“The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa – giving the world a more human face.” –Steve Biko.
Africa’s diverse continent is plagued by histories and unfolding stories of brutal dictatorships catalyzed by legacies of colonialism, proxy wars, and foreign encroachment. Civil war, terrorism, and interregional conflict stemming from chronic poverty, corruption, and poor governance have bogged Africa down from obtaining a position of prestige and influence in international relations.
But even the darkest night ends and the sun rises.
Africa has now achieved its most sustained period of growth in 40 years, with most countries growing at over 5 percent GDP per annum. Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP doubled since 2009 to $1.73 trillion in 2014. Poverty has fallen as access to health care, education, and electricity rise. Such a growth of an urbanized middle class has given rise to African intellectuals, nationalism lacking since independence, and can even spark unrest and regime change as the people demand economic and social rights according to Eric Hobsbawm and Francis Fukuyama.
The question is no longer when will Africa’s darkest night end, but rather will Africans now utilize the rising sun to become their masters of their fate? Will Africans proactively influence the world around them to achieve strategic interests, or will they spend political capital defending weak regimes’ domestic control over borders arbitrarily drawn decades ago?
The African experience in international relations theory has largely been muted since the domino effect of independence in the 1950s. African states were glossed over as passive recipients in great power conflicts such as the Cold War.
However, the Cold War demonstrated the importance of individual actors in Africa. African elites are dubbed “arch-manipulators,” for their ability to play great powers off one another and leverage advantages, at least for personal, corrupt gains.
Nonetheless, since independence, African leaders have largely conducted defensive foreign policies, protecting their power from further foreign encroachment rather than offensively expanding their international influence or augmenting economic growth.
Following the Cold War, Africa once again fell off the world’s agenda save for one quiet growing tiger to the East: China.
China’s “Going Out” policy, beginning in the 1990s, marked a massive economic reorientation through expansion into global markets. Africa was and continues to be a prime emerging market, particularly for exporting natural resources and importing low quality manufactured goods. In 2009, China overtook the USas the continent’s largest trading partner.
Unfortunately, African elites were easily coddled into the empty rhetoric of Chinese development, ceding natural resources in exchange for temporary debt relief or infrastructure projects designed to accelerate China’s exploitation process.
Beijing already broke its core principle of diplomacy, “non-interference,” despite insisting China is not an expansionist power. China has increased its militarization throughout the continent from naval operations off the Horn of Africa, to elite military training for oppressive regimes, to conducting secret negotiations to build a military base in Djibouti.
The exploitation of colonization is repeating itself in a new form, but African states have the opportunity to finally turn the tables.
African leaders can give the world a human face, adhering to African principles of collectivism and emphasizing relationships, rather than blindingly adopting the Western ideal of individualism and subsequent Western-styled industrialization and militarization.
Machiavelli wrote it is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both. Yet fear itself is simply a means to an end, security. Many African elites have been trapped in the “dictator’s dilemma,”capitalizing on a feared populace to the point where the people become engulfed in hatred. The dictator sleeps with one eye open for years before finally being killed like Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, fleeing to exile like Mobutu Sese Seko of the DRC, or tried in Court like Charles Taylor of Liberia, just as Machiavelli warned and Ronald Wintrobe reiterated in The Political Economy of Dictatorship.
When properly applied, fear can ensure security for a time. Yet, at great personal risk, a loved leader has the opportunity to unlock the full potential of an entire nation by daring to inspire rather than retreating to protect a frail status quo.
If African leaders return to African ideals such as ubuntu and direct their foreign policy to fulfill the needs of their people, rather than themselves, FDI (foreign direct investment) will pour into stabilized emerging markets, local entrepreneurs will have the resources to innovate, sustainable economic development will transplant temporary aid and fleeting assistance, and booming African economies will command the world’s attention when speaking at the table.
Current elites must reorient their footing, being strategically adept with coherent goals. African leaders can simultaneously leverage the West’s desire to foster human rights, as well as China’s hunger for resources and new markets to support sustainable African development, rather than dependence.
This shift initiating the African Renaissance has already begun. African leaders strengthened their solidarity by transforming the Organization of African Unity (OAU) into the African Union (AU). South Africa and Nigeria are actively seeking permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council. African leaders are exponentially holding more multilateral forums with great powers such as the US, China, the EU, and Japan.
However, seizing upon African divisions and lack of coordination, the opposite parties generally dominate negotiations, such as China at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). The next challenge is for African leaders to develop tangible goals together and negotiate on African terms.
For African elites who fail to act upon this shift in prevailing wind, the writing is on the wall. Static dictators will face an eventual African Spring, ceding power to the inevitable rise of a powerful middle class demanding rights, economic growth, and sovereignty. These new intellectual elites will have both the capacity and the incentive to formulate grand strategies to achieve these objectives.
Africa will evolve to become a respected actor in international relations in the 21st century, mastering its own destiny and leveraging power, advancing the African Renaissance. The question now is, who will be the African leaders to do so? Current elites who have so far survived on fear, or a new intellectual class empowered by the love of their people?