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The World Social Forum in Nairobi: African Activists Lead Resistance to Western Plundering and Imperialism

By Asad Ismi and Kristin Schwartz

Held in Africa for the first time, the World Social Forum (WSF) brought 66,000 people to Nairobi, Kenya, from 110 countries and highlighted the continent’s many anti-imperialist struggles. In a united voice, Africans said no to U.S. neo-colonialism, World Bank/IMF economic control, and Western corporate plunder of their resources. The forum displayed an Africa awash in resistance that more than 500 years of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism have not been able to suppress.

As Kenyan activist Wahu Kaara put it in one of the opening speeches of the Forum: “Africa is the cradle of humanity. We come here again to give birth to the world that we want… a just world that all of us are going to own and possess–a world that is going to say no to profit, to unjust trade, to debt, to wars, to conspiracies of divide-and-rule, and to commodification of our common goods like water. No matter what power they [Western leaders] have, no matter what they do, the World Social Forum has given us an opportunity to make a linkage with others all over the world who are saying enough is enough.”

We had come to the Nairobi WSF to make just such linkages. We were there to conduct interviews for our radio documentary, The Ravaging of Africa, which focuses on the destructive impact of U.S. imperialism on Africa. Based on Asad’s award-winning Monitor article (October 2002), the documentary looks at how the U.S. has fomented 11 wars on the continent and destroyed its economies through World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programs in order to facilitate the looting of its resources by Western multinational corporations.

We also highlight the different ways in which Africans are resisting this aggression and plunder. During the five days of the forum, we interviewed 28 activists from 16 African countries and recorded numerous presentations and speeches. Our interviewees and many other participants at the WSF agreed that U.S. and Western imperialism were the main obstacles to African development, and this was confirmed in many seminars, workshops, and speeches. Washington’s blatant intervention in Africa was amply exposed by its invasion of Somalia a few days before the conference opened.

The U.S. used the Ethiopian military as a proxy in the invasion, but, as Farah Maalim, one of our interviewees, explained to us, “This is an American invasion, not an Ethiopian one.” Maalim is chairman of F.O.R.D.-People, the third largest political party in the Kenyan Parliament. He is a former Member of Parliament from Lagdera, which borders Somalia and is part of Kenya’s North- Eastern Province.

Maalim is both Kenyan and Somali, and an expert on U.S. policy towards Somalia and the Horn of Africa. According to him, “The U.S. role in this invasion is everything: the U.S. initiated it and told Ethiopia to invade. It is the American jet planes, helicopters and missiles from ships that have pulverized the Somalis. After the Americans have done the damage from the skies, the Ethiopian soldiers are there to finish off the rest. American Special Forces have also invaded Somalia. The U.S. interest in Somalia stems from the fact that it contains massive deposits of oil. That’s what the U.S. wants. The American scheme is to balkanize Somalia, break it up into five small mini-states just like the Gulf Emirates in the Middle East. Each of the states will have a clan or tribal ruler so that America can become the dominant power and have a separate deal with each one of them, with Ethiopia’s military power to intimidate them so that they do not have any independence. Every clan can have a small oil-field which will be run by the Americans.”

Maalim pointed out that the last time the U.S. invaded Somalia, in 1992, it was “thoroughly devastated,” with the bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu (Somalia’s capital) by resistance fighters, forcing Washington to withdraw. Now too, Ethiopian troops are being regularly attacked by Somali forces. As Maalim put it, “Somalis are so nationalistic, passionate and aggressive about their own independence that you can never dominate them and steal their oil.”

Halima Abdi Arush, a Somali woman who is chairperson of IIDA (Women’s Development Organization), a non-governmental organization based in Mogadishu, gave a seminar about her country at the WSF. In an interview, she emphasized that “Ethiopians by themselves do not have the courage and strength to invade Somalia… If the U.S. had not given the go-ahead for the invasion, it would not have happened. The U.S. should stop killing people. The U.S. is killing and bombing millions of people in Somalia because it claims that it is looking for three terrorists, but instead its bombing is creating future terrorists. The other day, U.S. planes bombed a wedding party in southern Somalia, killing many members of the families from both sides. Nomads moving in the area at the time also died. Today the Americans may not find the terrorists, but tomorrow they will because the survivors of the wedding party and the relatives of the nomads will provide the recruiting base for terrorist groups.”

