Extractive industries in Africa = extracted profits

As the post-2015 development agenda begins to fully take shape, governments, civil society and trade unions are paying attention to the impact of tax evasion and avoidance in Africa’s extractive industries.

Despite being home to 20 of the most resource rich nations on earth, most African nations consistently fail to translate their mineral wealth into even a basic standard of living for its citizens.

According to a landmark report, released earlier this year by the African Union’s high-level panel on illicit financial flows and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Africa loses over US$50 billion annually to illicit financial flows, mostly through the extractive industry.

Meanwhile research from Oxfam shows that illicit financial flows from Africa represents 5.7 percent of the continent’s GDP, exceeding public spending on health across its 54 nations.

Hebrews Misomali, a human rights activist from Malawi told me:

“Africa is a continent blessed with natural wealth but the majority of people remain poor and the extraction of its mineral wealth has done nothing for ordinary people.”

He says that the combination of tax evasion, tax avoidance and the fact that most value-added production processes take place elsewhere - benefitting the people and companies of those countries - as some of the main reasons why Africa loses so much money through extractive industries.

“Mining companies are aware that we have corrupt leaders in Africa. And bargaining on the high poverty levels in the continent, they come with promises of corporate social responsibility programs that are never fulfilled.”

He cites the example of the Kayelekera uranimum mine in Malawi, operated by the Australian mining company Paladin Africa, where no taxes were paid because no profits were ever declared.

Misomali also said that while mining companies make huge profits from their mining ventures, health and safety standards in mines are still lax and official inspection and enforcement regimes are weak and dependent on the goodwill of employers.

Speaking with me earlier this year, Joel Odigie, Human and Trade Union Rights‎ Coordinator at the International Trade Union Confederation’s Africa Office, agreed that corruption is a huge problem.

“The mining companies themselves undertake all manner of tax dodging and tax avoidance practices through the manipulation of national tax laws. But the environment is very easy to compromise if the right palms are greased.”

Weak license and contract agreements between mining companies and mineral exploring countries make it possible for companies to pay as little as five per cent of their profits in loyalties, said Odigie.

However, there are a numerous initiatives at a local, national and international level that are working to reverse this trend so that Africans can start to profit from their own mineral wealth.

Since 2009, the African Mining Vision, jointly developed by the African Union, the African Development Bank and a number of UN agencies, has been calling for transparency in Africa’s extractive industries to ensure sustainable development and economic growth.

Meanwhile organisations such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) have helped to improve transparency and accountability.

But it will take presence of strong, accountable and democratic governments, the mechanisms to prevent illicit and fraudulent financial transfers, and the continued advocacy and campaign work of trade unions, community and civil society groups to really affect socio-economic and environmental change in Africa’s mining industry.

This is already happening but for the 40 per cent of people in sub-Saharan Africa still living in absolute poverty bigger and faster change is needed.