THE NEXT TWO WEEKS will be a busy period for the African Union (AU), a continental union consisting of 55 member states located on the continent of Africa. From the previous weekend to early days of February, leaders within the continent are expected to begin and continue discussions on an array of issues considered to be of interest to the continent. Whether the issues of interest are also of priority or utmost urgency is a matter of conjecture, however. The events culminating into the 35th African Union (AU) Summit 2022 in February have begun as a virtual conference on Thursday, with the 43rd Ordinary Session of the Permanent Representatives Committee (PRC) or Ambassadors. The 40th Ordinary Session of the Executive Council (Ministerial Session) is expected to follow on February 2, 2022, ending the next day while the 35th ordinary Session of the AU Assembly – involving the Heads of State and Government – will begin on February 5, 2022, with the grand finale on the next day.
The address of H.E Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of AU Commission (AUC), at the PRC’s 43rd Ordinary Session may well be paraphrased here for the purpose of the subsequent discussions. He noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has “shed light on the structural weaknesses of health systems in Africa,” urging the AU Member States together with the Africa CDC, to reinforce this sector. “The management of our relations with partners, within the framework of multilateral cooperation, will have to take greater account of our interests, identified upstream in a concerted effort, in order to present a coherent posture to the partner articulated on common positions. Have we not often said that Africa must speak with one voice?” Presenting “coherent posture” and articulating issues on “common positions” and speaking “with one voice” are indeed very important for Africa and these will be the backbone of the advocacy in this publication. But, whether or not those who lead individual countries are ready to go home with these three messages for implementation will become obvious a few weeks after the Summit as the milestones will become discernible.
A quick check at Agenda 2063 revealed some clear omissions of what should be of interest, urgent and top priorities to African national leaders. These are issues that, left unattended to or ignored, will still keep Africa vulnerable in a fast-paced global geo-economic environment. Agenda 2063 has 14 flagship projects but omitted issues of food security, urbanisation, re-industrialisation, climate change with peculiarity of Africa in mind. Or, has industrialisation been taken for granted as if the era of industrialisation is past, never to return again? Considering the interplay of issues mentioned here, the AU may need to adjust their agenda for the Summit, particularly at the level of the AU Assembly of the heads of governments to integrate these emerging issues for implementation. Kenya and South Africa have set the pace through a recently launched project involving promoting intra-regional connectivity between the capital cities of Africa by creating a single unified air transport market. Because this appears like a low hanging fruit for enabling and enhancing strong diplomatic bonds among countries in Africa, and a stimulus to the continent’s economic integration and growth agenda, the AU Summit needs to bring this into the centre of its deliberations.
In November of last year, South African Airways entered into a new alliance with Kenya Airways, with an ambitious plan to create a Pan-African Airline Group” by 2023. This they intend to do by harnessing the combined strength of the two struggling and financially challenged state-owned African airlines. Under the agreement signed on Tuesday, the airlines intend to “work together to increase passenger traffic, cargo opportunities, and general trade,” with the hope of improving passenger connectivity and the “financial viability” of both carriers. The “strategic partnership” is not a merger or acquisition but of any of the airlines, but one involving “coming together and combining assets.” The same model, if replicated elsewhere in Africa, will enhance air transport, economic cooperation, regional integration and boost the nascent African Continental Free Trade Area operationally. The business development model in regional aviation is bound to boost the economies of countries involved as well other countries by extension.
The AU Summit must not shy away from discussing the issue of mineral resources and foreign exploitation. In particular, this should be considered against the background of increasing importance of energy to the world economy. Renewable energy becomes relevant. One of the ways African leaders can show patriotism is by supporting countries that need help from others. A DR Congo Strategy, once proposed in a previous write-up, is again hereby suggested as a priority proposal for the 2022 AU Summit. It is based on simple premises: A prosperous country is a blessing to the continent, and DR Congo is vital to Africa’s renewable energy sufficiency and green economy of the future. This is so in two major ways: through both the Grand Inga Dam electricity project and the potential for lithium extraction for powering e-vehicles, mobile phones and other devices that use rechargeable batteries made from lithium. The former has the capacity to generate an estimated 43,200 Megawatts of power to support current regional power pools and their combined service to transform Africa from traditional to modern sources of energy. It can also ensure access to clean and affordable electricity.
