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BRICS is no cure for Africa’s problems

By Gugulethu Hughes

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.

Since the advent of colonialism, Africa’s growth has been thwarted by global forces competing for the motherland’s resources. For all the talk of modernity and civilization, Africa has never been treated as an equal partner. The combined African psyche is a tale of colonization which manifests more in how Africans conduct themselves in seeking reliance on external forces. This civilization we are subjected to was never developed to prosper Africa, hence the continent’s status as a third world sphere despite having the bulk of resources required for a modern global economy to thrive.

Even the politics and economics of democracy we are made to aspire to are a foreign import designed to keep us in check. The key beneficiaries of global economics keep on dishing out terminologies, subsets of the same system, and acronyms for Africa to subscribe to but nothing of substance ever materializes. The system is too flawed against Africa, and BRICS is the new opium to sedate Africans from instituting a real war of decolonization.

For historical purposes, BRICS was conceived by former Chairman of Goldman Sachs asset manager Jim O’Neill in a 2001 paper titled Building Better Global Economic BRICS. In this paper, O’Neill’s forecasted that the global economy would revolve around Brazil, Russia, India, and China as an alternative to G7 due to the countries’ population sizes. This forecast was created on the basis of a growing population compared to the West’s dwindling population figures.

When globalization became a prominent feature of economics, countries with bigger populations became key destinations for outsourcing jobs. Jim O’Neill’s paper is neither a prophecy nor innovation, but due to his strategic positioning and that of Goldman Sachs in directing global affairs, he formalized the idea which led to the conceptualization of the BRICS block in 2009. Soon after its formation, BRICS has consistently enjoyed attention from organizations like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Economic Forum, among others. These organizations’ critique of BRICS has been mostly based on the understanding that the bloc will become critical for the sustenance of the global economic system. Even in its formation, BRICs never sought to disrupt the global economics architecture but rather present opportunities that exist in member countries. 

Twenty years later, Jim O’Neill stated that the primary goal of his first paper on BRICS was to make a case for changing the framework for global economic governance. Brazil’s Instituto de Pesquisa Economica Aplicada (IPEA) provides a more vivid picture on the evolution of BRICS. The IPEA reiterates that BRICS was formulated at Goldman Sachs, and it became an analytical category in economic, financial, business, academic, and media circles.

In 2006, the concept gave rise to the grouping incorporated into Brazil, Rusia, India, and China’s foreign policies. In 2011, on the occasion of the third summit, at the invitation of China, South Africa became the fifth member. IPEA further states that, “Until 2006, BRICs were not gathered within a mechanism that allowed their articulation. The concept expresses the existence of four individual countries that have characteristics which allow them to be grouped together, but not as a mechanism. That changed at the Meeting of Foreign Ministers of the four countries, organized on the sidelines of the 61st General Assembly of the United Nations on September 23rd, 2006. This was a first step for Brazil, Russia, India and China to begin working collectively. It can then be said that in parallel to the concept “BRICs”, a group came into existence that began to act in the international scene…”

On top of Goldman Sachs, the IMF, the World Bank, and other financial organizations, the United Nations at its 2006 General Assembly became the venue for BRIC to take structure from ideation to concept. All the organizations that have influenced the formation BRICS are the same that govern global economics. Under their tutelage, Africa has been relegated to the doldrums of fashioned poverty.

In a recent interview on the future of BRICS, Jim O’Neill stated that talks about a BRICS currency is symbolism but highly impractical due to issues like the rivalry between China and India over border disagreements. He makes mention of leading Chinese think tanks arguing for IMF’s special drawing rights to become the world currency. In 1969, the International Monetary Fund described SDR as equivalent to a fractional amount of gold that was equivalent to one US dollar. This definition was changed in 1973 to the value of a basket of world currencies. IMF members – and the IMF itself – hold SDRs and the IMF has the authority to approve other holders, such as central banks and multilateral development banks, while individuals and private entities cannot hold SDRs.

As of February 2023, there were 20 organizations approved as prescribed holders. There are five currencies included in the SDR basket and these are the US dollar, euro, pound sterling, Japanese yen, and Chinese renminbi which was admitted in 2016. Among the leading Chinese think tanks to make a case for IMF SDR was Chinese Central Bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan, who in 2009 already made proposals for IMF to go digital with SDR. Zhou also made a speech at the Bank of International Settlements in 2016 about putting renminbi in the SDR basket and its future role in the international financial system. It therefore comes as no surprise that Jim O’Neill would suggest that there is a much higher probability of the renminbi rivaling the dollar as the alternative currency for trade settlements instead of a BRICS currency. At the World Economic Forum in 2011, then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a speech calling on the IMF to include currencies of BRIC countries in the special drawing rights basket. 

What stands out is that major economies within the BRICS bloc have faith in the IMF governing global financial architecture. On the other hand, the IMF as well as the World Bank are why Africa cannot progress. That’s because of structural adjustment program-driven loans. While China and Russia have on separate occasions canceled debt owed to them by African countries, these superpowers have not gone to the extent of trying to influence their global counterparts in the West to do the same. The IMF keeps on oiling poverty in Africa, yet our BRICS partners consistently exhibit faith in the IMF. A 2018 BRICS Research Group commentary stated that BRICS and G7 complement each other more than they compete. The author concluded that views of the BRICS as a revisionist challenge to the liberal international system will persist, but it is important to recognize the significance that BRICS complements G7 efforts to promote female empowerment, free trade, and development in Africa.

