The debate surrounding which foreign nation—be it the US, China or Russia—has the ‘upper hand’ in Africa has led to a competitive narrative that often overshadows the more significant question: what do African nations themselves want?
When we discuss African politics from a global perspective, the discussion often gets framed through the lens of external powers vying for influence. This approach, however prominent, fails to grasp the complexities and nuances of Africa’s own political dynamics.
Africans are increasingly vocal about the need for democracy, and grassroots movements across Africa evidence this sentiment. While these movements stem from deep-rooted aspirations for representation, they’re also shaped by historical intricacies, a legacy of post-colonial governance structures, and the balance of power within African societies.
The recent events in Niger are a case in point. While externally, it might appear as another power play between the military establishment and career politicians, diving deeper, it highlights the challenges of regional cooperation and multilateralism in state-building. The role of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) demonstrates a shift towards regional solutions, emphasizing that African politics aren’t merely a playground for external powers but a complex web of internal dynamics and regional collaborations.
While Africa presents itself as a vast geopolitical opportunity for major global players, the approach taken by the likes of the US has often been myopic. The continent is seen as a strategic chessboard, where the primary concern is counterbalancing rivals rather than building genuine partnerships. Such an approach underestimates the continent’s potential in terms of resources and its capacity for innovation, leadership, and regional integration.
The lingering effects of colonialism in Africa are undeniable. From carved-out borders to ingrained governance systems, Africa has had to navigate a challenging path. It is important to understand that today’s political dynamics, while influenced by colonial histories, are not merely reactions to it. African states and societies have proactively forged their destinies, albeit with varying degrees of success.
Ours is an era where foreign powers are looking toward Africa for resources and alliances and partnerships. The reasons are many: be it China’s infrastructure-driven approach, Russia’s strategic manoeuvres, or the US’s geopolitical considerations. However, the essence remains the same—a desire to court Africa. But a genuine understanding and respect for African aspirations and agency often gets missed in this rush.
While the current era mirrors the earlier ‘Scramble for Africa’, there’s a distinct difference. Today, African nations are more assertive, aware of their worth, and keen to chart their course. They’re not passive players but active stakeholders in the global order, leveraging their position to achieve the best outcomes for their people.
The overarching narrative must evolve. Africa isn’t just a backdrop for global powerplays. It’s a vibrant, diverse, complex continent with stories, challenges, and opportunities. A paradigm shift from seeing Africa as a mere geopolitical battleground to understanding its intricacies will enrich global discourse and pave the way for more equitable and meaningful partnerships. All of this starts with Africans taking charge of their affairs.
PERSISTING PATTERNS OF PERCEPTION
The legacy of colonialism continues to cast a long shadow, shaping how the West engages with Africa. Rather than seeing African nations as potential equal partners, there is a propensity in the West to view African countries as subjects to be managed or influenced, usually in opposition to perceived adversaries. This linear perception hides the multifaceted nature of African politics and its inherent agency.
During the Cold War, Africa was portrayed largely as a chessboard for Soviet and Western interests. This binary view reduced the continent’s multifaceted political dynamics to mere proxy conflicts, overshadowing indigenous movements and aspirations. This mode of perception made Africa seem less like a continent with its agency and more like a battleground for external ideologies.
Post-Cold War, the narrative around Africa evolved but remained externally centric, with China’s meteoric rise triggering debates around the US vs. China in Africa. As Beijing’s profile burgeoned, particularly through infrastructure projects and loans, many questioned if Africa was turning into the latest theatre of Great Power rivalry. However, such debates often sideline the crucial question: what do African nations themselves want?
In recent years, the spotlight has shifted to Russia’s perceived influence, especially in the Sahel. The Wagner Group, a private military company allegedly linked to the Kremlin, has reportedly been active in various parts of Africa. Their operations, combined with Russia’s more overtly political and economic engagements, have triggered alarms in Western capitals. But to pigeonhole Africa once again as a backdrop for external competition would be missing the mark.
The Niger coup, for instance, is not just a product of external influences. It should not be framed as ‘They need to help. The threat is urgent: the jihadists are at the gates,’ as other publications have done. Regional bodies like ECOWAS and influential African leaders are pivotal in navigating the crisis. This underscores the importance of intra-African diplomacy and Africa’s shifting geopolitical aspirations. While external actors may have stakes, African nations are increasingly asserting their autonomy in decision-making.
With its burgeoning youth population, vast resources, and strategic position, Africa is not just a geopolitical interest but an opportunity. For powers like the US, the real question isn’t just countering rivals but understanding and investing in Africa’s future. However, the precondition for such engagement is to view Africa beyond the simplistic lens of great power competition.
While rooted in historical geopolitics, the evolving patterns of perception about Africa need a paradigm shift. Africa is not a mere playground for external powers but a continent of 54 countries, each with its own intricacies. Recognizing and respecting this agency will pave the way for more genuine and equitable global partnerships.
MISPLACED FOCUS & ITS IMPLICATIONS
Unfortunately, the present focus on Africa is distilled down to a binary lens: Which external power is gaining ground? This perspective, while making for engaging geopolitical debates, tends to miss the wood for the trees, potentially overlooking Africa’s inherent value and the evolving aspirations of its peoples.
