Biden’s summit angered Africans, but was it righteous anger?

“In this world, if the medium-sized countries aren’t banding together, the giants are going to sit on us.” - Toni Blair
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The picture of African presidents gathering around Biden, some even appearing to escort him to his spot, rubbed many Africans the wrong way. On social media, African presidents were caricatured. This frustration/anger was captured in my colleague’s article “The Africa Puppets Summit.” But what’s really going on when African leaders act in ways that make Africans want to disown them?

The first charge against African leaders is that it is disrespectful for more than 50 of them to keep going to foreign summits when it would make more sense for these kinds of summits to take place in Africa. In other words, how does one individual, the US president in this case, “summon” tens of leaders of independent states?

I am of the view that this unfortunate choice of venue is merely a consequence of the real issue; that is, the failure of African countries to define their shared, strategic interests and to act as a strong collective in defence of such interests. This failure means that the form (protocol, venue, etc.), the content (agenda), and the outcome of these summits can neither dignify Africans nor reflect their priorities. This is because the form, the content and the outcome of such summits reflect the power relations between the host and African countries. In most cases, the host country has greater power (economic, military, technological, etc.) than any of the single countries invited, and, in some cases, as is with the United States (so unfortunate to acknowledge!), of all African countries combined. As a result, agreements signed during such meetings will most likely reflect this power imbalance. In other words, those agreements will most likely benefit the powerful party and rob the weak parties of their dignity and resources.

In his famous tirade against Brexit, former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, crudely explained this point.

“For a country like Britain, you need strong alliances to keep your influence strong and your interests protected,” Blair said, as he lamented the fact that his country was giving up on the protection of a powerful economic and political bloc like the EU at a time where new powers, with larger populations than the UK, were emerging. Blair argued that countries like Germany, France, Italy, and Britain will be considered medium-sized countries in terms of human and economic resources in the near future, adding “In this world, if the medium-sized countries aren’t banding together, the giants are going to sit on us.”

Blair’s remarks with regard to power are useful lessons to Africans for two main reasons. One, if the former leader of a country as powerful as Britain can foresee its fall into irrelevance and express fears for its interests, then surely Africans can measure the extent to which our isolated countries are vulnerable in their interactions with other political and financial entities. Two, for inexperienced African leaders who wish to establish partnerships with the West, these remarks provide the much-needed insights into the zero-sum logic that has always characterized similar partnerships.

“Anyone who has ever dealt with power and sat in a room where there is power understands that when you’re with a group of others and you’re operating as one, as a strong collective, then your medium-sized countries banding together … are going to sit at that table with three giants on equal terms. Those sitting as individuals are not sitting at that table; they are sitting on a smaller table,” Blair warned, bemoaning “an unbelievable act of self-denial” on the part of his country which was convinced that it could rely on its own strength to retain a place at the table of giants, maintain its influence and protect its interests.

Ironically, African leaders and their detractors, like Brexiteers, are also in denial: the former for believing that their respective countries can benefit from those meetings without establishing, a priori, which interests are shared by all and should therefore be high on the summits’ agenda; the latter for expecting individual African leaders to adopt a posture that is not commensurate with the bargaining power of our isolated countries.

In the aforementioned article, my colleague, Dr Serunkuma rightly points out that it is embarrassing that African leaders failed to question why money ostensibly meant for Africa’s development keeps getting channelled through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) despite the institution’s pernicious record as far as its interference in the management of African economies is concerned. However, only a strong collective can negotiate the terms under which that money will be loaned, used and reimbursed. Similarly, only a strong collective can oppose the surrender of mineral rights of African countries by inexperienced and selfish leaders during such summits. Africa cannot accept to be divided and exploited as was the case with the mineral deals signed by DRC and Zambia. Without a strong collective front that would enable us to act as a unit on strategic issues, the venue of the summit won’t matter. African leaders might save some jet fuel by hosting these summits on African soil, but the uneven terms of trade will continue unabated.

Hopefully, with a strong collective and the confidence that would come from collective action, African leaders won’t have to do anything embarrassing to register their presence at these summits.

Strategic humility

Present African leaders should be judged based on their behaviour and responses to current issues facing their individual countries and Africa as a continent. They shouldn’t be held responsible for the history of the past 600 years that placed Africa under imperial control and influence. Neither should they be lumped together and subjected to blank generalisations as if none of them was advocating for the continent’s interests. Our criticism should remain within reason and pragmatic.

While most Africans would like to have our leaders push against perceived and real disrespect, it would be counterproductive for them to develop a confrontational posture against a force with disproportionate military, economic, and technological powers. Neither do these leaders have to emasculate themselves as though they are colonial clerks stationed in Africa.

The Chinese have demonstrated the power of strategic humility. Over the past half-century, they have, as much as possible, avoided confrontation with those who were more powerful than them. For this reason, humility became a Chinese trait. It is worth noting that the Chinese did this while jealously protecting their policy space from external interference. Most importantly, they did not give away the resources they needed to drive China’s rise.

However, having closed the power gap, Chinese leaders are becoming more assertive. Most people who watched the video clip of President Xi Jinping lambasting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could not believe their eyes. What had happened to Chinese patience and humility, many wondered. Clearly, Chinese leaders had an agenda and could afford humility while reserving confrontation only when their strategic interests were threatened.

Unfortunately, some African leaders have confused deference with humility, and as a result, they maintain a servile attitude even when our vital interests are under foreign assault. Worst still, our countries have failed to overcome organizational fragmentation, which is the stumbling block to any meaningful engagement in a hyper-competitive world that is eager to eat your lunch the moment you blink.

Our collective responsibility in the continued disunity of Africa is also the framework for a constructive assessment of our leaders. If we remain cognizant of our shortcomings, we would then begin to appreciate the significance of President Kagame’s courage to tell Americans on their own turf that they shouldn’t expect Africans to choose sides in their tensions with China.

Sadly, we trolled all our leaders. But ultimately a blanket caricaturing of African leaders drives the logical conclusion that we are a people not worthy of self-governance, which is the alibi for the crime against humanity that is colonialism – a subtle invitation for recolonization.

Things are bad, but not that bad.

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