INTERVIEW. The plea of Cheikh Gueye, co-author of the Alternative Report on Africa, to rethink development and link it to popular sovereignty.
Interview by Agnès Faivre
The foundations of Rasa (Alternative Report on Africa) had been laid in May 2018. The multitude of authors involved in this continental project, from think tanks, research institutes or NGOs, converged then on a guiding principle to rethink the challenges of Africa and in particular its economic policy orientations: sovereignty. And instead of « focusing on national sovereignty, » they preferred the notion of « popular sovereignty, which allows for a more thorough understanding of the real mechanics behind social transformations. « The health crisis, revealing the vulnerabilities of African countries in the face of the upheavals of world trade, « has proven us right, » says Cheikh Gueye, strategic coordinator of the Enda Tiers Monde strategic platform and permanent secretary of Rasa. He tells Le Point Afrique about the vision that infuses the seven major axes of this first issue of the Alternative Report on Africa entitled: « The recipe for African sovereignty ». Le Point Afrique: This report is different from those regularly produced on Africa, especially by international financial institutions. What changes in concrete terms? Cheikh Gueye: Unlike the reports initiated by these institutions, but also some banks or large NGOs based in the North, our study was produced by African institutions that have always clearly positioned themselves on the recovery of intellectual sovereignty or the exit from the colonial library. This report also highlights issues that concern African societies, and not only states and markets, which are often the prisms of analysis of international institutions. We start from social realities, sub-state powers, innovations, cultures… Culture is an area that is obscured in the usual reports, even though it is central to us: it determines changes in the consumption and production patterns of Africans. We also seek to create new openings in the reflection on economic development, against the trend of development based on individualism, unbridled extractivism, and competition, because this has contributed to the impoverishment of entire sections of the globe and to the degradation of the environment. There are attempts at resistance by African societies, but again, these elements are not reported in the « classic » reports.
What kinds of alternative indicators are advocated in this report?
Notions of well-being or progress cannot be the same for all peoples or for all categories of people. Neoliberal economics considers individuals and populations from the exclusive perspective of the producer or the consumer. The reflection is now open in international institutions and the authors of Rasa launch the debate on alternative indicators to the classical aggregates, inviting to consider more the socio-cultural aspects, the social links, the principles of the social and solidarity economy, but above all the sovereignty, which is our main barometer. The capability approach theorized by the Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen is one of the proposals, as it can facilitate the definition of indicators more in line with the cosmogonies of Africans.
The development of this report began before the Covid-19 pandemic. How were its ideas and guiding principles affected by the effects of this pandemic on the African continent?
During the pandemic, the whole world was confronted with the issue of sovereignty, which is at the heart of our report. But Africa is perhaps the continent where this issue has been most agitated in recent years. There is a regeneration of the sovereignist and independence thinking of founding fathers such as Nkrumah, Modibo Keita and Cheikh Anta Diop. Today, it is carried by new generations, through the debate on decolonial thought, or events such as the Workshops of Thought initiated by academics Achille Mbembé and Felwine Sarr.
Covid-19 proved us right in our choice of this angle of attack. We quickly realized that in Africa, the impact of the pandemic would be less important in terms of health and very important in economic terms. Our economies obey free trade, which is the dominant fact of the neo-liberal doxa and globalization. But this crisis has only confirmed that we represent too little in this free trade to continue to participate in it and to try to find our interest in it. This observation was made very early on, when many sectors began to slow down. The ports came to a halt, imports of goods and services, such as tourism, were interrupted… And our central banks did not have the possibility as in other countries to generate liquidity.
Has this health crisis made the question of « disconnection » that you advocate, like the economist Samir Amin, more relevant and what meaning do you give to it?
We were expecting a sort of Copernican revolution, a therapeutic shock that would change mentalities. But since solutions to Covid-19 have been found, with vaccines, revolution is no longer an option. The fact remains that Africa must reinvent itself on the basis of a new sovereignty and a disconnection from the international system in which we will never win. We are infantilized, subalternized. And whatever progress our states may make, it will not have a significant impact on our societies.