The invasion of Somalia is the latest of 11 wars fomented by the U.S. in Africa. The biggest of these wars has destroyed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the second-largest country in Africa, killing four million people since 1998. The U.S.’s proxies for this genocide are Rwanda and Uganda, which invaded the Congo in 1998, with Washington’s encouragement and support, and have since been looting the richest country in Africa (in terms of mineral resources) and sending the proceeds to the West. The Congo War is a horrifying example of all three instruments used by the U.S. in its attempt to dominate Africa: military invasion, World Bank/IMF economic control, and Western corporate plunder.

Mfuni Kazadi, who is from the Congo, was a main speaker at a seminar about his country at the WSF. He is Secretary-General of the group Coalition for the Cancellation of the Illegitimate Debts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which opposes the World Bank’s demand that the Congo pay the odious debts accumulated by Mobutu, the U.S.-installed dictator of the country during 1960-1997. Kazadi told us: “The Rwandans were used by the U.S. as puppets to fight for American interests. When the war started, there were American ships that gathered all the communications for Rwanda’s and Uganda’s armies. U.S. authorities said that the Congo is too big and must be divided into four countries. The resistance of the Congolese to this partition has led to the deaths of four million people. All the material looted has been sent to the U.S., so the Congolese have lost everything.”

Under a peace deal signed in 2002, Rwanda and Uganda formally withdrew their forces from the Congo. But fighting continues in the eastern part of the country, with Rwanda and Uganda using proxy forces to control territory and continue the looting. According to Kazadi, the United Nations has identified 187 foreign multinational companies that have been looting the resources of the Congo as the war has raged. These include the big diamond company De Beers, and the Canadian mining companies Barrick Gold and Banro.

Since 2002, the Congo has been subjected to a World/Bank IMF structural adjustment program (SAP), which means that its economic policy is being set by these two U.S.-dominated institutions. A major effect of this policy is to legalize the corporate looting of the Congo. Kazadi explained that, under World Bank rules, foreign companies pay nothing to the government for lucrative mining concessions. He added: “The IMF is saying to the Congolese, give up your resources to Western multinationals. This is the price you have to pay for peace. This is not investment. It is plunder. With what are we going to build the Congo when the multinationals have taken everything? The objective of the U.S. is to gain control of the economic riches of the Congo. First they use war. Then they use the World Bank and the IMF.”

In an article he gave us, Kazadi points out that. after 37 years of U.S.-imposed dictatorship and eight years of a U.S.-backed genocidal war, the Congo is close to becoming the poorest country in the world, with 95% of its population unemployed and subject to chronic malnutrition. Yet it is worth noting that, in spite of the catastrophe it has wrought in the Congo, the U.S. has not been able to achieve a major objective: that of balkanizing the country. Washington’s military strategy has failed in the Congo because of the fierce resistance of the Congolese people. The same can be said for Somalia.

This indomitable African spirit of resistance was expressed at the World Social Forum in a variety of ways. These included participant groups fighting for the rights of the landless and slum residents, for environmental justice, women’s rights, labour rights, reparations, food security, and fair trade; and against Western oil and mining companies, the World Bank and the IMF, privatization, the debt, trade liberalization, free trade, patriarchy, AIDS, child labour, and the looting of African wealth by Western corporations.

The many WSF seminars and workshops were usually well-organized and easy to find. The location of the WSF in Kasarani Stadium (25 minutes from downtown Nairobi) created lots of room for regular demonstrations that livened up the forum as they were often accompanied by singing and dancing.

Guinean workers protested against their government, which had killed more than 100 people demonstrating against it during January 2007 as part of a general strike which paralyzed the country. The strike was called by the CNTG and the USTG, Guinea’s two main labour federations, to protest cuts to social spending and price subsidies imposed by the country’s corrupt U.S.-backed military dictator, President Lansana Conte. The cuts were demanded by Washington as a condition for loans. The unions called for Conte’s resignation. He reacted by declaring martial law and ordering soldiers to shoot into crowds. Guinea has half the world’s bauxite reserves (used to make aluminum), yet most of its people live on $1 a day and 45% of them are unemployed. Alcoa, the U.S. multinational, and Alcan, the Canadian corporation, own 50% of Guinea’s state aluminum company. The general strike ended on February 27 after Conte agreed to appoint a new prime minister acceptable to the unions.

The WSF also highlighted the especially harsh effects of World Bank and IMF policies on African women. Sarah Longwe from Zambia is on the board of the regional organization, African Women’s Development and Communication Network, (FEMNET). She is a member of the African Social Forum council which took part in organizing the WSF. The political space of the World Social Forum is particularly important for women, she told us. “Women are not represented where decisions are being made in terms of how the resources are being used. Because of not having a voice, economic and other policies have been having particularly adverse effects on women. For example, when the government started borrowing money from the IMF and accumulated debts, there was no decision collectively, which included women, to say what we should borrow the money for, and how we should use it. Women have been the ones mopping up because the subsidies have been removed from education, from health care, from roads–the very areas that affect women. So it is women who have to provide the subsidies.”

