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The Contours of China-Africa Relations

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Among the fulcrum points of contemporary international affairs, the relationship between China and the more than fifty countries that make up Africa is among the most closely watched. Critics and defenders alike cannot say enough about Beijing’s ties with the mysterious continent.

Contemporary realities and prospective gains are what drive a state’s foreign policy. Thus, while it may have been a different set of motives that drove Africa and China to one another between the 1960s and 1980s (this interesting history and its impact on the relationship today will be returned to at a later section), to students watching and studying the relationship between China and African countries, there are three main motives to Beijing’s interest in Africa today. Firstly, there is the oft-stated prospect of natural resources on which most critics tend to end their analysis. Secondly, there are the opportunities to be gained in the vast markets in Africa’s growing middle class. Thirdly, there are political considerations that Beijing has as its main aims and tries to hasten at all times; chief among these is its being recognised as the “one China” instead of Taiwan by African states and, some argue, the alienation of the west within Africa in a battle for economic frontiers and political allies.

Likewise, Africa has a set of its own motives in engaging with China. A cursory look at the African Union’s Vision 2063 will reveal these in depth. But very briefly, we can state here that they include funding for its initiatives to do with industrialisation, infrastructure, as well as education and healthcare in face of the structural adjustment programmes which prescribed austerity measures such as cutting government spending beginning in the 1980s under conditional aid and loans from Bretton Woods institutions.

The relationship between Africa and China has so far not been particularly perfect and harmonious. The most salient example of this is perhaps the reality that China has tended to export more to the continent than the other way round. Even though there are more than fifty African countries, the balance of trade is tipped in favour of China. Looking at the characteristics of the trade, an even more oblique picture emerges as it is clear that China mainly imports mineral resources (timber and forestry from Gabon, copper from Zambia, cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and oil from Angola to mention a few) and in turn exports into the continent manufactured textiles and technologies which, because of their affordability, tend to bring about a crowding-out effect on the continent’s domestic producers. In fact, trade unions have been at the forefront of attempting to curb China’s access to African markets. The Congress of South African Trade Unions in South Africa launched a “buy local” campaign that was motivated by a perceived threat posed by China in 2012. Moreover, more jobs have allegedly been threatened in the West African coast by alleged illegal fishing by Chinese nationals. Furthermore, less than optimum conditions in Chinese-owned factories in Zambia led in 2004 to the death of close to 40 employees in an explosion. And throughout the window period in which African countries were given access to US markets by the American Growth Opportunity Act, Chinese companies allegedly took advantage of that and set-up and registered businesses in Africa so as to gain access to the US market for themselves.

Facts and allegations such as these have become ready points to those who claim that China is neo-colonial in its relations with continental Africa. According to the view, the lopsided and imbalanced trade is reminiscent of the “scramble for Africa” which characterised the colonial relations between the Western European states and their African colonies. In what has been termed the “New Scramble for Africa”, China is cast as the new colonial power in the continent taking advantage of the continent’s citizens and taking away valuable commodities in exchange only for trinkets. Yet, this is a view of the relationship that is grossly over-simplistic. The nuances are not completely appreciated. For example, the risks that China has taken in taking over tottering projects in the continent (Nigeria’s oil sector, and Sudan after allegations of terrorism sponsoring, for example) are overlooked. Overlooked too, are the billions of aid that the People’s Republic gave without conditions to the continent while it was itself still a developing entity in the twentieth century, and even today. The high watermark of Africa and China’s relationship has been formed on the back of these contributions. The People’s Republic also has as one of its claimed principal aims the improvement of the relations into a win-win scenario.

Despite claims to do with China’s “neo-colonialism”, China has differentiated itself from the West by being avowedly non-interfering in internal African governance issues. This has been its niche. But some scholars read into this a lack of long-term orientation in Beijing’s interest in Africa. In other words, China seems to be only – and temporarily so – interested in extracting resources to complete its developmental project. Otherwise, the critics claim, she would be much more interested in improving Africa’s polities as a sign of long-term orientation.