Disconnection is not autarky. It is a strategy to define our policies by ourselves, to develop gains in sovereignty on the bases that we consider fundamental. Like agriculture, which leads to food sovereignty by developing industrial systems geared to the needs and interests of Africans, and not to export. It is also a question of economic sovereignty, by recovering the resources invested in global value chains, and monetary sovereignty. And it is, of course, about accelerating African integration.
Agriculture has rarely been considered as a lever for economic development by international donors, even though it occupies an important place in African economies and societies. How can this discrepancy be explained?
The agricultural sector has not received the necessary attention. For a long time, it has been ignored in the international reports to which African leaders pay attention. In fact, agriculture has been devalued, « disinvested ». In the early 1970s, there was much talk of an agricultural revolution. Then there was the great drought in the Sahel. It was then understood that African countries had to reinvent their agricultural model and reinvest in order to cope with climatic shocks and the rural exodus. But soon after, the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) began to massively subsidize agriculture in the North, while in Africa, where structural adjustment plans were being implemented, there was no question of supporting the agricultural sector.
And this loss of investment or investment capacity in agriculture is what we are paying for today, including in terms of the migration of young Africans to the cities and then across Africa or outside the continent. And Africa did not have the audacity, nor the means, to reverse this direction given by international institutions to our economies. Even today, when we talk about agriculture, it is in terms of liberalization, of the availability of our land for international investors, and not in terms of food sovereignty.
What should be put in place to promote food sovereignty, a notion that includes the possibility of implementing one’s own agricultural and food systems?
The prerequisite, in our view, is land reform. We see a tendency for national and international investors to monopolize land, and this threatens the peasantry. We believe that we must recover or limit the areas ceded to multinationals or titled for the benefit of industrialists supported by European and Asian states, in order to develop family farming around agro-ecological production systems. These land grabs are evolving very quickly and concern the most fertile lands. Although we have very different national legislations across the continent, land reform seems to us to be a sine qua non condition for achieving food sovereignty.
Are there countries in Africa that are promoting this type of reform to secure access to land for farmers?
A commission on land reform was set up in Senegal in 2017, but for now the state is procrastinating. This seems to be better engaged in English-speaking East African countries, and in North Africa, where land acquisition by foreign private actors is more constrained.
You mentioned the family farm model. Would this type of agriculture be a dominant model according to your vision, or could it coexist with agribusiness?
Food sovereignty depends on the ability of farmers, who represent between 40 and 70% of the population in our countries, to organize themselves to produce what they need, even before thinking about exporting surpluses. It is therefore a question of investing massively in family farming. But when we talk about family farming, we are no longer talking about the small farm around the hut. Many farmers now cultivate large areas, and we also see this dynamic of nationals returning to the land, driven by the demand to consume local products. The generalization of cooperatives could also allow them to better organize themselves and to gain market share in order to increase proximity exchanges. Of course, it is not excluded that foreign investors will join some projects later on.
How can we guarantee a fair price to the producer, and by what mechanism?
Agriculture cannot function without government support, and this is not only true for Africa. We cannot leave farmers at the mercy of speculators or the vicissitudes of the international market. It is true that it is more difficult in our countries to mobilize funds, especially in the CFA zone countries, but it is all a question of priority. Look at what our countries have done in recent months to deal with Covid-19: they have borrowed, they have foregone certain expenditures. Unfortunately, investment in agriculture is still very low, and farmers are left to fend for themselves.
In Senegal, former president Abdoulaye Wade launched the Great Agricultural Offensive in 2008. What are the results?
Indeed, food sovereignty was set as a primary objective by the regimes of President Abdoulaye Wade and President Macky Sall with investments in an accelerated program to increase the production of rice, millet, vegetables and fruits. Many products have experienced significant growth, so the results are there, even if the deadlines for achieving self-sufficiency in rice have been exceeded. It will therefore be necessary to maintain these investments, which amount to 60 billion CFA francs (about 100 million euros) per agricultural season. Beyond the incantations, this amount is still too low to hope for a real agricultural revolution and a massive return of young people to agriculture. If the State wanted to, it could invest much more.
You say in this report that it will be necessary in the medium term to change eating habits. What does this mean?