BRICS represents a critical and growing part of global governance. In the recently ended BRICS global summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that no one is going to be left behind in the modernization of the global economy. What this means, particularly for Africa, is that the continent is just a pediatric case of colic and BRICS is prescription treatment. For the rest of the world, it means that China is being presented as an alternative to the USA.

The most recent BRICS forum saw new members being adopted to the group. These include Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Egypt, and Ethiopia. For those who care to follow global politics of economics, this expansion is the case of China expanding its influence. China has strong trade ties with the new additions and is involved in mega infrastructure projects in those countries.

However, it’s not that cut-and-dry. Most of those countries also enjoy close ties with the USA, save for Iran. The USA is the single biggest donor to Ethiopia, which is Africa’s second most populous country after Nigeria, providing $1.8 billion worth of aid. On the other hand, China has invested heavily in Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam through its $1.2 billion credit facility. This construction of the dam has led to a rift between Ethiopia and other new BRICS member Egypt which has a claim to the Nile Dam together with Sudan. In March, the Egyptian cabinet announced that a Chinese company was due to invest $2 billion in the Suez Canal Economic Zone. Egypt has also positioned itself on the side of Sudan’s armed forces in the ongoing Sudan war, while the same forces enjoy US support. The Rapid Support Forces have the support of Russia’s Wagner Group.

Ethiopia is also home to the African Union headquarters whose new building was built by China. South Africa, through the Port of Durban, provides a perfect opportunity for China to ship raw materials and minerals into Southern and Central Africa from other African countries. For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo accounts for more than 70% of global cobalt supply. Most of the mines are owned by Chinese companies other than Glencore, and China is the world’s biggest supplier of refined cobalt and its products. So, the bulk of the cobalt from the DRC to China goes through the Port of Durban in South Africa. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also invested in the plundering of Africa. They’re currently pocketing large tracts of land to the extent of displacing local people like the Maasai in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro. UAE has also increased its footprint by taking over African ports.

Another popular topic at this year’s forum was the Ukraine war. Famously, the ICC sent out a warrant for Vladimir Putin’s arrest, preventing him from attending. This comes at a time when Russia is trying to build stronger ties. What everyone else ignores is that Russia’s allies in the BRICS bloc failed to guarantee protection for Putin. In essence, this shows the ineffectiveness of the bloc in effecting any real change in global politics. It also solidifies the argument that BRICS complements G7.

That is also evidenced by the trust different member countries have in the IMF, Africa’s biggest modern looter. African countries’ inclusion in the BRICS bloc is really just tokenization. African development is not at the center of the BRICS agenda, Africa did not set up the BRICS agenda, and therefore the bloc is not for Africans nor by Africans. The pulse is foreign, and the sooner Africans realize this, the sooner the continent can initiate a real process of decolonization.

To imagine South Africa, a country deemed the most unequal economy in the world, represents the key aspirations of Africa is absurd. South Africa presents the best investment opportunity for both the West and the East. China understands this, which is why they’re funding energy transition projects conceptualized by Western countries including the USA, and the EU.

China is also the BRICS partner most happy to see South Africa phase out coal power generation. Meanwhile, Brazil is the BRICS partner that is happy to dump chickens in Africa, India is the BRICS partner happy to suffocate Africa with vaccine contracts, Saudi Arabia and UAE are the BRICS partners pocketing African land and ports, and Argentina is the BRICS partner that annihilated an entire black population.

My role is not to bastardize BRICS but rather to point out the glaring inconsistencies the bloc holds in its relation to Africa. Based on its current conduct, BRICS is a vehicle for Chinese expansion buoyed by close cooperation with Western global institutions of governance aligned to the USA. For Russia, it presents an opportunity to forge new ties, but China is strategically positioned to counter Russian expansion as it did to the Soviet Union during the African wars of liberation.

Russia also needs Africa for its own survival. For most Africans, association with Russia is considered a revolutionary act because Russia posits an empire mentality. That’s a great trait, but without a decolonized mindset, Africans will never be able to stand up for themselves and reclaim our land. In Africa, the most productive land is owned by colonizers and BRICS does not mention financing Africans to purchase their own land if that is what it takes. Land ownership is at the center of decolonization, but BRICS falls short of being that Pan-African vehicle. Instead, the bloc is offering Africans a fourth industrial revolution, digital currencies, vaccines, artificial intelligence, clean energy, and other absurdities.

We are not going to liberate ourselves through conformance to a system designed to disadvantage us. BRICS is just another layer in a Western-designed ecosystem. Russia hosts the next BRICS summit and already lined up for the festivities is the BRICS sport competitions. As usual, Africans with their love for spectacle will come back home with both gold medals and dead minds. We need new blacks before we can talk about having influence in this world, otherwise we remain subjects of forces who respect themselves more.

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Gugulethu Hughes


Gugulethu Hughes is the ScoonTV Africa correspondent

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