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Some things to know about Africa #3: Its relations with the rest of the world

January 2, 2011

This is my second post in this series, in which I will identify several lenses through which I – as an outsider with links to the continent – find it useful to look at Africa. In the previous post I covered the issue of whether one can indeed consider “Africa” at all; and the importance of community. In this considerably longer piece, I take a look at aspects of Africa’s external relations. I should perhaps apologise for the length of this post.

Africans and others get justifiably fed up with the story of Africans as victims. This image is so often the basis on which outsiders justify a paternalistic, guilt-based or simply humanitarian approach to the continent, or is used by some Africans to justify their inability to resolve their problems or their entitlement to preferential treatment. But to understand the Africa of today it is important to know something of African history, and how it has interacted with the rest of the world. And the truth is that much of that interaction has been conducted to Africans’ considerable disadvantage. Without getting into the realms of scholarship, I identify eight significant ways in which Africans’ past and present relationships with outsiders have shaped their opportunities today. To some extent the first seven are a chronological series of overlapping waves, while the eighth is a long-running structural theme.

The first is slavery. Africans were enslaved and trafficked from the north and the east by Arabs, and from the west by Europeans and North and South Americans, for centuries. Although the demand for this awful trade came from outside the continent, it was done in collaboration with many Africans. The trade and all that went with it had a terrible impact not just on the captives and their families but on entire communities and polities, whose political economy and culture became distorted, even ravaged by their participation in and/or the impact of the slave trade. Mungo Park’s descriptions of pitiful slave caravans in late 18th Century West Africa (in Travels in the Interior of Africa) are complemented by the descriptions of entire human landscapes devastated by the slavers in 19th century East Africa, even hundreds of kilometres from the coast, in the writings of British explorers like Burton, Speke and Grant. Trade in slaves must surely have been a dominant – perhaps the dominant – feature in many people’s lives during those years, influencing their livelihoods, family life, personal security, religion, politics, and so on.

Second, the experience of colonisation: almost all of Sub-Saharan Africa was colonised from around 1880 to the 1960s by European powers: essentially the British, French and Portuguese (with Germany’s role curtailed by its losing the First World War). In order to govern their dominions at minimal cost, all three colonial powers used some version of indirect rule, i.e. co-opting local leaders. For this to work, the local leaders needed to be compliant. Obviously the chiefs who operated quasi-autonomously within the colonial system needed to be rewarded continuously for their collaboration, and these rewards came largely through privileged access to economic opportunity and to the granting of favours within the legal and political systems. When this system failed, and leaders took their autonomy too far, the colonial powers readily replaced them, often creating new “traditional leadership” institutions such as “kings” and “paramount chiefs” which had not existed before; and distorting existing leadership and governance institutions to fit the needs of the colonial enterprise.

Meanwhile they introduced a caricature of the European governance system – courts, elected councils and an executive civil service, eventually also parliaments – and a repressive police force, all of which operated in uneasy parallel with the traditional and neo-traditional governance systems. As a result at independence the metropolitan powers bequeathed their ex-colonies a confused and dysfunctional governance system which, when added to the inevitable sense of resentment and feelings of inadequacy caused by eighty years of being colonised, and an economy built on the idea of selling cheap raw materials in return for expensive European finished goods, boded ill for the post-colonial phase.

Third, the process of decolonisation was poorly planned and executed. All three metropolitan powers accepted the need for decolonisation somewhat begrudgingly, and implemented it all-too-rapidly. They had done little to help prepare their colonial subjects for the experience of governing themselves in the new “nations” which the colonies were expected to become. (Indeed, they had in many cases imprisoned the political leaders who were to assume power after independence, rather than schooling them in the arts of government). The winds of change blew up too suddenly, perhaps. In the most egregious cases the colonists simply quit – for example Portugal from its colonies in the 1970s after years of chronic armed rebellion, and France from Guinea in 1959 after Guineans rebuffed their kind offer to be part of a formal French hegemony in Africa. And even after their departure, the Europeans continued to do all they could to maintain their level of influence and the terms of trade they had so long enjoyed, and preferential treatment for their businesses. A high level of dependency persisted for years afterward, and to some extent continues today.

