Daring to assert sovereignty: Zimbabwe bans all exports of raw lithium

As the colonial era “ended”, and the various colonies in Africa, the Americas, and Asia gained their independence, the various imperial powers of the world forced those colonies to take on the debts of their former conquerors. This, combined with a combination of financial control and brute military force, maintained the dynamic that had made the colonies so profitable for the U.S. and western Europe: the colonies were forced to produce one or two significant resources to the exclusion of all else, exporting raw ingredients, and depending on imports from their rulers to survive. Basically, any time one of these countries tries to attain some degree of self-sufficiency, or to assert their own economic plans that class with global capitalism, they mysteriously suffer from a coup, or assassinations, or death squads, or sanctions to punish them for stepping out of line. If you want a deeper dive into that subject, check out this video from Renegade Cut:

This is the setting in which Zimbabwe has banned all exports of raw lithium, in favor of making its own lithium-based products, and selling those, which is considerably more profitable.

Zimbabwe has banned all lithium exports after the government said it was losing 1.7 billion euros from exporting it as a raw mineral and not processing it into batteries in-country.

Lithium is so valuable as a component of electronic batteries – mostly for cars mobile phones and computers – that it’s known as “white gold.” The price has gone up by 1,100 percent in the past two years alone.

Zimbabwe has the largest amount of the mineral in Africa and has enough of it to supply a fifth of the world’s needs, the government says.

Whilst it’s on track to become one of the world’s largest lithium exporters, the government says it should start its own battery industry rather than allow foreign companies to dominate battery production.

If it succeeds it will mark a sea change for Zimbabwe’s economy.

Like many other mineral-rich African states, it has allowed its raw minerals to be extracted by multinationals for decades without developing local industries that could process them, and create many jobs.

The Zimbabwean Ministry of Mines and Mining Development said it would also clamp down on the artisanal miners digging up lithium and smuggling the mineral across borders.

Bolivia, to remind you, made a similar decision shortly before the failed 2019 coup in that country. With the MAS party back in charge, hopefully those plans will go ahead. Zimbabwe is an independent nation, with the right to govern itself, but history has shown that that “independence” only goes so far when it comes to decisions that might hurt the bottom line of the capitalist elite. I want to be clear – this is not a blanket defense of all the governments and politicians in these various countries. Dostoevsky said that power is only given to those who dare to lower themselves to pick it up. I think that’s often true of any hierarchical institution, and in general, where there is power, you will find those who seek to abuse it. I do not doubt that most poor countries have corruption, because that is the nature of power. That does not justify these crimes of empire. It does not justify constant interference with and imposition upon countries that are still trying to recover from centuries of horrific oppression. It’s unfortunate that this needs to be pointed out every time the subject comes up, but that’s the world we live in, and the reliable presence of shitty people in power has allowed the shitty people running places like the U.S. to justify their international abuses to their own subjects.

So, Zimbabwe, whatever its faults, has made the decision to use some its natural resources for the benefit of that nation, rather than the enrichment of foreign capitalists. I think it’s fair to assume that if they are able to pull this off, most of the proceeds will go to the upper class of that country, as is the current default all over the world. Some of it will also go to improving life for the average Zimbabwean, if only because they’ve been facing unrest over economic conditions for a while now, and improving people’s lives is a great way to deal with that. The current government was elected following the removal of Mugabe from power by the Zimbabwean military, and there have been accusations that the election was unfairly managed (Wikipedia). I don’t know enough to have any clear opinion of the country’s current leaders, but this particular policy decision makes a lot of sense to me, and it should be well within the rights of any nation.

Unfortunately, the rich (white) nations of the world have never acted as though Zimbabwe has any right to determine its own course whatsoever:

In a study titled; “Politics of sanctions: Impact of US and EU sanctions on the rights and well-being of Zimbabweans”, published in 2015, Chidiebere C. Ogbonna, an academic, researcher, writer and peace facilitator, observes that Zimbabwe has “been sanctioned in six sanction episodes: 1966, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2009.”

The 1966 episode followed Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence on November 11, 1965, which led to the isolation of Rhodesia from the international community.

