A story that's longer than 100 years: Key milestones in African mining

Mining in Africa has experienced boom times and been through the wringer; can it beat the blues again?

NOTHING is new under the African sun, goes the adage. And events of the last year would suggest so, as an industry that has become a major contributor to African revenues experiences a sense of deja vu—it has been here again.

To put this into context, we explore the development of mining in Africa based on a report by the The International Study Group Report on Africa’s Mineral Regimes, backed by the UN Economic Commission on Africa (UNECA) and the African Union.

Pre-colonialism

Precolonial Africa had a thriving mining industry—iron products thrived despite competition from European ones—in Yatenga in modern day Burkina Faso there were as many as 1,500 smelting furnaces in 1904.

Today’s major copper-producing areas were sites of indigenous production for many years before they were taken over by foreign miners, while in the millennia preceding colonialism, west and southern Africa were major exporters of gold to the world.

Surprisingly, despite the status of such minerals, the most valued commodity was salt, trade in which reached Benin, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Togo and parts of Mali and Burkina Faso.

Creation of colonial export mining

The drive to find and control sources of raw materials partly informed the partition of Africa, leading to foreign mining firms displacing local industry between 1870 and 1929, when the Great Depression hit.

Opportunities created by minerals attracted heavy European migration, which while initially focused on precious minerals such as diamonds and golds, soon branched out into copper and other minerals as demand grew due to the Industrial Revolution. The agency of the colonial states was key in securing valuable African labour.  

Post Second World War

The focus was now on reconstruction, with the overseas state being interventionist. This period is characterised as the the “hey-day” of mining companies in Africa, as mines sprouted all over, and existing ones were expanded. Many of these were key in defining the post-colonial economic structures of current exporters.

After independence

Newly independent states found that the political economy of mines was firmly in foreign hands, with weak links to the domestic economy. In an attempt to redress this, they resorted to tools such as nationalisation and establishment of state mining enterprises, to mixed results, largely negative.

The World Bank years

With many African countries coming into the 1980s heavily indebted, the World Bank in 1992 set out its Strategy for African Mining in an attempt to reform the weak mining industry and help attract investment to a sector with huge potential. The resulting incentive-laden recommendations had no historical precedent, and their effect is still being evaluated today.

The ‘new path’

In 2007 a policy ‘Big Table’ organised by UNECA and the African Development Bank (AfDB) brought together AU mining leaders and experts who agreed that efforts to attract Foreign Direct Investment had not had the desired effects. The price boom gave the continent space to re-shape terms. 

The meeting gave rise to the African Mining Vision (AMV), which beyond extraction focuses on the structural transformation of economies to contribute to overall growth targets such as the Millennium Development Goals and the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals.

New concerns

The AMV was crafted during the boom years, but those markets are now slowing down, and could again shift “power” back into the hands of miners. The Investing in African Mining Indaba 2016, taking place in this new uncertain climate will seek to shed direction on this and give pointers on what is an uncertain time.

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