The ‘New Colonialism’: the case of Western Sahara

12 July 2016 - 5:00pm

Tom Lebert is Senior International Programme Officer (Africa) at War on Want. A version of this article was first carried by New Internationalist.

Over the past few decades, as world commodity markets have boomed, there has been a new ‘scramble for Africa’ with governments and companies seeking to control the continents valuable mineral, oil and gas resources.

The New Colonialism: Britain’s scramble for Africa’s energy and mineral resources’, a new War on Want report, reveals that as many as 101 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange (LSE), most of them British, have mining operations in Africa. Combined these companies now control resources of oil, coal, gold, diamonds, gas and much else, worth in excess of $1 trillion. 

While the scale and scope of the UK’s involvement in the exploitation of Africa’s resources is staggering, so too is the complete disregard by these companies, and the British establishment, for the rights of the people concerned. A key example of this is the scramble for gas and oil in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara.

Morocco has occupied much of Western Sahara since 1975. Most of the population has been expelled by force, many to camps in the Algerian desert where 165,000 refugees still live. Morocco’s occupation is a blatant disregard for international law, which accords the Saharawi people the right to self-determination and the way in which their resources are to be used.  

Over 100 UN resolutions call for this right to self-determination but UN efforts to settle the conflict by means of a referendum have been thwarted by Morocco. The International Court of Justice has stated that there are no ties of sovereignty between Morocco and Western Sahara, and no state in the world recognises Morocco's self-proclaimed sovereignty over the territory.

Despite this, six British and/or LSE-listed companies have been handed permits by the Moroccan government to actively explore for oil and gas resources, making them complicit in the illegal and violent occupation of Western Sahara.

Cairn Energy, based in Edinburgh and LSE listed, is one such company. It is part of a consortium, led by US company Kosmos Energy, that in December 2014 became the first to drill for and later discover oil off the coast of Western Sahara.

Saharawis have consistently protested against the exploration activities of oil companies in Western Sahara, but by doing deals with the Moroccan government oil companies such as Cairn are directly undermining the Saharawis’ right to a referendum on self-determination.

Foreign oil investment boosts Morocco’s frail veneer of international legitimacy, finances the expensive occupation and undermines the UN peace process. As oil is increasingly developed, the economic implications for Morocco are huge, further cementing its resolve to hold on to its lucrative colony.

Cairn’s claim to support human rights are therefore hard to square with Morocco’s activities in Western Sahara, where basic rights and freedoms are routinely suppressed by the same authorities which have given oil companies ‘rights’ to operate.

But instead of reining in companies such as Cairn, the British government has actively championed them through trade, investment and tax policies. Successive British governments have long been fierce advocates of liberalised trade and investment regimes in Africa that provide access to markets for foreign companies. They have also consistently opposed African countries putting up regulatory or protective barriers and backed policies promoting low corporate taxes.

Furthermore, British governments have continually promoted voluntary rather than legally binding mechanisms to address corporate human rights abuses committed abroad. Such voluntary mechanisms are effectively meaningless.

And let’s not forget the ‘revolving door’ between Whitehall and the private sector.  Many senior civil servants leave their posts for directorships on the boards of these mining companies.  Kosmos Energy is no exception. The former Director of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, has been a member of the Kosmos Board of Directors since 2012.

The current phase of the British scramble for Africa is a clear continuation of British foreign policy goals since 1945. Then as now, access to raw materials is a major factor — often the major factor — in British foreign policy in Africa.

Today, the continent’s wealth in natural resources is being appropriated by foreign, private interests whose operations are leaving a devastating trail of social, environmental and human rights abuses in their wake.

This is the ‘New Colonialism’, and it’s time British companies and the British government were held to account.

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