The latter, however, arising from the fact that DR Congo is endowed with vast quantities of the minerals that will be dominant drivers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). From 2018 studies, a significant high-grade lithium deposit, estimated to have the potential of 1.5 billion tons of lithium spodumene hard rock situated in Manono, central DRC was reported. In 2020, about 70 per cent of the world’s cobalt came from the DRC, and the country looks set to become one of the world’s suppliers of this metal. The World Economic Forum’s Global Battery Alliance revealed recently that the demand for cobalt for use in batteries will grow fourfold in 2030 as a result of flourishing electric vehicle market. Although it does not yet produce lithium, the DR Congo looks set to become one of the world’s suppliers of this metal, classified as strategic by the Congolese authorities. Two-thirds of global cobalt supply comes from the DR Congo, where a Swiss-based Glencore, an Anglo-Swiss multinational commodity trading and mining company, owns the largest mine for the mineral.
Companies from Australia, Canada, China and India all have huge investments in lithium mining and value chains in DR Congo, a country that is likely to become a top global supplier. The Congo Dongfang International Mining (CDM) mine and refinery (CDM) is wholly owned by Huayou Cobalt, a Chinese multinational with interests spanning the entire cobalt supply chain, from mining to cathode production. Contrast the experience in DR Congo, where “some workers, often employed through subcontractors, allege they are victims of severe exploitation, including wages as low as 30p an hour, precarious employment with no contracts, and paltry food rations” with another country where miners were stopped and operations steal. Imagine also a number of mines run by Chinese companies, where workers made allegations of discrimination and racism reminiscent of the colonial era. Last week, Serbia withdrew the exploration licences of Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto in response to weeks of protests over plans for a lithium mine. In the decision which was made public on Thursday, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic announced that “all permits were annulled… we put an end to Rio Tinto in Serbia.”
Diplomatic relationship between Australia and Serbia became strained in the past week over the decision of the former to cancel the visa and deport Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic. Although the decisions of both countries were in response to local politics and considerations for elections ahead, it seems likely that their diplomatic relationship will remain sour for a considerable while. If DR Congo knows what that the closure of that Serbian mine means and takes a good advantage of the timing, it will be able to cut better deals with Australia. The revocation of Djokovic’s visa may hurt the e-economy of Australia, albeit in the short term as the country redirects its energy into a search for alternative national partners on lithium in addition to DR Congo. DR Congo holds preeminent place in Africa’s future green economy if properly managed. One of the complaints about the mining business is about inhumane working conditions, human rights violation, poor remuneration for miners and exposure to environmental risks at the mining sites. More than 70 per cent of the world’s cobalt is reportedly produced in the DR Congo and 15 to 30 per cent of the Congolese cobalt is reportedly produced by artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) in hand-dug mines. The mining operations are fraught with child labour, fatal accidents and human rights abuses since the country shifted emphasis in the early 2010s to what is now classified as a strategic mineral.
DR Congo’s President Felix Antoine Tshisekedi, remains the AU Chairperson till February when he will hand over to a successor. He has spent the expected one year from February 2021 till date after replacing his predecessor, Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa. Tshisekedi can still rally other leaders from all over the continent to support his country’s resistance against unjust exploitation of the people and the environment. The AU Summit should not forget to make a strong statement about the deplorable approach to mining in DR Congo, possibly threatening to stop their operations too. Like Serbia did, DR Congo too needs to stand up for its right and insist on compliance by the miners or they will lose their operating licences. Here, the AU is expected to stand solidly by DR Congo, because injustice to one stakeholder is injustice to all.
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