Africa should make bold demands in rare earths minerals conversation
The European Union (EU) has classified rare earth minerals as critical for Europe’s ambition to deliver the so-called Green Deal and ensure both the energy and digital transition.
In furtherance of this grand drive, the EU is currently implementing a project across 10 African countries namely Morocco, Senegal, Gabon; the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and Madagascar.
The project has been dubbed the Africa Maval Project and is expected to last 42 months from June 2022 to November 2025. The €8.9 million (approx. Shs 36 billion valued project seeks to contribute to responsible sourcing to reinforce Europe’s industrial leadership while also stimulating the co-development of a partnership between the EU and Africa in the raw materials sector.
While Uganda might not be part of the Africa Maval Project, this discussion should concern us because of the strides taken with the Makuutu Rare Earths Project in Eastern Uganda.
Recently, it was disclosed that the project would require a capital investment of about $120.8 million. In turn, the project is estimated to produce five million tonnes of rare earth minerals per year. Last year, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) issued a certificate of approval for the project.
The problem with projects like the Africa Maval and the EU Policy on Rare Earth Minerals generally is that they are reminiscent of the infamous scramble for Africa’s resources in accordance with the European spheres of influence at the time.
The scramble and partition of Africa was essentially an avenue to loot the continent's resources, use these resources to create finished products and in turn create market for these products. In enforcing this policy, Europeans maimed and killed Africans.
For instance, an estimated 10 million Congolese were killed during King Leopold’s reign. Generally, the EU Policy on Rare Earths Minerals is driven by the EU’s need to “diversify its supply chain and engage strategic partnerships with resource-rich third countries covering extraction, processing and refining such as African countries,” eerily similar to the aspirations of various European powers in 1884?
A critical look at the policy would disclose that the EU requires these minerals in order to manufacture components in high technology devices such as smartphones. Additionally, these minerals are used in electric vehicles, wind turbines and other forms of renewable energies.
After the manufacture of these appliances, the EU would need a market for them. With an estimated population of 1.4 billion as of 2022, Africa would present a ready market for these appliances.
This, coupled with more African countries passing legislations to cater for the realities of climate change and pave the way for energy transition, lends credence to the argument that the EU’s Rare Earths Policy should not only be taken at face value.
The last time Africans took Bible-brandishing, moustached foreigners whose skins looked considerably different from their own at face value, they ended up purchasing items that had been manufactured from the blood and sweat of their own kin.
There is potential for the EU to engage with Africa on an equitable basis firstly by resisting the relationship between the two continents with the aim of righting the wrongs of the past.
This can only be done by aligning the EU Policy on Rare Earths Minerals to the Africa Mining Vision 2010 and mapping out the potential areas of joint interest and collaboration. Africa should not and cannot be expected to collaborate with the EU merely because the latter seeks to replenish its supply of rare earth minerals. Africa should collaborate with the EU because its interests are also catered for.
For instance, one area Africa could benefit from projects like the Africa Maval lies in deliberate technology and skills transfer such that Africans can contribute more meaningfully to their respective mining eco-systems. Africa’s contribution to the energy and digital transition can no longer be measured on the basis of how much mineral tonnage leaves our mainland to be used in the production of smartphones and solar panels.
Instead, Africa’s contribution should be measured on the basis of how many smartphones or solar panels she can manufacture from her own minerals. History has a funny way of repeating itself. Moreover, George Santayana is remembered to have famously stated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Africa has to learn from the mistakes that caused the large-scale exploitation of Africa. Africa has been presented with a second chance to right some of those wrongs by making bold demands, especially on the rare earth minerals conversation.
The author is a Program Manager at Global Rights Alert
Article as Published in the Observer Newspaper on 12th March 2023