The myth of Africa’s abundant natural wealth

It is often said that African nations are endowed with abundant natural wealth because they possess exceptional amounts of valuable minerals and other resources provided by nature. This notion of resource-richness is often contrasted with Africa’s high incidence of poverty to make the case that the continent is a paradox of want in the midst of plenty. It is a construction used to support claims of endemic incompetence amongst African leaders.

The portrayal of Africa as resource-rich has also led many Africans to believe that extreme poverty in the community could easily be eliminated if only their leaders shared nature’s endowment more equally. This understanding has fuelled a culture of entitlement – a belief that ordinary citizens are being denied birth-right benefits bequeathed by God.

There are two major problems with the idea that Africa has plentiful supply of natural resources. Firstly, the claim is without foundation. There is no evidence to support the notion of Africa’s super-abundance in natural resources. The opposite is closer to reality.  The World Bank 2011 report, The Changing Wealth of Nations, shows that low-income nations possess much less natural resource wealth than high-income countries, although poorer nations are more dependent on natural resources.  While countries like Norway, with natural capital valued at US$110,162 per capita or Australia with US$39,979 per capita worth, maybe described as resource-rich, the same cannot be said of Nigeria with natural capital worth US$6,042 per capita or South Africa with US$5,723 or Angola with US$13,307. Leaving aside Gabon, with an estimated US$42,065 per capita in natural capital, the resources endowments of African countries are actually quite modest.

Nigeria is frequently depicted as oil-rich, usually by commentators underlining government corruption and mismanagement of public resources. The image is of a country with ample petrodollars which, with better management, could meet the material needs of its people. This construction stems from massive exaggeration of the scale of Nigeria’s oil assets and income, relative to its population. It makes sense to describe countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as oil rich as they produce lots of the stuff and have small populations. But saying Nigeria is oil rich when in 2014 its oil output per capita was about US$530 is absurd. The United States, rarely described as oil-rich, produced an estimated 2,054 litres of crude oil per capita in 2012, more than twice Nigeria’s 860 litres. The assumption that Abuja is awash with petroleum money is clearly preposterous considering that in 2014 Nigeria’s oil revenue amounted to US$32.2 billion – a mere US$190 per person.

The second problem with depicting Africa as resource-rich is that it encourages a belief among some Africans that such endowment is wealth, provided free by nature and readily available for consumption. The belief that these are low hanging fruits to be plucked with little or no effort.  This assumption of natural wealth can be misleading. In reality almost all wealth is created by people. For instance, the crude oil and other minerals underground become capital goods only after extraction, which is an endeavour requiring significant amounts of effort and ingenuity. Underground mineral deposits can be of value to prospectors willing to buy exploitation rights, but even here, awareness of the existence of the resource requires human knowledge and the application of technology.

Modern-day crop production is not the result of harvesting naturally available products. Cocoa trees are planted and nurtured before they yield beans and mass produced chickens are the result of battery farming. Land is fertile because the soil has been appropriately treated. While rain and rivers are natural sources of water, the gathering and processing of water for delivery to end-users is created wealth.

It is important to make the point that natural resources are not endowments that are realisable without costs. Too often we hear resource nationalists contend that minerals mined in their areas are birthright entitlements of local peoples which outsiders unjustly extract for their own profit. The sense of grievance stems from an understanding that the resource, which the community had no part in harnessing, is a gift of nature to the people.

One of the reasons that the value of natural resources in low income countries is generally lower than those found in high-income nations is that there has been less human exploration and development of nature’s attributes in underdeveloped economies. This is partly due to the treatment in poor countries of natural resources as national resources that must be tightly managed by the state. Reform to make the acquisition of land much easier and to extend private property rights to subsoil resources would go a long way to creating the conditions for the effective development of these assets.

Nigerian governments have for decades voiced interest in the exploitation of the country’s supposedly vast solid mineral deposits but little progress has been made because the state maintains tight control of these resources. The development of the oil and gas sector has stalled for decades largely because of inept state involvement in the ownership and operation of the industry. Officials have said around 60% of Nigeria’s arable land is uncultivated. Imagine the impact that a open market in land transactions would have on the development of the untapped or underutilised land resources. Also imagine the tax revenues government could collect from resource-related industries, such as petrochemicals, freed from the dead hand of state mismanagement.

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