Armed conflict leads to exacerbation of inequalities and power relations that existed in the pre-conflict period as a result of gender stereotypical understanding of the conflict. That is why it is a vast resources in the academic literature to examine the relation between gender roles and armed conflict (Cockburn 1999; El- Bushra 2017; Turshen 1998; Yuval- Davis 1997). According to many feminist scholars, gender is a system of power relation to determine both relations and access to resources within a society. Gender roles point out politically constructed roles, behaviours and norms that society decide which way most proper and appropriate for both women and men. In other words, stereotypical assumptions lead to expectations that men are associated with aggressiveness, perpetrators, defenders, power and fight; whereas women are related to honour of the country, innocence, peacefulness, victimisation, care and maternity. However, as a result of this gendered dynamics of armed conflict women are perceived as substitute in the armed conflict such as cookers, cleaners, sex slaves and nurse into the military life (Cockburn 1999; El- Bushra 2017; Turshen 1998; Yuval- Davis 1997).
Having said that, traditional masculinity dominated gender roles shape the understanding of victimisation in armed conflict. As Cynthia Cockburn analyses (1999) in the chapter of ‘The Continuum of Violence’ gender based war normalises the invisibility of female participation into the military forces. Particularly, it is a common perception that all women and young girls experience rape, sex slavery or faced sex work while, real men fight for the country and honour of the state. In addition, as Turshen describes that this masculinity based understanding of sexual abuse causes to leave aside women’s agency into military life (Turshen 1998)
Furthermore, both gendered war stories and narratives exclude women and their agencies in armed conflict by showing men as perpetrators of the war. Also, both war propaganda and images of motherland are symbolised as a woman who is honour of the country; whereas enemies are symbolised as male who threats the country (Cockburn 1999; El- Bushra 2017; Turshen 1998; Yuval- Davis 1997). At the same time, particularly victorious war stories and traditional narratives strengthen the negative impacts of gender roles on armed conflict because women are shaped as innocent victim who must be protected by a hero. To illustrate, beautiful soul narrative is identified by Jean Elshtain to clarify the impact of gender roles on the understanding of armed conflict and security. According to Jean Elshtain, victorious war stories have essential role to encourage people especially men to fight for the country by labelling women who are ‘beautiful souls’ and are ‘incorrectly pacifists’ (Elsthain 1995). At the same time, the war stories also emphasise that women are mother of heroes; hence they need to be protected. In this way, it is a traditional gender perception that women should be at home during the armed conflict by providing love and maternity as a supporter for the fighters (Elsthain 1995; Sjoberg 2010).
As many feminist theorist argue that the elements of ‘beautiful soul’ narrative subordinate women and their agencies as a result of the core idea that ‘beautiful soul’ is related with the protection of the women (Elsthain 1995; Sjoberg 2010). It is noteworthy that, there are two core elements of ‘beautiful soul’ narrative. The first element identifies that women are more peaceful than men whereas second one identifies that women are the main reasons of the conflict (Elsthain 1995; Sjoberg 2010). Nonetheless, in this way, ’beautiful soul’ narrative ‘sets women up as the prizes of most wars- fragile, removed from reality, and in need of the protection provided by men’ by showing women as just reason of the armed conflict (Sjoberg, 2010; pg.58) On the other hand, many feminist scholars point out that ‘beautiful soul’ narrative focuses on specific differences between gender roles of women and men and thus; might be identified ‘by the separation of a private sphere (where women are, and naturally belong) and the sphere of war- making and war-fighting (where something has gone terribly wrong if women are included)’(Sjoberg, 2010; pg.58).
However, as many feminist scholars clarify this masculinity based characterization of gender roles into the military life is inaccurate and incomplete thus; it overshadows both agency and active participation of women in armed conflict by creating a perception that women have temporary and supporter role in armed conflict (Cockburn 1999; El- Bushra 2017; Turshen 1998; Yuval- Davis 1997).Additionally, females have more active role and even can be more brutal than men in armed conflict contrary to popular myth. That is, we might claim that ‘beautiful soul’ narrative cannot be obtained in every time in military life. Hence, it is important to examine ‘beautiful soul’ narrative regarding female combatant’s active role in the armed conflict to bring into open women’s agency. In the light of the information that given above, this essay critics the understanding of ‘beautiful soul’ narrative and, delves into both female violent agency and active roles of women into military life with a case study of the Rwandan genocide to clarify that ‘beautiful soul’ narrative cannot be incorporated into the military life.