On the other hand, some argue that China is fostering good governance in a manner that is both prudent and organic. As one Chinese government-associated scholar, He Wenping, sees it, “the fact is China is striving to develop economic and trade cooperation in Africa, helping African countries in large scale infrastructure development, raising people’s living standard, reducing poverty and vigorously developing African personnel training programs, which are all helping to build an economic and human resources foundation for Africa to realize democracy and good governance.” Under this view, China may be, coincidentally or otherwise, promoting (at least the conditions for) democratization through bringing in social and economic development and therefore – if democratization theorists are to be believed – will create a middle class that is capable of bringing about democratic change. Economic development also means a rooting out of “careerism” in African politics; alternative forms of enrichment apart from politics in the private sectors improves governance and leads to declines in corruption. Furthermore, according to a Brookings Institute report, China has not been a funder of unscrupulous dictators as is nominally argued. The greatest volume of China’s investment, the report states, is concentrated in democratic or semi-democratic states – Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia. And South Africa, largely considered the most democratic state on the continent, is China’s largest trading partner on the continent.

The earliest contact between China and Africa can be traced to the Han dynasty around 200 BC and more sporadic contacts between then and the seventeenth century when the Qing Dynasty famously began an inward turn and the Emperor banned all outside visitation and either burned sea-going vessels or let them rot without maintenance. But no understanding of the current set of relations between the two entities could be proper without appreciating the immense impact of the Cold War era between the late 1940s and 1980s in which so much of the present world order was forged. It was in these years that USSR-aligned China sponsored and even trained communist and other left-leaning movements in Africa. After the outright break with Moscow, China went on its independent, and in many ways more successful tirade to win allies on the continent by sponsoring those independence and revolutionary parties that were not only anti-West but also not yet in cooperation with the Soviets. The most noteworthy among these movements was perhaps Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and its encompassing Zimbabwean African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) which was fighting a bush war against Ian Smith’s regime in Rhodesia and went on to become the ruling party of independent Zimbabwe. The great result of this being that the relationship between the two countries is extremely positive today. China also has close relations with Angola and Mozambique for almost similar, though perhaps more controversial reasons.

Other outcomes for the present relations between Africa and China were not entirely positive. Due to its zeal for funding and aiding particularly leftist parties in Africa, in the throes of the Cold War, China may have also alienated some African countries who were pro-West – Cameroon, whose President Ahidjo at the time (1963) stated that “China is one of the states supporting terrorism in Cameroon. We have proof, for Cameroonian terrorists are in Communist China,” is a particular example. Perhaps because of this, Cameroon was among the last African countries to recognize mainland China over Taiwan as the One China. Still, China and Africa share a common and painful history of sufferings under colonial invasions. Today in the modern era, they also share the goal of common development for survival and development in a self-consciously Western-dominated international order.

The almost exponential spike in Chinese investment in Africa occurred in the years succeeding 2000. It cannot be coincidence that this is the year in which the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation was established. To date, there have been five such meetings between Chinese and African statesmen. A cursory look at each of these fora will reveal the extent to which they have been a launching ground for initiatives that have gone a long way in pushing African development further.

