern European markets to western capital exacerbated the economic marginalisation of Africa. Taking advantage of the existence of the infrastructure and relatively well-qualified labour force left by the former socialist system of the Eastern bloc, capital preferred this apparently more profitable region. The withdrawal of investors from Africa certainly did not, however, mean the end of the pillage of minerals and other natural resources of a continent which remains, despite the poverty of its peoples, extremely rich.

International observers have been sounding alarm bells since the end of the cold war. The challenge of demographic crises and underdevelopment have presented Africa with an urgent choice: tribalisation rooted in interethnic wars and social and political destructuring, or a regional integration on the basis of a programme of development centred on a real perspective of an attempt to satisfy the fundamental needs of the continent’s peoples.

The collapse of the old bipolar order and the end of the cold war were interpreted by analysts in the pay of international capital as a step towards a less fragile global peace. Ensuing events, however, have demonstrated the nonsensical nature of such assertions. The Gulf War offered the first proof that the ‘peace’ promised by the New World Order did not by any means signify the end of global insecurity. If the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia showed clearly enough that even Europe itself was not immune to the violent convulsions of the post-cold war period, it was in the South, and in particular in Africa, that physical insecurity would become the general condition of the poor.

Bourgeois commentators on war do not hide their pessimism in the face of this growing insecurity. Lawrence Freedman of the Department of War Studies at London’s Kings College recognises that if ‘the end of the cold war dissolved the spectre of total war’, it has by no means achieved the same for what he cynically refers to as ‘the small wars’ in the South: ‘The wind of history had turned decisively against total war. But certainly not against all wars. Dirty civil wars, inter-communal violence and sometimes confrontations between third world countries persist. Perhaps the big states will feel themselves constrained to play the role of gendarme to impose a certain kind of order.’

Academic analyses, generally echoed in the media, emphasise the accumulation of internal problems and religious and/or ethnic factors as an explanation for the onset of the violence which is tearing certain African countries apart, and use these arguments to justify ‘humanitarian’ intervention or ‘policing action’ by the western powers acting under the cover of the United Nations. This being so, the organic links between internal structural problems, which contribute to the destabilisation of African societies, and the subordination of their economies to the global capitalist system, are hidden. Few honest observers, however, can deny the destructive consequences of the programmes of economic deregulation imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund on most African countries.

Corrupt African bureacrats, fighting each other for power and for the spoils of office by manipulating the religious and/or ethnic feelings of their civilian populations, must bear a heavy responsibility for the conflicts which bathe their countries in blood. It is important to remember, however, that they are invariably each supported and armed by western interest groups with direct links to the multinationals which exploit Africaþs mineral-based wealth. These same multinationals also finance both the media, which regularly shed crocodile tears over the fate of the victims of armed conflicts, and even certain of the NGOs which claim to come to their aid.

The reality of Africa clearly shows that economic deregulation and political violence are inseparable. Since the emergence of the third world debt crisis, the IMF has been transormed into the rich countries' banker, its principal mission to force poor countries to pay back what they owe. The establishment of exterior debt rescheduling programmes is thus effected under stringent economic conditions imposed through so-called Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs). In reality, these invariably involve a thorough programme of economic deregulation which delivers the affected country into the tyrannical hands of the international financial markets. In order to release the funds necessary to repay their external debts, poor countries are obliged to follow to the letter the injuctions of the IMF, and budgetary rigour supposedly designed to bring such countries closer to macroeconomic stability leads to a veritable financial asphyxiation. The ostensible struggle against inflation has as its immediate consequence the freezing of incomes and the collapse of social, educational and health infrastructures. The restructuring of economic activity and enterprises as all state property is forced to undergo privatisation is invariably achieved at the cost of hundreds of thousands of jobs.

With no system of social protection to fall back on, the imposition of World Bank and IMF programmes condemns millions of people to absolute poverty. Unemployment and idleness in some cases affect as many as 50 per cent of the population between the ages of 15 and 25. The weakening of traditional family-based structures of solidarity is transforming African cities into veritable urban jungles. The potential for violence is terrifying, and the smallest spark is capable of igniting its flames. The rise of religious fundamentalisms and ethnic micro-nationalisms constitutes an aggravating factor in this crisis, but the crisis itself is fed above all by the destruction of the social fabric which subordinates African societies to the blind application of the implacable laws of a finacial market deaf to the cries of distress uttered by defenceless peoples.

Unfortunately, this process stands a long way from its conclusion. During its most recent interim committee meeting in Hong Kong in September, 1997, the IMF announced what was only the fourth amendemnt to its rules since its establishment at the end of World War Two. Did this amendment envisage the lightening of the burden of the rigorous SAPs imposed on poor countries? Far from it. The fourth amendment, which must come into force during 1998, will on the contrary allow the IMF to participate directly in the deregulation of capital movements in south east Asia, a deregulation imposed in the west itself during the 1980s.

At the very moment when the rich countries are attempting to construct an impenetrable wall against the mass migrations of people streaming in from the South, and when this free circulation of people in search of the minimum conditions of a decent life is attacked and exploited by demagogues, the International Monetary Fund for its part decrees the free circulation of capital throughout the world. By so doing the IMF offers conclusive proof that in this system personal freedom ends where the freedom of capital begins.

Mohamed T. Bensaada is a journalist, economic consultant and writer. He is a regular contributor to the independent Algiers-based weekly ‘Le Chronique’. This article was translated from the French.

Winter 1997-8