Relations between the newly independent Africans and the most powerful countries of the world from independence until 1989 were largely determined by the Cold War – which gave rise to the fourth wave of destructive influence. During this period neither East nor West missed an opportunity to make clients of African governments, which they instrumentalised in their conflicts with one another, paying far less attention to whether those governments were good for their own people than whether they were on the “right” side in the Cold War. These relationships were tied into business activities and aid flows, so in Zaire for example President Mobutu was able to use both mining revenues and aid money from abroad to stay in power through his personal patronage networks; while the enmity between Ethiopia and Somalia was fed (though not caused) by the way the USA and the USSR supported one side over the other – even swapping partners conveniently in the 1970s as though taking part in a well choreographed international dance.

Both sides in the Cold War followed the policy of supporting African leaders who supported them, largely irrespective of such leaders’ ability or willingness to serve or be supported by their own people. This provision of conditional political and economic support was in line with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s doctrine that “he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”. The CIA’s involvement in deposing and assassinating Congo’s prime minister Patrice Lumumba, as documented in Michela Wrong’s In the footsteps of Mr. Kurtz; British, Israeli and US involvement in Idi Amin’s coup in Uganda; and the USSR’s (and its clients’) sustained military support for Mengistu Haile Mariam’s murderous regime in Ethiopia, illustrate how far these relationships could go. As a result of this cynical international support, African governments had less need to pay attention to the demands, needs or rights of their own people. So many of them did not, relying on international support to feed their own patronage networks and stay in power, therefore governing in the interests of their external patrons and their own often narrow group of local clients.

The end of the Cold War gave rise to a fifth external wave of influence, as the West suddenly discovered the importance of good governance, and began to push democracy on African nations which were arguably ill-prepared. Much has been written – for example by the Center for Systemic Peace  – about the risks of so-called anocracies: countries which are neither autocracies nor democracies, many of which appear to be making a transition between the two. It makes intuitive sense that anocracies are at higher risk of short-term instability and violence than autocracies or democracies. Perhaps we need to accept that omelettes cannot be made without breaking eggs. But the international community needs to take great care in its avowed role as midwife in the transition towards democracy, and tailor its interventions to a realistic appraisal of the situation on the ground. Nowhere better illustrates the ineptitude of this approach in the past than the case of Rwanda, which while dealing with the Rwandese Patriotic Front invasion between 1990 and 1994 – surely a national crisis, whatever your views of the legitimacy of the RPF’s cause – was pushed by France, the USA and others into implementing multi-party democracy for the first time. Initiating pluralistic politics in a country with no history of them, when that country has been invaded and many of its people feel under existential threat does not seem too sensible in hindsight, and no doubt this added to the pressure which gave rise to the 1994 genocide. No wonder many Africans feel buffeted by the successive winds of change blowing hot and cold from outside the continent, and changing direction arbitrarily from time to time.

The sixth wave of external influence follows on from numbers four and five: the fight against Islamic militancy. The external demand for good governance in Africa was a result of changes in global conflict patterns – in that case the end of the Cold War. But simultaneously a new international conflict was emerging. Too complex to explain here, it is the conflict between Islamicists seeking to disrupt the way the world and most countries in it are governed, and the governments they seek to destabilise or overthrow. The important element here is that it is a conflict with local and global dimensions. Inadequate governance and underdevelopment in Africa provides geographical and political space in which Islamist militants can operate both locally and globally. This means that, just as in the Cold War, African governments who support the international fight against terrorism (with their votes at the UN and in their policies and operations at home) are strongly supported by the international powers. Once again they have an opportunity to become “our son of a bitch” in the eyes of the powers. Once again, this can distort their behaviour at home – incentivising them to put their international obligations ahead of domestic ones. Meanwhile on the other side of the equation, the international terrorist networks themselves play a similar destabilising role, capitalising on “ungoverned space” and local dissatisfaction to increase local insecurity, often upsetting difficult local and regional power balances.