Longwe described how mass unemployment caused by privatization and the theft of Africa’s national resources has forced women and children into prostitution. This has fuelled the AIDS epidemic and created yet more hardship for women. “We are still very much male-dominated, looking at women as there to save men. So looking after men is their duty. When they themselves are sick, they are deserted.”

Nor was the WSF itself safe from protest, given the corruption of some of its organizers. A shocking scandal involved the granting of the contract for the best-located food concession stand in Kasarani Stadium to a hotel owned by John Michuki, Kenya’s brutal Minister of Internal Security, a known torturer who has issued shoot-to-kill orders to the police. When this became known, Kenyan youth, accompanied by activists, “nationalized” the food stand by occupying it and taking all the food, thus shutting it down. Onyango Oloo, a key member of the WSF’s Secretariat and National Coordinator of the Kenya Social Forum, publicly stated that he was “ashamed and outraged that he could countenance” Michuki being given the contract for the concession stand. He added: “I have to take responsibility even though I opposed that decision.”

Oloo explained to us in an interview that Michuki became a torturer while serving the British colonial administration which ruled Kenya until 1963. Michuki tortured members of the Mau Mau, anti-colonial freedom fighters who were battling British imperialist forces. The British government was bombing Kenyan villages and putting young men in concentration camps, where they were tortured. Michuki’s nickname was “The Crusher,” as he was “reputed to be crushing the testicles of the freedom fighters.” Ironically, Mau Mau veterans were also invited to the WSF. Oloo asked: “Are these people now going to be forced to eat from the establishment of the person who used to torture them?”

According to Oloo, the contract was given to Michuki by the WSF’s tendering committee, which he was not part of. He does not know how the decision was made about the contract. He emphasized that “the members of the WSF organizing committee are drawn from the same [Kenyan] society which is riddled with corruption,” and added, “I have heard anecdotally that the state could have arm-twisted those key people by saying that, if you don’t let us in as internal security, we’ll make sure that there is no security.” Oloo assured us that “we [the WSF] are trying to unearth the truth [about the awarding of the contract].” It should be noted that, once this example of corruption at the WSF was revealed, it was not tolerated by the participants, who quickly eradicated it despite the presence of police in the stadium.

The other jarring contradiction was that the WSF, which is supposed to be an anti-capitalist, anti-corporate event, had two corporate sponsors: Kenya Airways and Celtel, a mobile phone company. Celtel employees, in red T-shirts bearing their corporate logo, were actually registering WSF delegates on the first day of the forum. Oloo explained that “The whole idea of corporate sponsorship of the WSF…we wanted to do away with…This is a decision which ideologically we fought tooth and nail against, but there was a cabal within the WSF Secretariat which circumvented our efforts. We were called left-wing extremists. You have to see that the World Social Forum process was an arena of intense ideological battle in which those of us who came in as activists, anti-imperialists and socialists were confronted by people who were technocrats, completely immoral, people who were not above trying to make a quick buck for themselves, people who just saw themselves as event organizers rather than keepers of an ideological flame.”

Importantly, Oloo pointed out that funding usually provided by the International Council of the WSF Secretariat was not there for the Nairobi Forum. “In reply to our request for funds,” he explained, “a member of the Brazilian committee of the WSF told us, ‘We’re not a bank.’ A very cynical comment. From the Europeans we got a very neoliberal argument that ‘We are trying to make the WSF a self-sustaining event.’ Africa is the poorest continent, and in Kenya we don’t have the very strong social and labour movements that you find in India [where the last WSF was held].”

In spite of these problems, the WSF’s African organizers put on an impressive event that made Africa the centre of the progressive world. People involved in struggles all over the world were able to learn about and link with those of Africa, thereby strengthening the movement for global social change.

As Wahu Kaara said on the last day of the Forum: “We, the social movements from Africa and across the world, are here at the WSF to celebrate Africa and her unbroken history of struggle against foreign domination, colonialism, and neocolonialism.”

However, as South African activist Trevor Ngwane added, “Africa cannot win its battles alone. It needs the unity and solidarity of people everywhere.”


Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, April 2007

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor‘s international affairs correspondent and author of the forthcoming radio documentary The Ravaging of Africa. Kristin Schwartz is the producer of the same documentary and News Director of CKLN Radio 88.1 FM in Toronto.