Last week, on the 15th of July, the British non-governmental organisation, Global Witness, published a report about the activities of logging companies in the Central African Republic.
The report, titled: “Blood Timber – How Europe Helped Fund War in the Central African Republic” catalogues an alleged series of very grave malpractices by six French, Chinese and Lebanese logging companies and their subsidiaries.
It alleges that during 2013, the companies funded the Seleka rebels to the tune of EUR 34 million and, to this day still oil the anti-Balaka (Seleka’s successors) killing machine, and continue to pillage Central African Republic, and an extent, the larger Congo Basin rain forests in an un-sustainable manner, to the detriment of local populations and the environment. This has seriously weakened the fragile governance system in the CAR and facilitated the illicit export of capital out of a country that is ranked 180 out of 186 in the 2013 UNDP Human Development Index.
Prior and subsequent to the overthrow of President François Bozizé on March 24, 2013, Seleka (and later the anti-Balaka) unleashed a senseless orgy of bloodletting which resulted in over 6000 civilian deaths and the displacement of upwards of half a million people. They burnt entire villages to the ground, raped and tortured egregiously, in “the worst kind of human rights abuses” for which the logging companies, according to the report, must be held “responsible as accessories to the crimes of their protectors.” As Global Witness concludes; the “companies have formed part of a criminal enterprise.” This criminal enterprise has transformed CAR’s into “blood timber,” as happened during the Liberian civil war.
The report also speaks of “a persistent climate of corruption and illegality in the timber sector” which “maintains the fragility of CAR’s state, poverty and underdevelopment, making conflict and complicity with armed groups more likely in future.”
It records that subsequent to CAR’s suspension from trading diamonds under the Kimberly process, logging became the country’s largest export commodity. And due to CAR’s “very low levels of economic development,” the logging companies “hold an outsized influence in the country.”
Despite the widely reported deaths of 13 South African soldiers at the hands of the Seleka rebels on March 23 2013 in CAR, the growing realisation of the need to curb the pernicious practice of illicit financial outflows from the continent and the vital need to arrest deforestation, desertification and climate change, Global Witness’s report has gone totally unreported in the South African media and courted nary a mention from the academic and think-thank communities.
Hopefully, these communities will reflect on this glaring omission, the better to improve our understanding of the confluence of local and external conflict-generating political and economic forces and how democracy, peace and security and development can conceivably be realised.
As Jean-François Bayart, Stephen Ellis and Beatrice Hibou have noted in their book, “The Criminalization of the State in Africa,” the narrative must also factor “the specific historical conditions which govern the processes of state formation and economic accumulation” and not only, as is often in vogue, “moral considerations regarding governance, or … the appetites of presidents and entrepreneurs of violence.”
The “outsized influence” exerted by logging companies on CAR helps one to understand Bayart, Ellis and Hibou’s assertion that: “in Africa, the interaction between the practice of power, war, economic accumulation and illicit activities of various types forms a particular political trajectory which can be fully appreciated only if it is addressed in historical depth. One of the characteristics of this trajectory is the exploitation by dominant social groups, or by the dominant actors of the moment, of a whole series of rents generated by Africa’s insertion in the international economy in a mode of dependence.”
Dependence is conceived from multi-faceted assumptions and constructs about the role of business more generally and notions about the value of Africa and the Africans which in turn lead to far-reaching commissions and omissions such as the companies’ patronage of the CAR war. Thus, attentive readers will not miss the blatant racism of a representative of one of the accused companies, the French company, Tropica-Bois, who told Global Witness in an undercover interview, that the company did not care about its practices in the CAR: “It’s Africa. [War] is so common we don’t really pay attention… It’s not a war where they attack white people. It’s not a war we have to avoid.”
The report makes several recommendations which merit urgent engagement and consideration by governments and public support, especially on the African continent.
These are that:
- Importing countries in Europe must enforce the European Union’s Timber Regulation against all companies that have placed CAR wood or derived products on the EU market since March 2013;
- The EU suspends timber trade with CAR under the so-called Voluntary Partnership Agreement;
- France ends all grants, subsidies or technical support of CAR’s industrial logging sector;
- The Chinese government introduces a law banning illegal timber imports and cuts all trade links to CAR’s logging industry;
- The introduction of a moratorium on all industrial logging operations by the government of CAR and the establishment of a Forest Sector Review Committee to investigate the financing of armed conflict, illegality and corruption in the sector; and,
- The UN Panel of Experts examines the links between the timber industry and trade with the financing of armed groups.
If the allegations made by Global Witness are correct, it is crucial for the continent’s intergovernmental institutions, especially the AU, and governments to lend support to CAR in engaging with these recommendations in the overall context of post-conflict reconstruction, state and nation building.
Equally important is a continent-wide demand for the criminal prosecution of the managers and directors of the logging companies. To demand any less would be irresponsible. The Congo Basin forest is the second largest tropical rainforest on earth after the Amazon. It is from this that it earned its prized position as “the lungs of Africa.” Its destruction for the commercial greed of a few poses a danger to humanity as a whole.
The information provided by the Global Witness report provides material for a 21st century expansion of the 1973 thesis by Walter Rodney: “How Europe Under-developed Africa.” It gives the lie to the simplistic narrative that Africa’s wars are about a continent disinclined to democracy and good governance.
The report illustrates that our conflicts are actively fuelled by a local and global political economy with an inbuilt logic of the kind of crass indifference towards African lives displayed by the Tropica-Bois representative. Unfortunately, it is a political economy with which we as Africans also become variously complicit, including by frustrating local processes for its change or altogether taking these efforts out of the picture.
Demands for urgent positive change in the economic management of CAR’s forests would contribute to altering that country’s social and political architecture.