An early example of this dynamic in Africa is probably the blind eye turned by the US to the RPF’s plans to invade Rwanda in 1990, which was among other things a solution to President Museveni’s problem of how to liquidate his obligations to the Rwandan refugee community in Uganda which had helped win him power. The US and Western allies quite likely reasoned that a small war in Rwanda would be a small price to pay for keeping Uganda onside as a bulwark against Islamicism, seen at the time as likely to be exported southwards from the direction of Khartoum.

An extreme current example is Somalia, where the prospects for peace – difficult at the best of times – are being undermined by the involvement of outsiders from both sides in this international conflict whose global (or own domestic) priorities trump any desire they may have to support a locally emergent and sustainable peace. International interests in this case interact negatively with regional dynamics: Ethiopia and Eritrea have continued their own conflict by proxy, each backing different groups in Somalia; and the Ethiopian government has seized an opportunity to pursue its own longstanding conflict with Somalia by aligning itself as USA’s client in the fight against international terrorism.

Even Mali’s reputation of maintaining stability while democratising successfully over the past two decades is threatened by its need to deal with the presence of a small Al Qaeda franchise in the northern desert, according to some observers like Robert Berschinksi. This is because its political and military response risks undermining the 1992 peace agreement between the government and a Tuareg rebel movement. That the war against Al Qaeda in the Sahel/Sahara has become confusingly intertwined with the EU’s war against international drug smuggling across the Sahara further underlines how the domestic and geo-strategic interests of those outside Africa play such a defining role on the continent.

A seventh lens through which relations between Africa and the rest of the world can be viewed is that of climate change. Africans’ contribution to carbon emissions is negligible, and yet Africa seems likely to be hard hit by the environmental impacts of climate change. The social, political and economic consequences of altered rainfall patterns, flooding, drought, rising temperatures and other physical changes will be far harder to absorb in a continent which is environmentally, economically and politically fragile – as has been explained in International Alert’s A Climate of Conflict report. In some parts of Africa climate change will no doubt be for the better: for example crop yields in the equatorial belt may rise in the short-term, due to increased availability of carbon for photosynthesis. But in most places it looks likely to be for the worse, and in some cases downright disastrous, as fragile systems are put under added stress. Some people have claimed that Darfur is an early example of this. Others deny the link to climate change, but no matter which side is right, the crisis in Darfur does provide a vivid example of what can result when environmental stress interacts with livelihood and political systems which lack resilience. This kind of interaction may well be a common phenomenon in Africa as climate changes occur. Man-made climate change in Africa is a result of the way people in countries outside Africa have lived and are living their lives. To redress this absurd unfairness, very large sums will be made available in the international system to help with adaptation in Africa. But like other aid money, while no doubt doing some good, these funds may in some cases have the unintended consequence of lessening governments’ reliance on and accountability to those they govern, so they risk making governance – and thus future resilience – even worse, in a negative spiral.

Meanwhile throughout these successive and destabilising waves of external influences, the economic relationship between Africa and the rest of the world has remained unequal, with Africa as the price taker. This is my eighth theme, and one which has consistently underlain and operated alongside the seven “waves” of influence noted above. Mining and agribusiness companies from OECD countries have in recent years been joined by their peers from “emerging economies” like China and India. All, with varying degrees of support from their home governments, have felt the need to make deals with imperfect African governments to secure access to their raw materials, and as with other issues described above, this too has helped insulate those governments from being held accountable by their people. For some analysts, the latest wave of Chinese investments is a new and different phenomenon. But I see China in this context as just a new, very powerful and very hungry player, joining the game which others have played for so long, and following more or less the same rules. Just as Belgium backed its mining interests in Congo/Zaire in the past, which helped define the relationship between Brussels and Kinshasa, so China backs its mining companies in Africa today – simply on a much larger scale and without the relationship between Beijing and Kinshasa or Luanda being complicated by post-colonial guilt or by vocal human rights promoters and environmentalists at home. Meanwhile despite some advances in EC and US tariff reduction, the economic playing field remains tilted against Africa’s interests and the proportion of manufactured or other value-added goods exported is still small compared with raw materials. The USA’s African Growth Opportunities Act is designed to improve access for African exports to the US market, but according to official figures, around 90% of goods exported to the USA under the Act are oil, which while adding to GDP, usually fails to underpin development or human progress more broadly by fostering broad participation in the economy and improved governance.

