Sovereign Africa?

At the Munich Security Conference last month, Namibia’s Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila was asked about her country’s decision to abstain on a UN General Assembly resolution to condemn Russia for the war in Ukraine. Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, an economist who has been in post since 2018, did not flinch. ‘We are promoting a peaceful resolution of that conflict’, she said, ‘so that the entire world and all the resources of the world can be focused on improving the conditions of people around the world, instead of being spent on acquiring weapons, killing people, and actually creating hostilities’. The money being poured into arms, she continued, ‘could be better utilised to promote development in Ukraine, in Africa, in Asia, in other places, in Europe itself, where many people are experiencing hardships’.

This view commands a broad consensus across the African continent. In September Senegal’s President Macky Sall, the Chair of the African Union, echoed the call for a negotiated settlement, noting that Africa was suffering the effects of sanctions-induced food and fuel price inflation while simultaneously being dragged into the conflict that the United States has provoked with China. ‘Africa’, he said, ‘has suffered enough of the burden of history . . . it does not want to be the breeding ground of a new Cold War, but rather a pole of stability and opportunity open to all its partners’.

The ‘burden of history’ and its emblems are well-known: they include the devastation wrought by the Atlantic slave trade, the horrors of colonialism, the atrocity of apartheid and the creation of a permanent debt crisis through neo-colonial financial structures. Whilst enriching European nations and spurring their industrial advancement, colonialism reduced the African continent to a provider of raw materials and consumer of finished products. The terms of trade sent its states into a spiral of indebtedness and dependency. Attempts to break out of this condition – by Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana or Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso – resulted in Western-backed coups. Technological development in the name of social progress was rendered impossible. Hence, despite immense natural and mineral wealth and human capacity, more than a third of the African population now live below the poverty line: almost nine times the global average. By the end of 2022, the total external debt in Sub-Saharan Africa was a record $789 billion: double that of a decade ago, and 60% of the continent’s gross domestic product.

In the last century, the leading critics of these colonial dynamics were Nkrumah and Walter Rodney; yet there is little contemporary scholarship that carries forward their legacy. Without it, we often lack the conceptual clarity needed to parse the current phase of neo-colonialism, whose stock concepts – ‘structural adjustment’, ‘liberalisation’, ‘corruption’, ‘good governance’ – are imposed by Western institutions on African realities. Yet, as the statements of Sall and Kuugongelwa-Amadhila show, recent conjunctural crises – the Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine, rising tensions with China – have highlighted the growing political gulf between Western and African states. While the former rush headlong into a Great Power conflict with terrifying nuclear stakes, the latter fear that warmongering will further weaken their developmental prospects.

As African nations have diverged from the Atlantic powers, many have edged closer to China. By 2021, 53 countries on the continent had joined the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), designed to enhance trade and diplomatic relations. Every year for the past two decades, bilateral trade has risen – from $10 billion in 2000 to $254.3 billion in 2021 – such that the PRC has become the main trading partner for the majority of African states. At the eighth conference of the FOCAC, China announced it would import $300 billion worth of manufactured goods from African countries by 2025 and increase tariff-free trade, later waiving tariffs on 98% of taxable goods from the twelve least-developed African nations. The afterlife of colonialism means that Africa’s overseas trade is still heavily financed by debt; its exports are mostly unprocessed raw materials, while its imports are mostly finished products. For China, investment in Africa is motivated by the desire to strengthen its role in the global commodity chain, and by political imperatives such as the need to gain African support for Chinese foreign policy positions (on Taiwan, for example).

Chinese financial institutions have also disbursed significant loans for African infrastructure projects, which are grappling with an annual shortfall of over $100 billion. China’s advances in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, green technology, high-speed rail, quantum computing, robotics and telecommunications are attractive to African states, whose new industrial strategies – such as the development of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) – rely on technology transfers. As the former president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, wrote in 2008, ‘China’s approach to our needs is simply better adapted than the slow and sometimes patronising post-colonial approach of European investors, donor organisations, and non-governmental organisations’. This is a widely held view in countries still suffocated by IMF debt traps. It has become all the more prominent amid the recent decline of Western Foreign Direct Investment on the continent.

