“In Africa, an EU Chicken is Cheaper than a Local Chicken”

Since the mid-20th century, the colonial era in Africa has for the most part been considered as over. However, forms of political or economic control by European and Western states are still visible on the continent today. In an interview with Ludmilla Ostermann, historian Andreas Eckert explains how the structures of neo-colonialism remain in place and why the extraction of raw materials is one of the driving forces behind this. The historian also sees, however, a new generation of young Africans who are facing Western countries with self-confidence.

How do you define the term “neo-colonialism”? And how does it differ from the colonialism of the 19th and early 20th centuries?

Andreas Eckert: Neo-colonialism is a political combat term from the 1960s and 70s. It describes the structures of colonial rule that continue to exist even though European colonial rule has formally come to an end. Unlike in earlier colonialism, European countries are no longer directly involved in the government and administration of the former colonies. But they continue to exert influence on economic and strategic policies. One example of this is the role of France in Niger. The former colonial power has involved itself politically and also had troops stationed in the country. The military government that seized power in Niger following a coup in the summer of 2023 is no longer willing to accept policies based on France’s own interests.

What are France’s interests in Niger?

Eckert: From an economic perspective, France is interested, among other things, in the uranium mines that are being exploited with the help of French companies. In 2022, Niger was the sixth largest uranium producer in the world. The mining is largely in French hands. When the mines are eventually closed, Niger will be left with the contamination caused by the mining. That’s going to have ecological and health-related consequences for the population. Niger is also significant from a strategic standpoint. Until the coup, it was a bastion against the Islamist forces that had been spreading in the Sahel region. The ousted President Mohamed Bazoum saw himself as a leader who represented the interests of the West. Also of significance to France was Niger’s role with regard to the issue of refugees. As an important transit country for refugees and migrants from West and Central Africa, Niger had blocked the onward journey of these people based on agreements with the EU. Similar deals are also in place with other countries and are even funded by the EU. France frequently played the role of “bulldozer”, assuming this task on behalf of others and in this way continuing to act in its old role as world power.

The profit is very unevenly distributed.

Andreas Eckert

So, neo-colonialism today manifests itself particularly in economic and political relations.

Eckert: Yes, colonial structures persist in trade and the economy. Africa continues to supply raw materials, but the main benefactors are companies from the former colonial nations. It’s an absolutely classic colonial-era constellation: Europe had a great interest in raw materials, but little interest in allowing the local population to share in their benefits. Other prevailing issues – apart from the extraction of raw materials – include ideologies, racism and hierarchical thinking: Africa as a continent of hunger, corruption and violence. To this day, these colonial images of the tropics and of Africa continue to characterise the way in which the continent is perceived.

Do you have any other examples of the Western practice of extractivism – that is, the exploitation and export of raw materials without regard for environmental and social impacts?

Eckert: New deposits of oil – a valuable raw material – have been discovered off the coast of Senegal. The French company Total is already very active in this area, drawing large profits, and is among those who want to start oil production in Senegal this year. The big problem is that, compared to mining, this type of raw material extraction only creates a very limited number of jobs. No more than a few specialists are needed, most of whom come from Europe. The companies generate large profits, with a small share of these going into the state coffers. But the profit is very unevenly distributed. Ultimately, it’s the companies who benefit. The same applies to Africa’s large natural gas reserves, which have become particularly alluring since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Gas production is being managed by European and, in recent times, by Chinese companies too. They collect the profits and leave the local environment polluted. Many African countries are heavily indebted to China, since Chinese loans to African countries are often more expensive than similar offers from the West, albeit not tied to political conditions. Trade regulations further aggravate the inequality. In Africa, subsidised EU chicken is cheaper than local chicken. Colonial structures remain in place here. The new government in Senegal wants to tackle this imbalance.

Development aid was not a model for the future.

So there are ways to take action against these neo-colonialist structures?

Eckert: Ultimately, we must be aware that these structures aren’t just bilateral, but that part of the global economy is built on them. A big hammer is needed to break up the structures and to reconsider them in a fundamental way. This cannot happen purely on a small scale. If Senegal is saying that it intends to sign new contracts, then that’s a first step. It can either fizzle out or trigger a kind of domino effect. It’s not as yet possible to say how that’s going to pan out.

What role does development policy play in this context?

Eckert: Ever since it emerged, it has been condemned time and again. To a certain extent, development policy stands for export promotion. The name of the German ministry – the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) – says it all. Of course, the construction of a well or the provision of educational opportunities for girls and women have brought about change for the local population. Individual projects have made a difference. The basic idea, however, is a colonial idea. After the Second World War, the European powers made it their goal to modernise Africa so as to be able to exploit it better. Added to this was the self-image of European altruism. The more the public regarded Africa as a continent of hunger and suffering in the 1960s and 1970s, the more widespread became the development aid motivated by Christian communities and churches that was based ultimately on colonial missionary activity. If I had to draw a balance, I’d say development aid was not a model for the future.

What can a more equitable future look like?

Eckert: When discussing this, we must also talk about how Europe will pay for the debts it incurred during the colonial era. In the light of all the profits that have been made at Africa’s expense, the question emerges of what responsibility Europe will assume to support Africa. And not in a paternalistic way, but more discreetly. For example, by supporting African initiatives without immediately coming along with their European textbook and telling people how things should be done. I can see that these structures are beginning to crumble. African leaders are now taking more assertive action against Western interests. It remains to be seen whether it will be possible to enforce not only particular interests, but also those of the wider population. If we want natural gas, we must pay appropriate prices; and governments in Africa must ensure that the general population benefits from them. The new, younger generation in Africa no longer thinks so strongly in neo-colonial structures, but severely criticises the unequal structures in the global economy.

Appropriate pricing is needed.

Andreas Eckert

Wasn’t that always the case?

Eckert: Undoubtedly, these current structures are not just a problem brought about by evil neo-colonialists. Many African governments have so far failed to make sensible investments in their own countries’ wealth of resources. The profits have lined the pockets of very few – instead of going into sustainable projects. Of course, there are always exceptions. The fact that there’s no work is a big problem. Africa’s population is getting younger and younger – the average age in Senegal, for example, is just 19. However, the number of jobs isn’t increasing. There are more and more well-educated young people who cannot find suitable work. The sector connected with the utilisation of raw materials, in particular, doesn’t create any jobs.

At the same time, we in Europe are more dependent than ever on raw materials from Africa – for our smartphones and electric cars. What can consumers do?

Eckert: We must be aware that a part of our way of life is based on the difficult living conditions of Africans. Coltan, for example, which is used in microelectronics, is mined under dangerous conditions. There’s no state control. However, due to the high demand for coltan on the one hand and the poverty of the population on the other, people are prepared to work under these conditions in order to profit in some way. To counter this, appropriate pricing is needed. However, it would make our mobile phones many times more expensive. The same applies to wood, coffee and cocoa. We’re already familiar with fair trade chocolate from the supermarket – it costs quite a bit more. It’s just not right that we’re now getting cheap natural gas from Africa. There was also a price to pay on the Russian market – politically and economically. We must be prepared to pay this price to African countries, too.


Ludmilla Ostermann