Active Participation of Female Combatants: Are they ‘Beautiful Souls’ or Perpetrators of Armed Conflict: A Case Study of Rwanda
Throughout history, women have been active involvement in armed conflict as fighters and combatants in many international conflict such as the American revolution, the Mexican revolution, World War I, The Vietnam War, The Sierra Leone Civil war and The Rwandan Genocide whereas; ‘beautiful soul’ narrative shows women as more peaceful, innocent and naive than men (Sjoberg, 2010; pg.58).At the same time, it is noteworthy that women’s participation to armed conflict is not only as substitute roles but also as fighter role in many International cases. Furthermore, gender and armed conflict studies show that active participation of women is increasing during the last years and female combatants sometimes commit more brutal and oppressor war crime than male combatants in armed conflict by killing, raping civilians mercilessly (Schjølset 2013; Sjoberg 2010). In other words, gender studies show that women are not either more peaceful nor reason of the conflict by focusing on many different case studies all around the world. Hence, it is essential to delve into women’s role into military life from an objective and gender-neutral perspective. All in all, this part of the essay will critically analyse the active involvement of the female combatants in the Rwandan genocide to challenge the understanding of ‘beautiful soul’ narrative and traditional gender roles into military life.
A Case Study of Rwanda Genocide: Historical Background about the genocide
Rwanda had been known as a country of a mainly three different ethnic groups; the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Twa. Interactions and inter-marriages between those groups particularly the Hutu and the Tutsi groups were situation of daily life (Hogg 2010; Brown 2014; BBC News Rwanda). However, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi,’ the perpetrators and victims of the genocide respectively’ was historically related to their social status which was socially constructed by colonial powers (Brown 2014). Having said that, the colonial rules exacerbated effectively the social status differences by giving both social and administrative power to the Tutsi group to create perception that Tutsis are superior group. However, this situation ‘portrayed the Tutsis as the direct antagonizes of the discrimination that had been directed toward the Hutus for decades.’(Hogg 2010; Brown 2014). As a result of social inequalities, created by colonial power, on 6th April 1994 Rwandan genocide started right after extremist Hutu power announced that to kill and excruciate Tutsi people (BBC News: Rwanda). According to the United Nations report about Rwanda (2015), 8000 people were slaughtered, many of them were raped, and tortured within 100 days. As most academics stated that on April 1994, Rwanda witnessed an unforgettable and unprecedented genocide in the history of the humanity as a result of ethnic and gender based problems into the society. Briefly, Rwandan genocide has still been a controversial topic in the armed conflict field in terms of many reasons such as female fighters, ethnicity problems, and the role of colonial powers. In order to analyse specifically, this part of the essay will particularly focus on female involvement in the genocide.
Women As Perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide
‘I had seen war before, but I had never seen a woman carrying a baby on her back kill another women with a baby on her back.’ (UNAMIR interviewer in 1996) (Johns 2010; 82)
‘I believe that women are just as guilty of this genocide as men’ (Female genocide suspect, Kigali Central Prison)’
As stated in the introduction to this part of the essay, the Rwandan genocide has been unprecedented in the history of genocide in terms of the prominent role of female combatants. Women’s active participation into the military life in the 1994 Rwandan genocide added a new dimension to gender-based assumption of armed conflict. As Brown states that the agency of women to participate in the genocide challenged the gender based narratives. In other words, women in the Rwandan genocide reshaped patriarchal understanding of war narratives by showing how a mother became a cruel murderers. To exemplify, interview with Victor Karega enlightens how female participant in the genocide reshaped patriarchy and masculinity based understanding of armed conflict in Rwanda. Karega claims that,
In our culture, women has always been a symbol. A symbol of maternity, a symbol of love. It was a symbol of social cohabitation. Even when there were problems, ethnic problems and political problems, women were always like a link, a linkage, between different categories of people, because they were marrying from, or to, both sides…. But during the genocide, they were also involved in perpetrating the genocide (Interview Victor Karega of the Rwandan Ministry of Gender, Family and Social Affairs, November 3, 1998) (Sharlach, pg 393)
At the same time, in the academic literature, there are vast feminist resources to analyse female participation into the military life in the Rwandan genocide to show that women are capable of use of force in contrast to ‘beautiful soul’ narrative and masculinity based understanding of armed conflict (Hogg 2010; Johns 2010; Brown 2014). Hence, this section of the essay will particularly focus on the specific dominant roles of female combatants in the genocide to indicate that ‘beautiful soul’ narrative cannot be incorporated into the military in all conditions.
