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Publication Details

Reference
Bond, Patrick  (2006) African workers and scholars unite. Centre for Civil Society : -.

Summary

Adebayo Olukoshi

At Workers University in Cairo, a mid-May gathering of 100 trade union
leaders and intellectuals from across Africa adopted surprisingly common
radical language, exhibiting a pent-up desire to jointly fight global
neoliberalism.

The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
(Codesria) has been an extraordinary network for 5000 members who are
the continent’s core of progressive academics. From its head office in
Dakar came the executive secretary, political economist Adebayo
Olukoshi, and Carlos Cardoso, one of the leading scholars on the work of
Amilcar Cabral from his native Guinea-Bissau.

Cosponsoring was Hassan Sunmonu, the charismatic Nigerian leader of the
33-year old Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (Oatuu). He noted
his group’s unusually open relations with social change activists
elsewhere in civil society: as a founding member of the World Social
Forum’s Africa regional network and member of the WSF International
Council, and founding member of African Trade Network with twenty NGOs,
as well as networks on debt and economic policy.

Conference speakers attacked a double oppression, stemming first from
international economic pressure and second from local accomplices in
comprador-state regimes. Changing these governments was a perpetual
task, said Sunmonu: ‘In our Arusha African Charter for Popular
Participation in 1990, we announced the need for a people-empowered
democracy. Those rulers elected by the African people must be at their
service, not in the service of multinationals, donors or the World Trade
Organisation, International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Those leaders
unwilling to work on this basis must now go!’

For Sunmonu, this is a chance to unite with academics, to remind all
Africa’s producers of the unfair conditions they labour under: ‘France
formally apologised to Africans this last week for participating in
slavery. We want to hear from Queen Elizabeth, the Portuguese, the
Spanish, Brussels, Washington and others involved in the slave trade… We
need reparations for millions of Africans put into slavery, and for all
the resources and artefacts stolen from us since.’

The challenge of ending contemporary economic slavery is witnessed in
the reluctance of the IMF and World Bank to fully cancel Africa’s debt,
charged Sunmonu: ‘They imposed the crudest form of neoliberalism on
Africa! It has worked nowhere!’

One rare area where struggles to reform Bank policies achieved real
results was permission for states to fund education without dreaded
cost-recovery provisions, formerly a ubiquitous condition imposed by
Washington. User fees had drastically cut girl participation rates in
primary and secondary schooling.

Yet new problems soon arose, according to Wanyonyi Buteyo, secretary
general of the Kenyan Union of Post-Primary Teachers. A 20% increase in
teaching staff is needed to provide quality education for expanding
enrolments following Kenya’s implementation of free education in 2002,
he testified: ‘Government is under outrageous pressure from the World
Bank and IMF not to employ extra teachers, much as it is known that we
have this urgent need. I believe that advice and conditionality should
be disregarded completely.’

Sunmonu explained, ‘The debt is still the main way that the IMF and Bank
saddle our countries with orthodox structural adjustments including
conditionality. All the gains made after independence were wiped out. As
early as 1987, the first international trade union conference on debt
was held by OATUU, and called for total cancellation.’

Seven years earlier, the Lagos Plan of Action - a progressive,
regionalist economic platform – had been adopted by African leaders. It
was countered the following year by the Bank’s Elliott Berg Report,
codifying the ‘Washington Consensus’ formula for Africa.

Said Olukoshi, ‘We have lived with this neoliberal experience since
Sierra Leone in 1978, with virtually every other economy in Africa
since. In 1983, the Codesria declaration on why structural adjustment
can’t work spelled out ten reasons. This was very influential on me.
Years later, Joseph Stiglitz says much the same thing. The wasted time!
That’s the basis for our frustration.’

Periodically, alternatives are suggested by progressive intellectuals,
trade unions and social movements. The African Alternative Framework was
produced at the UN Economic Commission on Africa in 1989, with drafting
support by this conference’s keynote speaker, economist Ali Abdel Gadir
Ali. Now based at the Arab Planning Institute, Ali provided a demolition
job of the Washington Consensus, claiming imminent victory in the
ideological wars, as greater attention to planning and genuine
development economics is emerging in the discipline.

Olukoshi expressed growing confidence in this critique: ‘We’re not
appealing any more to the Bank and Fund to listen. We will reserve the
right to go on a campaign against our leaders who sell out the continent.’

Two additional problems were recorded: the Pretoria/Johannesburg
subimperial axis, and labour’s sometimes narrow self-interest.

‘Who is the agent of the World Bank in Africa today?’ asked David
Nkonjo, a leader of the Ugandan trade union movement. He answered:
‘South Africa. They have spread their tentacles everywhere. They come
and protect capital. The agenda is continued exploitation, looking for
the soft ground. The minute you rise up - tear gas, police. African
leaders are working under the dictates of capital.’

Agreed Mahlomola Skhosana, general secretary of South Africa’s National
Council of Trade Unions: ‘We have no sentiments favouring the New
Partnership for Africa’s Development [Mbeki’s neoliberal plan for
Africa]. We have not been involved, it is not relevant to us.’

To be sure, there are some in labour, including the International
Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), who advocate ongoing
consultations and even work inside the World Bank. Early this month they
issued an insipid statement designed to show concern about the Bank’s
privatisation advice and public service layoffs
(http://www.sarpn.org/documents/d0002006/).