And so: seven “waves” of largely deleterious influence, and an eighth underlying factor which also appears to do Africans few favours. In this blog post have I fallen into the trap of viewing Africa as victim? I hope not: that was certainly not my intention, which was not to justify but rather to describe and explain, for it is hard to address or resolve issues unless one describes them clearly and accurately. And there are plenty of opportunities for Africans to seize through their engagement with the rest of the world: indeed, one increasingly common view is that this is Africa’s time, and that African countries are well positioned to achieve the kinds of growth targets which Asian countries have achieved over the past decades. The colonial experience was not all bad; nor is there anything inherently wrong with foreign direct investment in mining or other sectors, or the attempt to neutralise international terrorists, provided both are conducted ways which reflect the interests of local people as well as those of their governments and outsiders. Meanwhile there are plenty of other lenses through which to view relations between Africans and others which I have not included in this section: religion and culture for example. I will return to some of these themes in later posts in this series.

Nevertheless, the issues I have identified in this section must surely have contributed to some of the factors which continue to hold Africa back: a lingering mistrust and fear of the initiatives of outsiders and innovation; a lack of self-confidence; a colonial-style and repressive culture of governance, in which Mahmood Mamdani has claimed that most people are subjects, not citizens (Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism); and economies based on extraction and export. Nor does seem too much of a stretch to link modern-day human and drug trafficking, a pernicious problem in some parts of the continent, with the slave trade.

What emerges most strongly for me from this analysis is that whichever thematic lens we use to view the relationships between Africa and other parts of the world, it is quite clear that countries and companies from outside Africa define their role in the relationship in terms of their own self-interest: be it shareholder value, their domestic consumer’s wallet or their national security. That will not change soon, and so Africa seems destined for some time to come to navigate a world defined more by others’ interests than its own. Unfortunately Africans’ external policies need simultaneously to recognise this truth, even as they try to change it.

This has been a long post and I thank those (perhaps few) readers who have read through to the end. I will compensate in my next post by making it slightly lighter in tone and much shorter in length. It will be on the subject of time.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Francis Kuria permalink
    January 4, 2011 6:21 am

    Thanks Phil. It seems the folks in Brussels did not take these issues, especially the “lingering mistrust and fear of the initiatives of outsiders”, into consideration when designing the Economic Partnership Agreements between EU and Africa. And they completely ignored the civil movements in Africa thinking that their “subject” civil servants and political leaders, who are mainly the sons of chiefs who got their snouts in the “education” feeding trough first as part of the clientilism of colonialism, will rubber-stamp the deal.

    Good piece.

  2. Richard Davies permalink
    January 9, 2011 8:38 pm

    Mentioning that Africa´s interaction with the rest of the world has often been
    to the disadvantage of Africans reminds me of what is probably a well-known
    joke,but amusing nonetheless.” When you came to Africa”, the African says
    to the European ” we had the land and you had the bibles.You taught us to pray
    with our eyes shut.When we opened them, you had the land and we had the bibles”
    Thanks for showing some of the strands in this sleight of hand !

    • January 27, 2011 8:49 pm

      Yes, there’s a picture in the National Potrait Gallery in London which struck me and has stayed with me for over thirty-five years since I remember first seeing it. It shows Queen Victoria receiving what looks like homage from a young African chief or prince; and he in return is receiving from her a Bible. The painter did his job without irony, but it’s impossible to look at it now without it.

  3. January 18, 2011 5:49 pm

    This is the best blog I’ve ever seen in my life! I really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy day to share your this with everyone.

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