This makes the Southern African nation “one of the most sanctioned countries in the world,” hence, scuppering economic growth, and consequently, threatening the overall welfare of Zimbabweans, and impinging on their rights.

The Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001, amended in 2018, led to the imposition of economic sanctions on the seemingly small and insignificant Southern African country due to its stance on the land issue.

Highlighting that the Zimbabwean economic landscape is “tragic”, Ogbonna avers: “Consequently, the situation threatens human security and also denies Zimbabweans the capabilities to live in dignity as prescribed in the universal declaration of human rights.”

“I agree that they are instruments permitted by the UN Charter; however, the use of economic sanctions contradicts the UN declaration of human rights, which emphasises the “right to live in dignity.”

Scholars agree that economic sanctions, which the United Nations has referred to as a “tool for all seasons,” lead to terrible humanitarian concerns.

They argue that economic sanctions rob citizens of a target State the right to live in dignity.

Ogbonna maintains that, although there may be other issues on which economic decline could be blamed, sanctions contributed “immensely in setting the economic clock of Zimbabwe backwards.”

Worry-warts may go to town about “bad politics”, governance matters and corruption, which in all fairness cannot be ignored, but as the study observes, no nation state can go it alone.

“The world system is interrelated, and States are embedded in the system. Therefore, it is inappropriate to argue that sanctions have no effects on the economy of a sanctioned State,” Ogbonna points out.

Even at the communal level none is an island. Africans believe in communal ownership of amenities — they share — that is what makes them one.

They believe that no man is an island, therefore, they share salt, maize meal, wells, boreholes, grazing land, sorrows, joys and other such facilities that keep them going.

So, when they hear that one of their own has been targeted not to use such amenities key to his family’s well-being, it is not lost on them that his children suffer more.

Collective wisdom informs Africans that a villager’s children are theirs too.

As an African, Ogbonna is conscious of that shared wisdom. Hence, he explores the impacts of sanctions on Zimbabwe’s economy, and consequently, on the country’s ordinary citizens, especially “the most vulnerable, such as the sick, disabled, elderly and pregnant women.”

He examines the direct impact of sanctions on human rights and well-being of Zimbabweans, as well as their bearing on socio-economic progress.

Concerning human rights, he attests that sanctions impact on the rights to healthcare, education and quality standard of living, which, on the overall, affects social welfare.

Key economic factors like inflation, access to foreign currency and foreign direct investment (FDI), are impacted negatively by the illegal economic sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by Western countries, claiming them to be targeted.

The social impact of sanctions on ordinary citizens, whose only crime is being Zimbabwean — a sovereign people — cannot be overemphasised. Like everyone else, they are citizens of a country inhabited by fellow human beings with dreams and aspirations.

In many ways, I think that economic sanctions should be viewed as a version of strategic bombing, also known as “terror bombing” or “morale bombing”. The basic premise of this bombing “tactic” was that by making life intolerable for the people of the authoritarian government we’re attacking (because, of course, we wouldn’t be attacking them if they weren’t evil), we would cause them to replace their rulers with someone better. As far as I am aware, this has never worked. The same is true of sanctions, including the ones that have recently been placed on Afghanistan. In reality what they do is destroy lives. More than that, sanctions tend to do the most harm to those with the least power, without hurting the rulers at all.

I don’t think this history bodes well for Zimbabwe’s effort to improve its situation, but it’s worth noting that they are not alone in this. In addition to Bolivia, which I already mentioned, Mexico is also nationalizing its lithium industry for similar reasons, and I think that the more other countries do the same, the harder it will be to justify action against any one. I hope so, anyway. I’d like to have some good news that sticks around for a while, you know?

Hat tip to Ben Norton for making me aware of this story, and of the bit about Mexico, which I had missed at the time. I hope, as I always do with this sort of thing, that Zimbabwe is allowed to chart its own course. I hope that this policy is carried through, and that “Made in Zimbabwe” becomes a mark of a good, ethically produced battery. Even if the results aren’t all I hope for, it will be an improvement over the extortionate arrangement they’ve decided to abandon. Until this kind of national policy is allowed to play out without interference from imperial powers, we cannot say that the colonial era has truly ended.

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