The first conference, which took place on Chinese soil, passed the Beijing Declaration of the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation and the Programme for China–Africa Cooperation in Economic and Social Development which has laid the basis of future forums and engagement. The second conference, which took place in Ethiopia, saw an increase in attendance and awareness as more than 70 ministers from China and 44 African countries attended the conference. The Conference passed the Addis Ababa Action Plan (2004-2006) which had among its declarations both entities’ plans for further trade plans as well as debt relief and development commitments. In the third conference, which returned to Beijing in 2006, PRC President Hu Jintao and heads of state from 35 African countries were in attendance. President Hu rolled out $5 billion worth of concessionary loans to Africa during the summit. As one of the “Eight Measures” for Sino-African relations, President Hu announced the creation of the China-Africa Development Fund to further Chinese investment in Africa with US$1 billion of initial funding with its fund expected to grow to US$5 billion in the future. On the fourth conference, held in Egypt, there was a great deal of introspective reviewing of the Forum and in addition to this, A $10 billion low-cost loan was announced on November 9, 2009, double the $5 billion loan announced and implemented at the 2006 Beijing Summit. Furthermore, Wen announced that China will write off the debt of some of the poorest African nations. He said China will construct 100 new clean-energy projects on the continent covering solar power, bio-gas and small hydro-power and gradually lower customs duties on 95 percent of products from African states with which it has diplomatic ties. He also stated that China would undertake 100 joint demonstration projects on scientific and technological research, receive 100 African postdoctoral fellows to conduct scientific research in China and assist them in going back and serving their home countries. The number of agricultural technology demonstration centres built by China in Africa will be increased to 20. Likewise, 50 agricultural technology teams would be sent to Africa and 2,000 agricultural technology personnel would be trained for Africa, in order to help strengthen Africa’s ability to ensure food security. China also would provide medical equipment and antimalarial materials worth 500 million yuan to the 30 hospitals and 30 malaria prevention and treatment centres built by China and train 3,000 doctors and nurses for Africa. It was further stated that China will build 50 China–Africa friendship schools and train 1,500 school principals and teachers for African countries and increase the number of Chinese government scholarships to Africa to 5,500 by 2012. China will also train a total of 20,000 professionals of various fields for Africa over the next three years. Already, Africa, as a result of these initiatives, became the second largest engineering services contract market for China. Statistically, there are nearly a million Chinese in Africa, with 1,600 Chinese enterprises doing business on the continent.

The presence of China in Africa, and particularly the creation of the Forum has proven effective in ways that could not have been predicted. It has made other entities ever more willing to reconsider their relationship with the continent. In what economists term the “crowding-in effect” the United States under President Obama in particular set itself on a new, China-like path in the wake of the Forum. In what Lauren Dickey, writing for The Diplomat in 2014, labelled the US’s “belated beginning” in “its treatment of Africa as a strategic continent,” the country launched in 2014 the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington; historically, marking the first time a sitting American president had invited all the leaders of Africa to a single event to discuss regional issues and the macro US-Africa relationship (a la FOCAC). If indeed emulation is the highest form of flattery, then FOCAC must rightfully exalt at its exemplary stature. In the meeting, promises were made by President Obama of, amongst others, a $14 billion commitment by U.S. companies for investments in Africa’s construction, manufacturing, energy, finance, and technology sector. With President Donald Trump’s unpredictable administration, we cannot yet say for certain whether this reconsideration of the relationship will continue, but so far there has been evidence that it may not, as the budget for international aid, for example, got considerable cuts proposed (at the time of writing, US Congress was opposing the motion, however).

Nevertheless, regarding the prospect of a far-reaching full win-win relationship, usage of the Forum beyond just as an aid-granting and investment platform must involve tackling other implicative and negative issues. The Forum, for example, has spoken very minimally on perhaps one of the most important issues facing Africa today: climate change. This, no doubt, would be a major bone of contention as Beijing is one of the leading polluters in the world today. But the Forum cannot be said to be living up to its mandate if it fails to delve into potentially polarizing issues of the contemporary age. But it may not be, as shown in an article in Modern Diplomacy, China is ready to be the leader of the clean energy revolution; and even a cursory look at China’s current Five-Year Plan for the years between will reveal quite the extent to which Africa is crucial to China’s aims and will thereby paint a clear picture of the Forum and its significance. The list of the aims include economic growth with a “medium-high” GDP target of 6.5 percent; double GDP and per capita income by 2020 from the 2010 base; foreign investment increase; yuan convertibility by the year 2020; and increase in welfare as well a relaxing of the One Child policy to a Two Child policy all show just how crucial it is for China to have as many economic partners as attainable and Africa, as a source of both natural resources and market frontiers, is indispensable to the rising giant. The Forum, while far from perfect, has an important and increasingly central role to play in harmonising the gains between China and Africa.

