The recent resignation of Boris Johnson came as no surprise to those who have been paying close attention to the effects of bad governance in Western Europe. As things stand, it appears that more European leaders will follow Johnson to the exit door. The war in Ukraine has, without a doubt, only accelerated what was a long time coming: the decline of Europe’s global standing as well as the emergence of a new global order and the manifestation of its interim effects – economic downturn and the fall of regimes in the West. In this evolving global reconfiguration, Africa has cause to worry. Here’s why.
Europe has historically heaped the burden of its bad governance on the shoulders of Africans to carry. In the aftermath of the tribal wars that engulfed Europe in the 19th century, a new international order emerged around a unified and dominant Germany. This new global order attempted to prevent future wars between Europeans, with Africa used to provide the solution. Rather than continue with the cycle of wars for resources between cousins, Europe thought: “why not ‘peacefully’ parcel up and share la terra nullius (the empty lands) in Africa?” The peace that Europe envisioned came at Africa’s expense. And so, for over three decades, Europeans enjoyed social stability and economic progress while enthroning disorder and depravation in the colonies.
But Africa’s abundant resources could not permanently solve Europe’s challenges with bad governance and the logic of zero-sum interactions that sustains it. The European truce soon collapsed because there is no honour amongst thieves. Europeans turned against one another and yet again Africa was made the punching bag that provides solutions for Europe by getting conscripted to fight in the latter’s “world wars.”
For the next 45 years after ‘World’ War II, Africa would be parcelled under the bipolar spheres of the United States and the Soviet Union. Africa was ordered to pick a side as the new dominant powers established their respective spheres of influence on the continent. Americans, who had gone as far as sabotaging European colonial interests by supporting decolonisation efforts in Algeria and Kenya in haste to have them leave, even allowed Europeans some influence in Africa, in their “traditional” areas of influence (Anglophone and Francophone countries) as long as this did not interfere with American interests. In other words, Africa was being influenced left and right but without it being an influencer of anyone.
Crucially, however, the coup d’états, proxy wars and civil disorders that marked this period proved, yet again, that the “peace” between the bipolar superpowers came at Africa’s expense, which is why this period is regarded as Africa’s “lost decades.” When you add the Berlinian ‘peace conference’, it is Africa’s lost century.
Africa says no to Europe
Recently something “shocking” happened. Europe did not order Africa to act in a certain way; it only asked, and pressured. Indeed, due to Euro-centrism (or the idea that the world revolves around the desires of Europeans, as Samir Amin noted), African leaders and ordinary people are being pressured to take sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The assumption here is that the threats facing Europe are at once facing Africa. If Europe is undergoing a war, it is a “world war” Because the results of such war shape a new “international order.”
So far, African leaders have turned a deaf ear to Europe’s request to take sides in the conflict. If they had had more confidence, they would have told Europe to go to hell in the clearest and strongest terms. Which begs the question: where is this shot of self-confidence coming from? The broad answer is: alternatives. A significant part of the answer is: China.
Over the past few decades, China has stormed the global scene with a new thinking regarding how countries should relate to each other in the international environment. Unlike the thinking that domineered over Africa for the century of misery noted above, this approach claimed to promote more equal and mutually respectful partnerships. Naturally, China’s approach was a response to a deficit in mutually respectful global engagements. Most importantly, the fact that China has so far refrained from openly interfering in the internal affairs of African countries has given mileage to the genuineness of its stated foreign policy.
These new possibilities for global engagement have not only given Africa a breather but it has also opened it to alternatives. Indeed, even before it was apparent that European and American vulnerability could be leveraged, countries like India, Israel, Qatar, Turkey and the UAE have demonstrated over the past decade and a half or so that a country can develop the capacity to ensure that it is never too small to exert influence on a global stage. Indeed, that they also operated from the same logic as China was a welcome addition from the perspective of alternatives.
This, in turn, has emboldened African leaders with the self-confidence to remind – sometimes unfortunately humbly given the savageness that history has shown westerners to be capable of, to say nothing of Lumumba’s tooth – Europeans and Americans to stop ascribing onto themselves the final say on Africa’s positioning on global matters.
In the current global geo-strategic realignments, African leaders may still not have the means – military and economic – that these countries have relied on in their search for influence in the global order. But for the first time, some of them are feeling like real presidents with sovereign authority to safeguard the interests of their countries and the guts to tell those who refuse to see that times have changed to go hang. They may not openly say this – yet – but at least they can now afford to think it. And that is exactly what African leaders’ refusal to be cowed into taking sides with the West in the Russia-Ukraine war demonstrates.
Most crucially, this new attitude limits Europe’s ability to outsource the solutions to its bad governance to Africa.