Closer ties between Africa and China have elicited a predictable backlash from Washington. Last year, the US published a strategy document outlining its approach to Sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast to what it describes as its own ‘high standards, values-driven, and transparent investment’, China’s investments are characterized as an attempt to ‘challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken US relations with African peoples and governments’. To counter such ‘harmful activities’, the US hopes to shift the terrain of contest away from trade and development, where China has an advantage, towards militarism and information warfare, where America still reigns supreme.

The US established Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007, and over the next fifteen years constructed 29 military bases across the continent, as part of a network spanning at least 34 countries. AFRICOM’s stated objectives include ‘protecting US interests’ and ‘maintaining superiority over competitors’. It aims to enhance ‘interoperability’ between African militaries and US and NATO special operation forces. Building military bases and setting up liaison offices with African armies has been the primary mechanism for leveraging US authority against China. In 2021, AFRICOM General Stephen Townsend wrote that the United States ‘can no longer afford to underestimate the economic opportunity and strategic consequence Africa embodies, and which competitors like China and Russia recognise’.

At the same time, the US has ramped up its propaganda campaign on the continent. The COMPETES Act, passed by the Senate in March 2022, pledged $500 million for the US Agency for Global Media, as part of an attempt to combat PRC ‘disinformation’. A few months later, reports began to circulate in Zimbabwe that the US Embassy had funded educational workshops that encouraged journalists to target and criticise Chinese investments. The local organisation involved in the programmes is funded by the Information for Development Trust, which is in turn funded by the US government’s National Endowment for Development.

Needless to say, the West’s militarization of Africa over the past decade has done nothing for its people. First there was the disastrous 2011 war in Libya, where NATO led the push for regime change, resulting in hundreds of civilian casualties and the destruction of key infrastructure (including the world’s largest irrigation project, which provided 70% of all the fresh water in Libya). In its wake, the Sahel region experienced an upsurge in conflicts, many of them driven by new forms of militia activity, piracy and smuggling. Soon after, France launched interventions in Burkina Faso and Mali, which – rather than clean up the mess of the Western war in Libya – served to further destabilize the Sahel, allowing jihadist groups to take over large tracts of land. French military involvement did nothing to alleviate conditions of insecurity. Indeed, Global Terrorism Index rankings worsened for both countries: from 2011 to 2021, Burkina Faso went 113th to 4th, while Mali moved from 41st to 7th. Meanwhile, the US continued its decades-long intervention in Somalia, internationalizing its local conflicts and strengthening its violent extremist factions.

The recent departure of French troops from parts of the Sahel has hardly reduced the scale of Western military operations in the region. The US retains its major bases in Niger; it has developed a new military footprint in Ghana; and it recently announced its intention to maintain a ‘persistent presence’ in Somalia. It is clear that the African Union’s plan for ‘Silencing the Guns’ – its campaign for a conflict-free Africa by 2030 – will never be fulfilled as long as Western states continue their pattern of bloody intervention and weapons companies reap massive profits from arms sales to state and non-state actors. As African military expenditures skyrocketed between 2010 and 2020 (by 339% in Mali, 288% in Niger and 238% in Burkina Faso), a vicious cycle of militarism and underdevelopment was gradually consolidated. The more money spent on arms, the less is available for infrastructure and development. The less spent on development, the more armed violence is likely to break out, prompting calls for further military spending.

This year, the African Union will mark 60 years since the foundation of its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity. During the 1963 inaugural conference of the OAU, Nkrumah warned leaders that in order to achieve economic integration and stability, the organization would have to be an explicitly political one – motivated by a clear and consistent anti-imperialism. ‘African unity’, he explained, ‘is, above all, a political kingdom which can only be gained by political means. The social and economic development of Africa will come only within the political kingdom, not the other way round.’ Yet, despite the best efforts of decolonisation movements, economic interests – primarily those of Western multinational corporations and their state backers – ultimately usurped politics. In the process, African unity was hollowed out, and with it the sovereignty and dignity of the African people.

Nkrumah’s vision may be far from fulfilment in 2023. His contention that ‘no independent African state today by itself has a chance to follow an independent course of economic development’ still rings true. Despite some noble attempts, such as the 2016 resolution to ban foreign military bases, the African Union has so far been unable to free itself from neo-colonial constraints. Yet the continent’s refusal to toe the line on the New Cold War – its calls for peace negotiations in Ukraine, its reconfiguration of international partners – suggests that a different world order is possible: one in which Africa is no longer beholden to the ‘united West’.

Read on: Giovanni Arrighi, ‘The African Crisis’, NLR 15.