Bhaso Ndzendze is the Research Director at the University of Johannesburg-Nanjing Tech University Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS). His research interests include international economics, security studies, and International Relations methodology and he has taught and written on Africa-China relations, the politics of the Middle East, soft power, and the war on terror among other topics at the University of the Witwatersrand. His work has appeared in numerous journals and in the popular press including Business Day, Mail and Guardian, The Sunday Independent and The Mercury among others. His most recent publication is the Beginner’s Dictionary of Contemporary International Relations.

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Q&A: Arguments for Advancing Russia-African Relations

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As preparations are underway for the second Russia-Africa summit planned for 2022, African leaders, politicians, academic researchers and experts have been discussing several aspects of the current state of Russia-Africa relations. They, most often, compare it with a number of foreign countries notably China, the United States, European Union, India, France, Turkey, Japan, and South Korea that have held such gatherings in that format with Africa.

Some have convincingly argued that Russia has moved away from its low-key strategy to vigorous relations, as shown by the first symbolic Russia-Africa summit in the Black Sea city of Sochi in October 2019. Russia and Africa adopted a joint declaration, a comprehensive document that outlines the key objectives and necessary tasks that seek to raise assertively the entirety of relations to a new level.

Long before the summit, at least, during the past decade, several bilateral agreements between Russia and individual African countries were signed. Besides, memoranda of understanding, declaration of interests, pledges and promises dominated official speeches. On the other side, Russia is simply invisible in economic sectors in Africa, despite boasting of decades-old solid relations with the continent.

Undoubtedly, Africa is opening up new fields of opportunity. The creation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) provides a unique and valuable opportunity for businesses to access an integrated African market of over 1.3 billion people with a GDP of over US$2.5 trillion. It aspires to connect all the regions of Africa, to deepen economic integration and to boost intra-African trade and investment.

Despite existing risks, challenges and threats, a number of external countries continue strengthening their economic footholds in Africa and contribute enormously towards the continent’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Russia has to upgrade or scale up its collaborative engagement with Africa. It has to consider seriously launching more public outreach programmes, especially working with civil society to change public perceptions and the private sector to strengthen its partnership with Africa. In order to achieve this, it has to surmount the challenges, take up the courage and work consistently with both private and public sectors and with an effective Action Plan.

In this exclusive interview with Steven Gruzd, Head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), discusses a few questions, highlights existing challenges and passionately offers some progressive suggestions regarding Russia-African relations.

Steven Gruzd also heads the Russia-Africa Research Programme initiated this year at SAIIA, South Africa’s premier research institute on international issues. It is an independent, non-government think tank, with a long and proud history of providing thought leadership in Africa. Here are the interview excerpts:

What are your appreciations and fears for Russia returning to Africa?

Africa is becoming crowded, with many old and new actors actively involved on the continent. Apart from EU countries, China and the US, we have players such as Iran, Turkey, Israel, the UAE, Japan and others. So Russia’s renewed interest in Africa does not happen in isolation. It, of course, seeks to build on Soviet-era ties, and several African leaders today studied in the USSR or the Soviet sphere of influence. Russia has tended to focus on niche areas such as weapons sales, nuclear energy and resource extraction, at a much smaller scale than China. Many leaders are welcoming the attention of Russia, but some remain wary of Russia’s hidden motives and intentions. Russia’s dealings are not transparent and open compared to China. The shadowy world of private military companies such as Russia’s Wagner Group is causing concern in unstable countries like the CAR, Libya and Mali. So, in fact, there is a kind of mixed picture, sentiments and interpretations are also varied here.