The debate surrounding which foreign nation—be it the US, China or Russia—has the ‘upper hand’ in Africa has led to a competitive narrative that often overshadows the more significant issues at play. This viewpoint is not just simplistic but potentially misleading. The intense focus on great-power dynamics tends to sideline grassroots movements, local governance improvements, and innovative economic strides taken by various African nations. This ‘power play’ narrative risks undermining African agency, reducing nations to mere pawns in a broader geopolitical game rather than acknowledging them as independent actors with their agendas.
Major events like the Niger coup provide insightful lenses into the complexities of African politics, the regional interplay of forces, and the aspirations of its citizens. Yet, global discourse often dilutes such events into mere footnotes in the broader narrative of external power dynamics.
In the sweeping narrative of global geopolitics, African countries often feature as backdrops to the larger tug-of-war between major powers. However, to paint Africa’s future using just these broad strokes is to miss the vibrant, intricate canvas entirely. Delving deeper, one realizes that the true heart of the continent’s trajectory lies in its historical currents, state-making processes, and the undeniable agency of its people.
A broad-brush approach to Africa’s history risks oversimplification. Every inch of the continent is imbued with complex legacies. The repercussions of colonial rule, including artificial borders and governance models, continue to manifest in modern politics, requiring African nations to navigate these remnants while carving out fresh identities. Indigenous kingdoms, trade networks, and pre-colonial state formations offer insights into the socio-political fabrics that predate colonial interference. These narratives, often overlooked, are crucial for understanding present-day realities.
Nation-building and governance in Africa are processes deeply rooted in the challenges and opportunities its history presents. While post-colonial states were often artificially created through colonial maps, the challenge lies in fostering a nation—a shared sense of identity and purpose among diverse ethnic and cultural groups. Entities like ECOWAS have begun playing pivotal roles in mediating conflicts, promoting integration, and setting governance standards, reflecting a shift towards regional solutions for regional challenges.
It is necessary to underscore that while the world watches and occasionally intervenes, the future of Africa is being primarily shaped by Africans. By 2030, young Africans are expected to constitute 42 per cent of global youth population and will play prominent roles in shaping political, economic, and cultural dialogues. Grassroots movements, non-governmental organizations, and local leaders are steering conversations on democracy, development, and human rights.
Beyond raw materials and resources, African nations are delving into tech innovations, services, and intra-continental trade, reshaping their economic futures. While international actors, from the US to China, certainly exert influence, their roles are supplementary. Their partnerships, investments, and interventions are parts of the puzzle, but not its core.
To truly comprehend the rhythms of Africa, it becomes imperative to shift focus from global powerplays and redirect attention to the continent’s intricate dance of history, nation-building, and people-led futures. Africa’s complex and multi-dimensional destiny is primarily in its own hands, shaped by its historical legacies, socio-political intricacies, and the vibrant aspirations of its people.
CASE-IN-POINT: NIGER POST-COUP EVENTS
At first glance, the political unrest in Niger appears as yet another testament to West Africa’s vulnerability. Yet, as with many stories from Africa, depth and nuance often escapes the standard international narrative.
When the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Abubakar, arrived in Niger on 19 August 2023, as an ECOWAS mediator, the gesture carried weight far beyond mere diplomatic procedure. The Sultan’s involvement underscores the profound cultural and historical ties binding West African nations. His status as a political figure and as a religious leader speaks volumes about the multifaceted nature of mediation in the region.
While Western powers often take up mediation roles, the Sultan’s visit stresses the capacity of regional leaders to solve their challenges. It embodies Africa for Africans, a principle that has been steadily gaining traction.
As the situation unfolds, Niger’s recent upheaval brings to the fore the essential dynamics of regional politics. The stability of one nation, especially in West Africa, can have cascading effects on its neighbours. Economic, security and cultural implications are not confined to borders.
Beyond the Sultan’s visit, ECOWAS has time and again emerged as a significant bloc working to preserve stability in the region. Its proactive stance on Niger reiterates the relevance of regional bodies in African politics.
Though things may change when you read this, this crossroad, if navigated astutely, can be transformative. The assertiveness shown by regional figures like the Sultan can be a template for future interventions.
By leading from the front, African leaders can redefine how the world perceives ‘African solutions to African problems’. Instead of over-reliance on traditional Western partnerships, there is scope for African nations to build more robust intra-continental alliances. These alliances can be grounded in shared histories, mutual respect, and common development goals.
As Niger charts its path forward, there is an opportunity for the African media and intellectuals to shape the narrative. The continent can control its story by prioritizing regional perspectives over external commentaries.
The unfolding events in Niger are a testament to the continent’s evolving political landscape. It is a vivid demonstration that while international partnerships matter, the solutions to Africa’s challenges lie primarily within its borders, leaders, and people. The winds of change are blowing, heralding a future where Africa takes charge of its destiny, drawing from its rich history, regional alliances, and unyielding hope for a brighter tomorrow.
As the global narrative around Africa evolves, an undeniable undercurrent emerges: the continent’s fate is and should be primarily in the hands of Africans. While seemingly elementary, this realization could reshape the dynamics between Africa and the rest of the world.
While significant, Africa’s major challenges can best be addressed when Africans lead the solutions. There’s a growing emphasis on ‘African solutions to African problems’, a mantra that underscores the importance of local knowledge, context, and ownership in resolving issues.
The call isn’t just for Africa to rise; it’s for the world to recognize and respect this ascent. A future where Africans take pride and agency in their affairs, where global partnerships are genuine and equitable isn’t just an idealistic dream. This is a tangible vision that could redefine how the world engages with Africa and how Africa engages with the world⎈
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