But in the crucial case of Tanzania’s water – which was so badly
privatised by the Bank and British aid that last May the London firm
Biwater was booted out - the ICFTU document (quoting a local official)
revealed some of the power relations: ‘The Tanzanian labour movement did
not play a direct role in advocating for the de-privatization of the
water company… The primary group to work against privatization was the
Tanzania Gender Networking Programme [along with] “the cries from the
general public as water consumers.”’

‘This does not mean that the union was a passive player, however.
Throughout the period of privatization, the union’s key issues were job
security and better terms and working conditions. As a result of the
union’s efforts, “we managed to ensure that there were no retrenchments
after privatization,” and “no workers lost their jobs during the era of
the private operator.” That is a triumph in itself.’

Such is the tradition of ‘corporatist’, self-interested union politics
that Oatuu’s broader social change agenda aims to transcend. Observed
Ibrahim Asila from the Union of Senegalese Workers, ‘Trade unions should
go beyond our classical scope, and more should be done to bring on board
all concerns.’

Meanwhile, the continent’s leaders are getting their alternative
economics information from the likes of Jeffrey Sachs, at a mid-2004
African Union summit. The Columbia University professor does at least
concede in his recent book, The End of Poverty, that ‘Little surpasses
the western world in the cruelty and depredations that it has long
imposed on Africa.’ And at his Addis Ababa hearing, he even advocated
debt repudiation, with payments redirected so as to improve health and
education.

However, Sachs fails in presuming that the critique of corrupt African
elites is a ‘political story line’ of the ‘right’, instead of giving
credence to progressive, organic anti-corruption campaigning. From
there, he rehearses accounts of malaria, AIDS, landlocked countries and
other forms of geographically-determinist analysis. Sachs then
reconciles these explanations for African poverty with garden-variety
policy advice: adopting good governance plus ‘implementing traditional
market reforms, especially regarding export promotion’, revealing his
notorious love of sweatshops.

Complained Olukoshi, ‘If Jeffrey Sachs can be given an hour to speak to
our leaders – the Sachs who wrote privatisation programmes for Eastern
Europe and Latin America, yesterday’s neoliberal who is today’s social
democrat – then at every summit the African Union must give us a platform.’

But will the rulers listen, if instead they enjoy their own revolving
door relationships with Washington? Notable is Liberia’s new president,
Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, a former World Bank official.

Recounted TS Williams, secretary of the Liberian union federation: ‘Just
before I came here, government announced it is embarking on major
downsizing. At the same time, of course, people belonging to her own
political party are being brought in. We need a foreign policy for
unions because these ideas are coming from the World Bank and IMF.’

Olukoshi cited the famous statement by the World Bank’s chief African
economist, Deepak Lall, who in 1984 called for ‘effective, ruthless
governments able to ride roughshod over public opinion.’

Added Egyptian scholar Shaheeda El-Baz, ‘Most of our countries have
liberalised economics, but they have refused to liberalise politics.
There is a weak or nonexistent margin of democracy and a monopoly on
policy-making by a state elite, which resorts to coercive measures.
Globalisation has defeated democracy. The majority of people are simply
excluded.’

Continued Helmi Sharawy, director of the Arab-African Studies Centre
here, ‘We must restore the responsibility and role of the state but we
are not for despotism or dictatorship.’

In the streets outside, Hosni Mubarak’s half-hearted commitment to
democracy is degenerating into despotism. This week his regime passed an
emergency ban on demonstrations - ‘any unauthorised protest in Cairo
shall be considered henceforth illegal’ – directed at the rising
democracy protests.

According to a local source who preferred to remain anonymous because of
potential reprisal, ‘Something is cooking. Last Friday, Mubarak’s son
Gamal made a secret visit to Washington – as discrete as can be - and
fortunately, Al Jazeera reporters were covering a different event: some
generals meeting with Rumsfeld. It was pure coincidence that they saw
the Egyptian ambassador and Mubarak junior going into the White House
through a side door that leads to Dick Cheney’s office. They wanted to
keep the whole consultation secret.’

The US leaders were probably briefed about Gamal’s desire to succeed
Hosni, a process that may get underway within the next few months, in
the wake of Washington’s approval of similar successions in Morocco and
Jordan. Vast US aid transfers ($60 billion since 1979) keep the
powderkeg from blowing, but a new popular democratic movement - Kifaya
(‘Enough’) – is pushing hard.

With 500 arrests in last week’s protests – and ten police deaths when a
patrol car crashed on the way to the scene – the country is boiling hot.
Next week, more protests are likely, in part because of severe state
harassment of two dissident judges who questioned the legitimacy of the
last election (and have strong support from other judges). Another
target is the World Economic Forum, which is moving its regional meeting
to Egypt, from Jordan.

This terrain, combining neoliberalism and eroded rights, is familiar to
Africa’s workers and scholars. As Olukushi warned, ‘There are powerful
interests behind the status quo, who are profiting – and they are not
going to leave the terrain to us without a fight. They are powerful,
transnational and sometimes even have our own governments backing them.’

‘Our strategy must be to make their policies illegitimate, ungovernable.
We have a very strong advantage. In spite of all the promises of the
neoliberal agenda, people in their daily lives have felt the failures,
which gives both working people and the middle classes an appetite for
an alternative. Our capacity to connect to the groundswell of protest is
the other advantage we have.’

Olukoshi concluded, ‘Together we can shake the foundations of the
neoliberal forces on the continent. Our decision to march together and
strike together represents one of the most significant developments. We
will also target like-minded social movements across Africa, like the
African Social Forum, leading to the World Social Forum in Nairobi next
January.’

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