African Foreign Policy in a Multipolar Age
African Foreign Policy - Part 1
This is the first of three posts on African foreign policy under multipolarity. The first post outlines what African countries should prioritize as they engage the world; the second looks at how China ought to approach its Africa policy moving forward; and the third examines potential opportunities to improve US (and Western) Africa Policy.
I: Why Africa Matters:
Does it matter what the African Union does? Back in 2017 a potential research collaborator asked me this exact question. At the time I was trying to convince him of the importance of understanding intra-African cooperation across dimensions such as security, governance, migration, trade, etc. He was not convinced. I ended up shelving the project.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have. While the last 200 years may make one conclude that Africa is geopolitical backwater, there are several reasons to believe that this will not always be the case (especially since it wasn’t always so).
First, demographics. For much of history Africa was largely empty (and therefore lacking strong states that could sustain well-ordered economies). UN projections indicate that the world’s demographic future is in Africa, with the region’s population expected to double by 2050 (to 2.5 billion). Not enough people currently appreciate the fact that by the year 2100 half of all humans being born will be African. This seismic change in demographics will mean more African brains, stomachs, workers, and markets — all concentrated in large urban areas. I struggle to see why these changes will not increase Africa’s geopolitical importance, irrespective of how well individual countries are run or perform.
Second, Africa’s challenges are already global challenges. For example, in an increasingly interconnected world, the human tragedies caused by climate change, entrenched poverty, and chronic state weakness in West Africa cannot simply be confined to the region. Indeed, the resulting flow of climate, conflict, and economic refugees is already a “problem” for several countries outside the region. And it is likely to worsen (even though most refugee flows are within the region). Absent a drastic correction, many African countries will remain stuck in a self-reinforcing suboptimal equilibrium of mass poverty and low state capacity (and associated conflicts) — both of which will continue to result in significant amounts of out-migration.
The figures blow put these facts in sharp relief. Africa is already the epicenter of global poverty. It is also not a surprise that the least developed countries in the region (especially in the Sahel) also face the worst security challenges. Finally, economic precariousness and generalized insecurity have pushed many (young) people to leave in search of livelihoods elsewhere.
Third, Africa’s opportunities are global opportunities. As noted above, Africa is finally rapidly accumulating the most valuable resource the world has ever seen — human capital. While it is true that bigger populations will come with their own challenges (e.g. potential for food insecurity in the face of climate change or mass unemployment), there is no reason to believe that they will also not create opportunities for growth. More people will mean cheaper labor and bigger markets, not just for intra-African trade, but also trade with the rest of the world. The chances of this happening will likely increase as several middle income Asian countries experience demographic transitions and associated rises in labor costs (and if the West aggressively pursues the idea of “friend-shoring”). The green shoots area already visible in countries like Kenya and Ethiopia.
Beyond human capital, Africa’s natural resource potential (from arable land, to fossil fuels, to transition minerals) still has enormous potential to contribute to growth and be a source of geopolitical leverage. However, I would not put too much faith in the natural resource sector as a catalyst for economic takeoff. There will be no way around the productive use of human capital as the basis of economic takeoff in the region.
Overall, there is absolutely no reason to believe that African countries will remain poor into the future. As everyone who has witnessed the depth of economic change in the region over the last 20 years will attest, the notion of permanent economic stagnation in Africa is a myth. The African Development Bank (AfDB) projects that by 2050 the region’s total output will reach more than $16 trillion in PPP terms (double the current $8 trillion). The projected sustained growth will come, in part, because of greater resilience of African economies. As experiences through recent global shocks have shown, it is highly unlikely that the region will go through anything like the disastrous long decade (1980-1995) of anaemic economic performance and chaotic political collapses that continue to color most observers’ views on the region’s economic prospects. This is, in part, because of ongoing political institutionalization in the region (regardless of regime type).
Fourth, Africans are growing out of the region’s historical geopolitical naïveté. For the better part of the last 60 years, Africa’s ruling elites governed as little more than (post)colonial Native Administrators — completely out of touch with their citizens’ objective realities, with their focus permanently fixed on serving neocolonial foreign interests. Few countries had elites interested in real sovereignty (or policy autonomy), instead opting to collude with corrupt foreign actors in pillaging their countries’ resources. In other words, too many African leaders viewed their countries as geopolitical appendages to their former colonizers, seldom posing to consider their countries’ interests. There were few exceptions, of course, like Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere and Thomas Sankara.
Catalysts for the ongoing geopolitical awakening are many. Top of the list include: (1) the rise of leaders like Paul Kagame and Abiy Ahmed (warts and all) who have demonstrated that elites need not take the rules handed down by the “international community” as a given; (2) a secular loosening of the West’s psychological stranglehold in the region, in part because of wider common knowledge of the real history behind how the West became so dominant and its ongoing internal contradictions (i.e., the Western model has lost its shine); (3) blossoming relations with China, Russia, Turkey, China, India, South Korea, and other mid-tier powers that provide outside options beyond Africa’s “traditional” North Atlantic allies; and (4) the spread of the idea of African Agency in African affairs (sometimes colloquially dubbed, African solutions to African problems).
Whether at the level of bilateral relations, Regional Economic Community (REC), or the African Union (AU), African elites are no longer uniformly geopolitically naive. This is a much welcome improvement (for Africa and the rest of the world). African states should be squarely in the business of championing African interests.
II: African Foreign Policy for a Multipolar Age
Does it make sense to think of “African foreign policy”? The simple answer is yes. Individually, African countries are weak as geopolitical actors (including the likes of Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt). But collectively, they can be a force to recon with. When it speaks with one voice, the African Union (AU) commands 54 votes at the UN and significant moral authority. Evidence from the last 60 years suggest that African states have been most effective on the international stage when they leverage their collective numbers (see, for example, challenges to the authority of the International Criminal Court). Furthermore, the ideological commitment to Pan-Africanism remains strong throughout the region.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to think in terms of “African foreign policy” is the fact that within both the AU and Regional Economic Communities (RECs), strong norms of equality have resulted in flat organizational structures. This has over the years earned regional hegemons like Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, and Egypt significant goodwill with their weaker peers. The idea here is that regional hegemons stand to benefit from leveraging African unity (at the continental and REC levels) in pursuit of their particular and collective interests. To that end, I propose below a number of pillars of African policy for the current age of multipolarity.