When Africa was getting decolonised six decades ago, the quest for economic justice was as urgent and inseparable from the demand for political freedom and democracy. The sharpest indicator of economic injustice after attainment of independence was the persistent unfair terms of trade in international markets.
For years, students of economics were told how a tonne of cotton sold abroad only fetched enough money to buy a few shirts from the countries that took the cotton. Anyway, six decades later, questions are still being asked if Africans are enjoying better economic justice and political freedom since they took over management of their own affairs.
Even as petroleum prices rise over the Ukraine affair, African crude producers may not record a corresponding rise in their loyalties because they are not really in charge of the production process.
But these are tired, old questions. The useful questions to ask now should be about how well prepared Africa is to secure a better deal from the ‘democratised’ access to knowledge brought about by advances in information technology and the rapidly changing energy sector, whose needed inputs are mostly found in Africa.
But what makes these questions urgent is the fact that even Africa’s traditional exports are threatened by technological advances in the buyer countries.
Take a look at the invisible exports like tourism and labour, which have been earning a lot of money for the East African countries, for example. During the Covid-19-inspired lockdowns that saw the entire civil aviation industry close down for months across the globe, people learnt to live without leisure travel.
And necessity being the mother of invention, ways of giving people the travel experiences without leaving their home countries have been getting improved. We may say virtual tourism is not the real thing, but even physical tourism is no longer a monopoly of those who were naturally endowed with the tourism attractions.
The United Arab Emirates, for example, have stepped up their efforts to be the world’s top tourist destination. Even if the adverts we see of UAE’s Safari Park offering visitors everything in all Africa’s game parks combined were only fractionally true, it is already an indicator of the future.
What about the manual workers and domestic helps we have been sending to the Middle East? Innovators must be working round the clock to develop affordable robots that are nearly as good as human workers, but much better because they are 100 percent obedient, do not require wages but, especially these days, do not know their rights and so don’t sue their employers.
On the physical exports, well, again science is tilting the already tilted balance. With the climate change-inspired rush to promote clean energy, petroleum is already taking the count. The race is on to scrap it altogether, so the oil producers of Africa had better start thinking of life without oil exports sooner than later.
Even sadder is the simulation of climatic conditions in greenhouses that is enabling the advanced temperate countries to start growing those crops that were only grown in the tropics. The African farmer may be facing lower demand for his crops, which are already fetching unfairly low prices.
The citizens of Africa should be wondering if their leaders are seriously examining these scenarios and making them top priority in their discussions. We have, for instance, seen Uganda pulling out of the International Coffee Organisation, with very good reasons. We just hope there was sufficient consultation with other African countries and are soon going to see concerted continental action in this matter.
But the trillion-dollar question that remains is, how much are African leaders cooperating to ensure the continent does not remain a mere supplier of raw materials and a mere buyer of finished products in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is already here?
Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]