How would you argue that Russia engages fairly in “competition for cooperation” in Africa?

Africa is a busy geopolitical arena, with many players operating. Russia has to compete against them, and distinctively remain focused its efforts. Russia welcomes diplomatic support from African countries, and unlike the West, it does not demand good governance or advocate for human rights reforms. Russia likes to portray itself as not interfering in local politics or judging African countries, even though there is mounting evidence that it has been involved in meddling in elections in Africa through disinformation, fake news and attempting to exploit fault lines in societies through social media.

Do you think, to some extent, Russia is fighting neo-colonial tendencies, as shown in Guinea, Mali, CAR and Sudan? Does it imply that Russia supports military leaders in Africa?

Russia uses the rhetoric of anti-colonialism in its engagement with Africa, and that it is fighting neo-colonialism from the West, especially in relations with their former colonies. It sees France as a threat to its interests especially in Francophone West Africa, the Maghreb and the Sahel. Russia has invested resources in developing French-language news media, and engages in anti-French media activity, including through social media. I think Russia has its own economic and political interests in countries like Guinea, Mali, CAR and Sudan, even if it uses the language of fighting neo-colonialism. It explicitly appears that Russia supports several undemocratic African leaders and their regimes.

Some experts have argued that Russia’s diplomacy is full of bilateral agreements, largely not implemented, and gamut of pledges and promises. What are your views about these?

I would largely agree that there is a divide between what has been pledged and promised at high-level meetings and summits, compared to what has actually materialised on the ground. There is more talk than action, and in most cases down the years mere intentions and ideas have been officially presented as initiatives already in progress. It will be interesting to see what has been concretely achieved in reports at the second Russia-Africa summit scheduled for late 2022.

From the above discussions so far, what do you think are Russia’s challenges and setbacks in Africa?

Africa is a crowded playing field. Russia does not have the same resources and approaches as China, France, UK or US, so it has limited impact. The language barrier could be used as an excuse, but Russia has the great possibility to leverage into the Soviet- and Russian-trained diaspora. On the other hand, Russia feels it is unfairly portrayed in Western media, so that is another perception it seeks to change. It can change the perception by supporting public outreach programmes. Working closely with the academic community, such as the South African Institute of International Affairs and similar ones throughout Africa, is one potential instrument to raise its public image. In places like Mozambique and the CAR, the Wagner Group left after incurring human losses – does Russia have staying power?

As it prepares to hold the second Russia-Africa summit in 2022, what could be the expectations for Africa? What to do ultimately with the first Joint Declaration from Sochi?

As already mentioned, there needs to be a lot of tangible progress on the ground for the second summit to show impact. It is worth to reiterate here that African countries will expect more debt relief and solid investment from Russian businesses. In terms of political support at places like the UN Security Council, there is close interaction between Russia and African States, but as recent research by SAIIA shows, not as much as assumed. The relationship has to however deliver, and move from words to deeds. In conclusion, I would suggest that Russia has to take up both the challenges and unique opportunities, and attempt to scale up its influence by working consistently on practical multifaceted sustainable development issues and by maintaining appreciable relations with Africa. And African countries likewise have to devise viable strategies for engaging with Russia.

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Nigeria’s role in ECOWAS peacekeeping

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ECOWAS is the 44-year-old economic community of West African states. “The evolution of ECOWAS from the level of an organization created for the purpose of economic integration to the level of organizations that makes and implements decisions of a political and economic nature at the international level deserves quite close attention of researchers today.” [2]

As with any alliance, ECOWAS has the undisputed leader – Nigeria. Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. It should be noted that for many years it was dominated by a military regime, during which the country was in mismanagement and in disorder. Even under military rule, Nigeria has made a significant contribution to the work of ECOWAS to restore democratic governance and ensure stability in many West African countries. This can be attributed to an attempt by “Nigeria to convince the international community of its determination to return to democratic rule and refrain from participating in difficult West African conflicts.” [5]

Due to the strategic position, Nigeria plays an important role in realizing the goals and objectives of ECOWAS. First, “Nigeria has a positive balance of payments, because the country exports large quantities of oil and oil products, as well as cocoa and many valuable metals and alloys.” [1] The second reason is Nigeria’s partners, who make a great contribution to the country’s economy by being its investors. Another important factor is the fact that Nigeria mainly imports high-tech products, without participating in the international exchange of technologies.