Moreover, it is essential to note that, women have prominent role in a variety of the genocide by murdering, stealing, and looting resources of Tutsis, and acting as an accessory for rapes contrary to the perception of ‘beautiful soul’ narrative discourse. As stated by Odette Kayirere, Executive Secretary of AVEGA and Sabine Uwase, staff attorney, the genocide-related crimes committed by female combatants in the genocide might be categorised under two main forms violence namely; acts of direct violence and acts of indirect violence (Brown 2014). Acts of direct violence is related to use of physical force such as killing, rape, torture, sexual assault and beatings (Galtung 1969) whereas indirect violence is not related to physical force such as looting, supervising and ordering indirect violence (Brown 2014). However, one of the main direct violence committed by female perpetrates in the genocide is to rape to Tutsi young boys by dishonouring them (Hogg 2010). For instance, Charles, as a male victim of female perpetrated rape confirmed that Hutu women forced them to have sex involuntarily by giving drugs (Brown 2014). Also, women participated actively in the killings and excruciating of so many Tutsi civilians regardless of age, and gender mercilessly. Having said that, according to African Rights investigators women combatants not only caused so many killings and torturing in the genocide but they also behaved more brutal than male combatants as commanders (Hogg 2010; Brown 2014). In addition, Adam Jones examples in his research that there are many female commanders who committed more brutal genocide crimes than male commanders in Rwanda. To exemplify,
Rose Karushara, a councillor in Kigali, who ‘took extremely active role in the genocide’, by wearing military uniform. She was a tall and physically strong woman, she attacked the refugees herself ‘before handing them over to her interahahmwe for the final kill.. At least five thousand people were killed, all thrown into the Nyabarongo River under orders from Karushara. (Jones,2002 pg.83)
As another example of female commanders Sister Julienne Kizito, one of a number of nuns who was prominent figures of the women participation in genocidal atrocities. She was accused of working directly with the killers by burning people alive (Jones, 2002)
Furthermore, it essential to focus on that women not only committed direct violence in the Rwandan genocide, but also they committed indirect violence by both act looting resources and supervising murdering of Tutsis. As Adam Jones emphasizes (2010) that particularly female leaders dominated the genocide by looting resources and stripping bodies of Tutsis. Such that, they did not hesitate to assisted in killings and torturing of their neighbors. What is worse, many Hutu women appealingly assisted in even killings of children and babies of Tutsis to cause extinction of Tutsis. Having said that, Hutu women led to so many rapes and sexual harassment of Tutsis appealingly by helping male Hutu combatants. Especially, they had active role in forcing Tutsi women to accept their designated fate as sex-slaves for male Hutu soldiers.
Survivor of the genocide described that how Tutsi women deforced them at their houses to be raped by Hutu male soldiers (Jones 2010). To illustrate, one of the survivors of the genocide describes that ‘Many of women of your kind have been taken by dog-like vagabonds. And here you are, rejecting this nice young man… What are you waiting for?’ (Jones 2010 pg.84). Also it is significant to analyse that, Hutu women also participated in the genocide as spies by denouncing and tolerating killings of Tutsis as another significant indirect role (Hogg 2010). Additionally, women had prominent roles in the key political positions to provoke the Hutu people against the Tutsis during the genocide. Mainly, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, previous Minister of Family Affairs and Women’s Development was accused of being the reason of thousands of killings by provoking the Hutu women with the effect of her political power (Hogg, 2010).All in all, in the light of the information regarding female involvement in the genocide, it is essential to analyse that, the cases of female combatants in the Rwandan genocide refute the idea of ‘beautiful soul’ narrative into the military life. That is, the Rwandan genocide has been a milestone to demonstrate that how ordinary women became brutal combatants on the contrary of the general assumption that women are more peaceful and naive than men.
