OPINION | Africa’s paradox: Mineral Wealth vs Sustainable Development

By Mukasiri Sibanda and Evans Rubara

Africa, rich in natural resources, stands at a crossroads between leveraging its abundant mineral wealth and ensuring sustainable development. The continent’s story, often told through the lens of its vast resources — from Botswana’s diamonds to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s cobalt — is a narrative of potential and caution. This article explores the intricate relationship between Africa’s mineral riches and its developmental aspirations, guided by the principles of the Africa Mining Vision (AMV).

Botswana, the world’s leading producer of diamonds by value, offers an example of Africa’s resource paradox. While the nation enjoys the fruits of its geological bounty, its national currency — the Pula — is named not after diamonds but after rain, signalling the intrinsic value of natural resources beyond minerals. This symbolic choice underscores a broader theme: the real wealth of Africa lies in its ability to sustain its environment and communities.

Yet, despite the potential, many African nations grapple with the “resource curse.” The narrative is too familiar — countries rich in resources yet struggling with poverty and underdevelopment. The tale of the three servants from the Biblical parable of talents resonates here, illustrating the outcomes of different approaches to resource management: squandering, safeguarding, or multiplying wealth.

The AMV does not see itself merely as a mining guideline but as a catalyst for broader socio-economic transformation. It advocates for mining to be a stepping stone toward industrialisation and economic diversification. This vision aligns with a shift in perspective — from extracting minerals to enhancing human development through sustainable practices.

A key aspect of sustainable resource management is the legal ownership of mineral rights, which is enshrined in the constitutions of many African countries. This principle supports the idea that citizens should benefit equitably from their natural resources, a stance echoed by politicians, academics, and activists alike.

However, the reality often falls short of this ideal. Control has an upper hand over ownership. That’s why large multinational companies frequently reap significant benefits from Africa’s minerals, while the local communities bear the environmental and social costs. This disconnect highlights the need for policies that not only focus on taxation but also promote economic linkages and diversification opportunities, as emphasized by the AMV.

Africa’s wealth leakage problem

Speaking of government revenue, curbing leakages remains a priority for Africa. Botswana, the beacon of hope for sustainable management of mineral resources, lost US$31.5 billion due to illicit financial flows (IFFs) between 1980 and 2018 according to Africa’s Growth Initiative at Brookings Institute. In Africa, Botswana is ranked as the 8th largest emitter of IFFs on the continent, and 4th in the SADC region after South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola respectively.

The narrative that minerals are a finite resource is being challenged by advances in technology and recycling. Innovations in the platinum sector and developments in lithium recovery are cases in point, demonstrating that minerals can indeed be reused and recycled. This shift not only alleviates fears about resource depletion but also opens up new avenues for economic independence and environmental sustainability.

Moreover, the concept of usufruct — using resources without depleting them — is increasingly relevant. Africa must aim to control its mineral resources comprehensively, from extraction to the production of final goods and the recovery of minerals from scrap. This approach ensures that future generations will not be left with a “natural wealth debt,” having to import once plentiful minerals.

Strengthening regional cooperation is crucial for managing Africa’s mineral resources effectively. Strategies such as establishing regional platforms, harmonizing policies, and sharing technical expertise can enhance the collective capacity of African nations. Moreover, investing in joint infrastructure projects, like railways and ports, can reduce logistical constraints and boost the mining sector’s competitiveness.

Regional infrastructure projects, often funded through public-private partnerships (PPPs) and development finance institutions, are vital for this cooperative effort. Successful examples include the Dakar-Diamniadio Toll Highway in Senegal and the Maputo Port Development in Mozambique. These projects not only improve connectivity and efficiency but also serve as models of how collaborative efforts can lead to substantial developmental gains.

As Africa continues to navigate the complexities of its mineral wealth, the continent must balance immediate economic benefits with long-term sustainability and equity. The Africa Mining Vision and initiatives like regional cooperation provide a roadmap for harnessing resources in a way that promotes economic growth, environmental stewardship, and social inclusivity. By redefining its relationship with natural resources, Africa can transform its mineral wealth into a cornerstone of sustainable development, ensuring that its riches benefit all its people, now and in the future.

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This article is co-authored by Evans Rubara, Director and Principal Researcher, Africa Transcribe Enterprise, and Mukasiri Sibanda, Stop the Bleeding Campaign Coordinator