At the time of Nigeria’s accession to ECOWAS, the government marked for itself several directions of its activities, being a member of this organization. In the first place, particular attention was paid to adherence to the ECOWAS economic integration framework, as this contributed to the promotion of free trade. In addition, Nigeria has sought to introduce a single currency for the region. The goal of expanding the infrastructural development of the automobile, railway, telecommunications, energy, gas pipeline industries was also important, which, as a result, should have increased agricultural and industrial production.

Thus, it can be concluded that the need for ECOWAS in Nigeria is great because Nigeria, owning financial and human resources, can help the organization achieve its long-term goal of full integration of the region.

According to the Vice President of the World Bank L. Sabib, “Nigeria can become a locomotive capable of promoting the economy of West Africa. This has not yet been done due to poor governance, ineffective government, corruption and political instability”. [5]

Since the establishment of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in 1975, Nigeria has focused on the foreign policy of the West African region. In many ways, this decision allowed it to become one of the decisive forces of this regional organization, not to mention its advantages in its size, geographic location and, of course, economic potential.

Professor Akintola is confident that “Africa has been the focus of Nigeria’s foreign policy since independence, with an emphasis on the liberation, development and unity of Africans both inside and outside the continent.” [3] This confirms that Nigeria continues to dominate the rest of West African states, which allows it to play an important role in the activities of ECOWAS.

Many researchers highlight the contribution of Nigeria to the regional integration of the ECOWAS organization. Moreover, this activity is a priority for Nigeria in matters of its foreign policy. This is most clearly manifested in the processes of maintaining peace and economic liberalization.

Between 1975 and 1993, Nigeria revised its foreign policy in many ways. This was largely due to the formation of ECOWAS, since the country was striving to significantly increase its weight in this alliance. It should be noted that the change in Nigeria’s policy is closely related to changes in ECOWAS. At the beginning of its work (1975) ECOWAS set itself the task of becoming a collective security organization, but in 1990 the goal was rethought. It was decided to stimulate the development of collective security, and this decision was reflected in Chapter 8 of the UN Charter. [4]

Nigeria especially showed the importance of its participation in integration during the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone as part of ECOMOG. When Nigeria assumed the role of the dominant country in the organization of ECOWAS, its foreign policy choice was extremely obvious – a peacekeeping strategy.

Speaking about the contribution of Nigeria to the Liberian conflict, it should be said that its participation did not give any guarantees of successful peacekeeping. However, Nigeria’s involvement continued to be critical to the operation. Without Nigerian troops, supplies and air support, ECOMOG forces would have lost many more soldiers and civilians and would most likely be driven out of the country entirely by the factions. Nigeria provided significant military support to ECOMOG, but the motives behind this support hindered ceasefire agreements and further negotiations for a transitional government and elections. Although Nigeria has acquired a certain regional prestige for its actions, it has also generated opposition to its dominant status from neighboring African states.

Nigeria faced major challenges in its efforts to restore peace and security to Sierra Leone with ECOMOG. In addition to financial problems, the lack of support from the citizens of Sierra Leone has also affected the main aspects of peacekeeping in the country. Despite the challenges faced by the Nigerian government and the country’s unstable economic situation, Nigeria was able to continue its mission, which was believed to be in line with the country’s foreign policy goals of ensuring peace and security in the subregion and Africa as a whole. Despite the enormous government spending and corruption associated with Nigeria’s mission to Sierra Leone, the mission remains one of the most successful African initiatives to promote peace and security abroad.