In conclusion, this essay delves into the active role of women into military life in the Rwandan genocide in the discourse of understanding of gender based armed conflict and ‘beautiful soul’ narrative. Gender is seen as a set of expectation that society determine what is more proper for both male and female into the society. Having said that, there is a growing acceptance that gender issues have crucial impact on the understating of armed conflict and political violence in the academic literature. Also, there are specific gender roles in armed conflict as a result of masculine understanding of military life. However, it is noteworthy that male power dominated gender roles overshadow both the active role of women and their agencies by creating assumption that women are victims of the armed conflict whereas; men are defenders of the conflict even though, women actively participated in armed conflict and political violence like soldiers, combatants and commander throughout the history.
At the same time, as Elstahin argues (1995) that with the effect of traditional gender roles in armed conflict war stories associates women as reason to men die for by creating assumption that women are more naive than men. However, this gender based assumption contradicts reality into the military life because gender studies indicate that women can be more brutal fighter who victimise civilians regardless of sex. In other words, female combatants kill, rape and victimise on the contrary of ‘beautiful soul’ narrative during the conflict. Especially, the Rwandan genocide added a new dimension in terms of gender and war field. Thus, it has essential role to challenge the idea that women are more naive and peaceful than men hence; they need to be protected.
According to The United Nations report and other gender studies that greater proportion of female combatants took extremely active role as killers, commander and torturer in the genocide. To exemplify, the cases of female leaders demonstrate that female combatants had dominant role ‘in the post-massacre looting and stripping bodies, which often involved climbing over corpses piled thigh-high in the confined spaces in which many Tutsis met their end.’(Jones 2002, pg84). What is more, studies show that female commanders commit more war crimes than men commanders during the genocide. Briefly, the active involvement of many Hutu women in the killings during the Rwanda genocide objects to both ‘beautiful soul’ narrative and gender based dynamics of armed conflict. Hence, it is noteworthy that the perception of ‘beautiful soul’ narrative cannot be truly incorporated into real military life thus; the role of female combatants in armed conflict should be consider without masculinity based stereotypical lenses.
- Adam Jones (2002) Gender and genocide in Rwanda, Journal of Genocide Research, 4:1, 65-94, DOI: 10.1080/14623520120113900
- Anita Schjølset (2013) Data on Women’s Participation in NATO Forces and Operations, International Interactions: Empirical and Theoretical Research in International Relations, 39:4, 575-587, DOI: 10.1080/03050629.2013.805326
- African Rights. 1995. “Not So Innocent: When Women Become Killers”. London: African Rights.
- BBC News Rwanda: How the Genocide Happened Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13431486
- Cockburn, Cynthia. (1999) “Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence”Backgroun Paper for Conference on Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Development, Washington ,DC, 9-10 June.
- El- Bushra, Judy. (2017) “Why Does Armed Conflict Recur, and What has Gender Got to with it” LSE Women, Peace, Security Paper Series. Available at: lse.ac.uk\wps
- El- Bushra, Judy, Sahl, M.G. Ibrahim (2005). “Cycles of Violence: Gender Relations and Armed Conflict”. Agency for Co-operation and Research in Development ACK Garden House
- Elsthain,Jean Beathe (1995) “Women and War” The University of Chicago Press. Chicago and Press.
- Hogg, Nicole (2010) ‘Women’s Participation in the Rwandan genocide: mothers or monsters?”, International Review of the Red Cross, Volume 93 Number 877, 69-102.
- Sara E. Brown (2014) “Female Perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide, International Feminist Journal of Politics”, 16:3, 448-469, DOI: 10.1080/14616742.2013.788806.