Changing eating habits is also a step in the decolonization of the economic system. A large part of the production systems were set up to satisfy the needs of the metropolises under the colonial administration. Cash crops were therefore dominant for a hundred years to the detriment of local production, and the States subsequently encouraged this system, which allowed them to generate foreign currency. Moreover, we are in a phase of urbanization throughout Africa, with quite extraverted consumption patterns. American and French products are prized by consumers, even though « consuming locally » is making a strong comeback, thanks to media campaigns and research institutes that demonstrate the nutritional qualities of local products. In the meantime, we still import a lot of rice, from Asia, and wheat, whether from Northern countries, Brazil or Russia.
How are these issues understood by policy makers?
Awareness has evolved, but we are not yet in a pattern of agricultural revolution.
We would like the crisis caused by Covid-19 to be a lever that leads us to rethink priorities, to reconsider agriculture, culture, industrialization, and the promotion of handicrafts, instead of always putting forward the large infrastructures that attract investment. For us, this is a new trap. Because most banks and international financial institutions are directing us towards public-private partnerships. On paper, this is like an ideal that cannot be ignored, but there is also a desire in this package to revitalize European companies and multinationals. They are the ones who position themselves on these markets. Local private players are having difficulty gaining market share in these partnerships.
Are infrastructures not necessary to sell and market the products of local agriculture?
Admittedly, it is estimated that there are between 15 and 20% of post-harvest losses, due to shortcomings in storage and transport infrastructures, but considerable resources are also invested in prestigious infrastructures. In Senegal, for example, the regional express train in Dakar, which has been awaiting start-up for four years, or little-used highways, when less ambitious but more useful choices could have been made.
The agreement establishing the AfCFTA (African Continental Free Trade Area) came into force on January 1, 2021. This common market should eventually boost intra-African trade, while the continent was the destination of only 17% of African exports in 2017. Is this a step forward that you welcome?
There is an awareness of the need to establish more advanced pan-African dynamics, we can only be satisfied with this. The African Union is putting in place a long-term vision, underpinned by programs, policies and strategies. What we fear, however, in observing the involvement of Northern countries in the way the AU operates, is that these initiatives are being hijacked for the benefit of neo-colonial projects of Northern countries and their multinationals.
In January, the Executive Secretary of the FTAA, Wamkele Mele, reaffirmed that the FTAA is an instrument for the decolonization of African trade, which reassured us. It seems important to us to accompany these dynamics by pointing out the possible risks of the choices made or not, rather than being in a posture of denigration. These are new projects, produced by Africans who know the constraints of the environment, so we want to support them.
Do you think that the Eco, to replace the CFA, is in line with the monetary sovereignty that you aspire to?
The monetary issue is very complex. We need to take the time to work on this issue, in order to arrive at a truly useful single currency. We must also ensure that we make the right political choices so that the West African single currency does not fall under the excessive influence of Nigeria. It is not a question of replacing one domination with another.
There is also a symbolic value in changing the name of this currency…
Of course, even if some people think that by simply changing the name and not the content, it is not a sincere reform… it is a trick! But it is true that the CFA franc remains the old colonial currency made in Chamalières. As long as President Emmanuel Macron and the Minister of Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire can influence the future of this currency, as long as the Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara or the Senegalese President Macky Sall are accused of wanting to perpetuate this system, we will not achieve the break with France that a large part of the French-speaking African youth is calling for. And the regeneration of an anti-imperialist and anti-colonial thought feeds an anti-French feeling in many African countries.
On May 18, a summit on the financing of African economies was held in Paris. Beyond this short-term aid, do you think that the mechanisms of aid to Africa should be reviewed?
The aid mechanisms are counterproductive and do not allow us to get out of aid. They are ankylosing and prevent Africa from redefining the medium and long-term agenda of true economic and monetary sovereignty. They are also a trap that accentuates the influence of donor countries on the definition of our priorities and policies. In our view, these are patterns that we must break. We could set a deadline for ourselves, by developing exit strategies from aid, by mobilizing greater local resources. Local taxation, for example, is still at less than 10% of potential. If we waste less, if we restrict prestige spending, this could allow us to borrow less from the outside and to do without these funds in the medium term.