The role of Nigeria in the implementation of the ECOWAS plans cannot be overestimated because it has the status of a regional leader in ECOWAS, which indicates its serious contribution to the processes of regional integration and the maintenance of peace and security in West Africa 

References

1.      Asiagba John Chinedu. Nigeria as a member of the Economic Community of West African States, p. 261.

2.      ECOWAS. Regional integration problems. Managing editor A.Y. Elez. Moscow., IAfr RAN., 2016.p. 5

3.      Geveling, L.V. Foreign experience in fighting corruption: Federal Republic of Nigeria / L.V. Geveling // Institute of Municipal Administration. – 2012.- № 3.- p. 98-102.

4.      Omo. O. O. Dennis. Nigeria in the Process of Regional Integration in West Africa: The Case of ECOWAS. Moscow,2018., p. 67.

5.      Speech delivered by World Bank Vice President Louis Sabib, state visits to Nigeria // The Guardian Newspaper. Lagos, 1998 September 21.

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What a Successful Summit for Democracy Looks Like from Africa

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The Biden administration is wrapping up preparations for its Summit for Democracy, to be held virtually next month. While the list of invitees is now clear, what is not yet clear is what success for the Summit looks like – overall and for each region of the globe. Here, I outline concrete ways the Summit could help advance democracy in Africa.

To be realistic, success should be defined at the individual country level and consider the history and context of each one. However, for the purposes of this paper I will focus on sub-Saharan Africa as a whole and what common hopes we have with regards to democracy success across the continent.

The State of Democracy in Africa

It is now a cliché’ to say that democracy is in retreat in Africa. Evidence for this appears strong and includes back-sliding in Ethiopia and Sudan, two countries that held out hope for a democratic awakening.  In addition, recent coups in Guinea, Chad, and Mali provided further evidence of back-sliding. Closing and closed political spaces in Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Cameroon and Zimbabwe (among others) do not provide much in the way of hope.  During the past 18 months COVID-19 has provided fertile ground for autocracy and has led to economic deterioration and further restricted political space.

On the other hand, Africa is the world’s youngest continent. According to the latest “World Values Survey”, those holding “emancipative” (i.e. democratic) values are far and away higher than those holding more autocratic values.  The older generation of autocratic leaders such as President Museveni in Uganda is facing a population representing values at odds with those of the political leadership.   While autocratic values currently hold sway throughout the continent, one can conclude that these represent “eddies” in a river which largely represents more democratic values. Consequently, we should counsel patience and not condone pessimism over the long-term.

Making Progress through Summit Commitments

Success will not be a static end-point or destination or some far-flung and unattainable goal that is unrealistic.  It will represent a series of actions or steps among a variety of actors in each society that are on a journey toward a democratic future. These actors, explained in detail below, include political parties, civil society, and legislative bodies. We must be modest in our assumptions around success given the slow vicissitudes of progress. Modest progress is still progress, particularly given the direction in which many countries are headed (at least over the short-term).

Successful political parties aggregate, communicate and advocate for the wishes and hopes of their members.  Ideally, they are not based on the charisma of a leader, nor does a good party represent only the needs of a specific group, such as an ethnic group. Unfortunately, across the continent the evidence points to nearly all political parties serving as a vehicle for a particular leader’s wish to obtain high office.  Political parties exist for their leaders instead of serving as a vehicle to promote a particular set of policies advocated by their constituents.  As a result, traditionally marginalized groups such as women and youth are rarely given real leadership roles within political parties. Witness the situation in Sudan where women and youth were the vanguard of a revolution but were then marginalized within political parties vying for power in the new transitional government.  We must be realistic and patient when addressing the question of what democracy would look like vis-à-vis the upcoming Summit for Democracy. The longer-term goal of ideologically based, inclusive, participatory, and transparent political parties is a worthy one.  To realize these goals, the U.S. and its allies should commit to the following:

  1. Ensure that political party governing documents are revised to promote intra-party democracy and the inclusion of traditionally marginalized groups.
  2. Cultivate youth and female leaders within political parties because they represent upwards of 75% of each country’s population.
  3. Promote and support peaceful elections using widely available research that has been shown to reduce violence before, during, and after elections.  This also includes honestly criticizing elections that do not meet regional or international standards.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) are key actors in all societies. We have seen that where CSOs are trained and motivated they can have a significant impact holding governments and legislative bodies accountable.  For example, CSOs provided electoral observation during the Ethiopian elections to ensure that Ethiopia’s first democratic elections were conducted according to international and regional standards. In the Gambia, CSOs advocated to the government to pass legislation to provide citizens access to information and succeeded in court in suing the electoral commission (IEC) over voter registration anomalies.  Despite successes, several factors will need to be addressed for their contribution to democracy to be sustained and amplified. This includes CSOs working together in coalitions that magnify their power and scope.  Working alone on sensitive issues in often restricted contexts rarely produces lasting success. Learning the skills of networking with other CSOs will be critical to fulfill the promises of democracy.

To realize these goals, the U.S. and its allies should commit to the following: 

  1. Train CSOs in strategic communications, project development and management, monitoring and evaluation, and other skills needed to flourish. Organizational development support will provide long-term sustainable assistance across a wide range of CSOs.
  2. Strengthen CSOs outside of capital cities.  In most African capitals there is a cadre of well-resourced, well-trained, and savvy CSOs that speak the language of the donor. In the countryside, however, where enthusiasm generally runs higher, CSOs are organizationally weaker and more isolated. The US and its allies should bring these CSOs into the planning of international organizations who traditionally work with CSOs with higher profiles in capital cities. This will broaden the base of capable CSOs throughout each country and addresses the challenge of relying on just a few located in capital cities.
  3. Stand up for CSOs working in repressive environments. For instance, in Sudan CSOs were largely responsible for the overthrow of the al-Bashir Government but lacked the skills to move from protest to governance. This in part led to the recent military coup.
  4. Train CSOs to hold legislative and executive bodies accountable through things like performance “report cards” and publishing national budgets in easy-to-understand formats.

Legislative bodies throughout Africa are largely rubber-stamp institutions that do the bidding of the countries’ leadership. They rarely perform their traditional role as an independent branch of government that represents the people they were elected to serve.  IRI’s own work found that many members of legislatures do not even understand their role with regards to oversight of the executive branch, outreach to constituents, legislative processes, and budgetary oversight. Consequently, we must be realistic about what can be accomplished and take small steps to train legislators about their roles. 

To realize these goals, the U.S. and its allies should commit to the following:

  1. Train newly elected members of legislative bodies on their role as legislators. 
  2. Link members of legislative bodies with their constituents to better craft laws that meet the needs of their communities. This is relatively inexpensive yet has demonstrable impact.
  3. Work with legislative bodies to improve transparency through more public hearings, making it easier for citizens to interact with them.
  4. Encourage legislative bodies to address corruption through a strong legal framework and use their subpoena power to address instance of corruption.

Looking Forward

An opportunity now exists to change the narrative that democracy is in decline. Africa’s youthful population, its increasing levels of education and better access to information are all factors pointing to more democracy; not less. Recent democratic victories in Malawi and Zambia, coupled with strong opposition and protest movements in Sudan, Guinea, and Chad portend further gains. To sustain these gains, institutions that represent citizens, including political parties, legislative bodies, and civil society must be strengthened. Autocratic governments, some in power for more than 30 years, will not easily give up power. As a result, both public and private institutions must be resilient and have the skills necessary to thrive in restricted environments. The Summit for Democracy can highlight gains made, to provide support to those working in restricted environments, and to provide resources to continue building the capabilities of democracy’s institutions. 

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