- Sjoberg, L. and Gentry, C. 2007. Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics. London: Zed Books.
- Sjoberg (2010) ‘Women fighters and the ‘beautiful soul’ narrative’ International Review of the Red Cross.
- The United Nations Report on Rwanda (2015) Available at:http://research.un.org/en/docs/reports
- Turshen, M and Twagiramniya (eds) (1998). “What Women Do in War Time: Gender and Conflict in Africa,”. London, New York: Zed Books.
- Walby, S. 1989. ‘Theorising Patriarchy’, Sociology 23 (3): 213–34.
- Yuval Davis, N. 2006. ‘Intersectionality and Feminist Politics’, European Journal of Women’s Studies 13 (3): 193–209.
- Yuval-Davis, Nira. (1997).”Gender and Nation“, Sage Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi.
Saudi Arabia, UAE footprint in Eritrea- Ethiopia rapprochement
In a landmark visit, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed landed in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, on Sunday, for a bilateral summit, aimed at repairing relations between the two countries. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki warmly greeted Abiy at the airport, Eritrea’s state television showed.
The visit comes a month after Abiy surprised people by fully accepting a peace deal that ended a two-year border war between the two countries. The meeting sparkled hope for the halt of one of the most difficult African crises.
Eritrea became independent in 1993 after three years of war, but again the conflict between Asmara and Ethiopia in 1998 arose over disagreement on border delineation, primarily at Badme, and that was the end of diplomatic relations between the two states. However, Eritrea has a permanent delegation in Addis Ababa, representing the African Union.
Then the conflict flared into armed clashes. Although Badme was being administered by Ethiopia, with an MP and an administration, Eritrea said maps clearly showed the territory to be Eritrean and in May sent in troops to occupy the area.
From 1998 to 2000, the border wars claimed some 80,000 lives from both sides, but the Algiers Agreement ended the conflict. However, the president of Eritrea broke international law and triggered the war by invading Ethiopia, abusing the Ethiopian opposition to the verdict on the borders, taking repressive measures such as imprisoning dissidents and refraining from implementing law and adopting strict military rules.
Eritrea, Ethiopia economic interests in resolving the conflicts
Some analysts have argued that, the border conflicts had halted Eritrean affairs over the past 20 years, and all the issues were overshadowed by these clashes. The Ethiopian prime minister took the first step in resolving the conflict in June, announcing that his troops would withdraw from the Badme region and other border areas.
A high-level Eritrean delegation led by Foreign Minister Osman Saleh had earlier visited the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, last month for peace talks, a meeting that was followed by a news conference.
Eritrea and Ethiopia are among the least developed countries in the Horn of Africa. Although the Ethiopian economy has grown significantly in recent years, the Eritrean economy was suffering and had dropped to a record low. Analysts believe that although realization of peace between the two states is in the interest of both, Eritrea’s economy will enjoy a greater benefit of the rapprochement.
In addition, the peace talks can attract foreign investors to Eritrea. The end of “state of war” will help Ethiopia solve its problem of not having a sea passage, because after the independence of Eritrea overlooking the Red Sea in 1993, the issue aroused for Ethiopia.
The war between the two countries has caused much difficulty for Ethiopian trade through the ports of Eritrea and the Red Sea, and this peace will help rebuild economic activities to the time prior to conflicts.
At first glance, it seems as if the two countries realized the necessity of bilateral relations, but the fact is there was involvement of foreign countries in the peace talks. Some believe that Washington, an ally of Ethiopia, does not require the country to adhere to the border agreement.
Perhaps the U.S. has come to the conclusion that it is time to make a new alliance as Djibouti, located in the vicinity of Ethiopia and Eritrea, has allowed China to build a military base on its territory. So, given the geopolitical developments in the Red Sea and the Chinese military presence in the United Arab Emirates, America sees its interest in improving relations with Eritrea.
Saudis and Emiratis footprint in African conflicts
In general, the African continent is of great importance to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and these two countries have set their strategic interests on the continent. In many cases, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have benefited from the support of their African allies in regional conflicts. For example, they have called on African countries, to cut off relations with Iran and Qatar or to engage in military aggression in Yemen in their support.
The poor African states, relying highly on Saudi and Emirati donations, bow down to the two Arab states’ demands. Out of fear of losing alliance and leaving a positive image on the world, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi acted as a mediators in the built up tensions among African states, namely Eritrea and Ethiopia. That would also fulfill their objective of preventing the African states side with Iran or Qatar.
In recent years, Eritrea has improved relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE has too set up a military base in southern harbor of Eritrea.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, both Ethiopia’s allies, played an active role in Ethiopian prime minister’s decision to negotiate with Eritrea with their financial sponsorship.
The unprecedented and controversial trip of Abu Dhabi’s crown prince to Ethiopia last month, in the light of the agreement between the two African states, as they poured in $3 billion was a proof of the UAE push in the two states peace talks.
In any case, it appears that the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and, above all, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are making attempts to establish a new regional system based on which the security of the Persian Gulf region is tied to the security of the Horn of Africa region, and for the same reason strengthening their foothold on the African continent and, in appearance, pursuing peace and reconciliation among its political and economic allies.
First published in our partner MNA
African development relies on education and literacy
Key to a successful education, literacy remains one of sub-Saharan Africa’s top public priorities, now more than ever. Thanks to the progress achieved in recent years, book publishing is gaining more and more traction in African economies and cultures.
To underestimate the role of books, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, would be to disregard the many issues surrounding this commonplace yet valuable item. Literacy not only allows children and adults to develop their imagination, but also facilitates learning in other areas of the educational system. By extension, literacy plays a role in expanding education, in training youth, in reducing inequality, and ultimately, in developing a nation.
These aspects sit at the heart of the Children of Africa Foundation, which I created in 1998 and preside over to this day. The foundation has worked tirelessly for 20 years to promote literacy and reading among our children. Today more than ever, amidst a rapidly growing population, it is crucial that we rely on books and all they offer to craft a better future. Towards this end, our ivorian and international partners provide an essential and valuable service. On May 2nd of this year, at the Embassy of the United States in Côte d’Ivoire, I received 1,500 books destined to expand the Foundation’s Bibliobus collection. Several months earlier, the village of Smallburgh in Great Britain presented the Foundation with a new bus as part of a humanitarian project, baptized “Smallburgh 2 Abidjan”. This new, very typically English bus is a great attraction for young and old alike, and a unique library resource centre for introducing our youth to the English language. I look forward to the benefits it will provide, as the english language has become an essential part of the professional world in this day and age.
The Foundation’s Bibliobuses, today numbering nine, will serve to advance both reading and computer literacy even further throughout the Ivory Coast. To this end, we can also count on the support of players in the publishing industry, who came together for an international conference in Abidjan on January 25th of this year. This unprecedented event was held for the purpose of identifying solutions to promote a love of literacy among students, improve the quality of books, and ensure their availability to students.
In this way, going forward, the African publishing industry will be able to adapt to the different languages, cultures, and educational tools used throughout the continent. I commend the initiative of this gathering put together by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Over twenty African countries were in attendance to rethink the role books can play in order to support education.
Quality education, a profitable investment
Education through reading is a challenge I’ve personally adopted. According to the most recent report by the French Development Agency (Agence Française de Développement, AFD) on sub-Saharan education, the number of students facing severe difficulties has significantly decreased over the last ten years in French-speaking African countries. From 1999 to 2016, the rate of literacy among 15-24-year-olds has actually increased from 67.6% to 75.5%, and that of adults from 54% to 60%. But there is much work still to be done for the majority of students to achieve a mastery of the basic reading and math skills crucial to pursuing a quality education.
Make no mistake; education has positive impacts on health, employment, social involvement and well being. The return on investment of higher literacy rates can also be seen in the social and economic development of countries through technical progress and innovation, corporate investment, health and safety, trust in public policies and institutions, and civil engagement. Numerous studies have shown that improved education goes hand-in-hand with economic growth.
But the impact literacy rates can have on economic growth relies more on a quality education than on the number of years spent receiving it. Guaranteeing the development of students’ basic skills is one of the indisputable benefits of literacy, key to a successful education and starting life on the right foot. The Children of Africa Foundation endeavours to make this ambition possible through its educational programs. The more our children read, the more they will benefit from their studies, enabling them to become economically, socially and culturally well-rounded adults. And with them, in the long run, so will society at large.
How China and Europe Can Set a New Model for International Cooperation in Africa
This past Tuesday, the first China-Africa Defense and Security Forum, attended by high-ranking officials from 50 African countries, concluded in Beijing. On that same day in Cascais, Portugal, former European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, 20 African ministers, and more than 400 African and European leaders kicked off the first EurAfrican Forum.
While the two summits took place more than 6,000 miles apart, their purpose and goals could not be more similar: global powers like China and Europe, as well as India, Turkey, and Russia, see an opportunity to help accelerate the economic advancement of Africa while exerting greater global influence, especially as the United States withdraws from engagement in the continent and pursues its America First foreign policy agenda.
Make no mistake, Africa is on the verge of a major transformation. The continent today is home to 226 million youths between the ages of 15-24, or 19 percent of the global youth population. By 2035, the number of young Africans of working age will exceed that of the rest of the world combined. Around that same time, nearly 45 percent of all Africans are expected to join the middle or upper class.
This critical moment, however, offers both great promise and great risk, not just for Africa, but for the global powers that seek to play a larger role in the region. If China, Europe, and other nations hope to co-create with Africa a shared, sustainable, and prosperous future, it is critical that they learn from the mistakes of the past by collaborating with Africa instead of exploiting it. By building partnerships based on mutual trust, respect, and transparency, Africa, China, and Europe can create a new model for 21st-century international cooperation.
Much has been made of how China has vastly expanded its footprint in Africa over the past two decades while avoiding the pitfalls of past imperial powers. It has largely been a “win-win” partnership, with China gaining access to Africa’s natural resources and African nations getting help to build much-needed infrastructure. China is now the continent’s largest trading partner. More than 10,000 Chinese firms are operating on the continent. China’s massive infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative, will eventually connect China by land and sea to critical points around the world – from Southeast Asia to the Middle East to Africa.
As China continues to make capital investments in the continent, it is critical that African nations not become burdened with huge debts, which can make them susceptible to outside influence on their economies and politics. China can become a trusted lender by adhering to international standards that ensure the transparency and viability of its loans, and by implementing tried-and-true programs established by The Paris Club with the IMF that return borrowers to sustainability.
This type of trust-building and accountability will also be essential if Europe is to take advantage of the vacuum left by the United States and play a greater role in shaping Africa’s future. In order to succeed, Europe must deal head-on with the role it played in dividing, occupying, and colonizing the continent in the 19th century.
One way to build respect between regions and trust between leaders is for Europe to act collectively as the European Union rather than as individual states. Priority should be placed on building a more coordinated approach between the EU and the African Union, as this will also help address the African migration challenge currently facing Europe.
With the UK consumed by Brexit, Italy implementing a populist agenda, and Spain still reeling from corruption scandals, the EU must look to leadership from France and Portugal in building a modern-day partnership with Africa.
France has a complicated and fraught history with Africa, whose last former French colonies achieved independence in the 1960s. But French President Emmanuel Macron has made it a priority of his presidency to reimagine a collaborative relationship between France and Africa. This year, France has committed 200 million euros for schools in African countries and 65 million euros to promote digital startups throughout the continent. At the same time, Portugal is also stepping up its efforts with a range of initiatives, from Portugal and Morocco setting up an undersea power connection, which would be the second Europe-Africa lin, .to Portuguese construction company Mota-Engil announcing this week that it is looking at $1.8 billion in projects in Nigeria, in what would mark its entry into Africa’s largest economy and the continent’s biggest oil producer.
In a rapidly changing global landscape, Europe, China, and Africa have an opportunity to create a new world order that will benefit all three regions. By cooperating on not just economic and infrastructure project, but also pressing issues like migration, climate change, and globalization, leaders from all regions can build a collaborative and sustainable relationship that will improve the quality of life of all of their people in the 21st century.
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