International relations academic, Folashadé Soulé-Kohndou, thinks African governments are starting to negotiate better terms with more powerful countries: ‘African governments are increasingly better at avoiding the zero-sum trap (especially when dealing with US-China rivalry) and they are adopting measures that strategically play rivals against each other to get better deals.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Growing up in Benin Republic, I mostly read books from francophone African authors. My father who was a journalist travelled a lot across the continent and always brought back at least one book for us to read. Francophone African literature classics from Jean Pliya, Olympe Bhêly Quenum, Ferdinand Oyono and Tidiane Dem amongst others were all part of my upbringing.
Several of these authors’ books were also part of the Beninese school curricula which meant that I had the opportunity to read and analyse them at school as well. Overall, these books provided me with a first window into African lives and traditions before and after independence, but also gender and class dynamics within African societies. I also read French classics and particularly enjoyed Guy de Maupassant’s novels.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
Most things I read and disagree with are related to some publications in my research area i.e., Africa’s relations with rising powers, especially China. The debates and writings tend sometimes to be very binary without much nuance.
Often, the continent and its actors are presented either as passive or victims without much agency. It reinforces the trope of a continent that is powerless and needs assistance to define the partnerships that work best for them.
What’s the last thing you read that challenged your mind about something?
Gaël Faye’s Petit Pays recounts the author’s life as a young boy witnessing the early start of hatred and violence among Tutsi gangs and Hutu militias at the verge of the civil war in Burundi and how this progressively became a new norm in his family and friends’ circles.
The book was very mind-challenging to me especially as it is written from the perspective of a young boy and in his own words. It sheds light on the progressive banalization of violence and its disastrous psychological effects.
The debates and writings [on Africa’s relations with rising powers] tend sometimes to be very binary without much nuance.
What makes a text powerful: the subject or how it’s written?
I would say it’s a good and balanced combination of both. The presentation of the subject and the narration allows the reader to get ‘into the skin’ of the subject while the way the text is written strengthens the way the readers connect to the subject and the story.
What’s the greatest book you’ve read exploring Africa-China relations?
New Directions in Africa-China Studies by Chris Alden and Daniel Large is really worth reading. It brings together a combination of African, Chinese and Western scholars exploring the evolution of Africa-China studies and offers a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary and authoritative contribution to Africa–China studies.
Its diverse chapters explore research themes and debates, such as agency, media, race, identity, development or security, using a variety of case studies from Benin, Kenya and Tanzania, to Angola, Mozambique and Mauritius.
In what ways can African countries negotiate from a position of strength with countries like China?
African governments can learn from best practices in this area. The best deals depend on four key conditions: avoiding fragmented negotiation by bringing together the right stakeholders to the negotiation table; slow down negotiations when needed; empower the negotiators by bringing the right internal and external pool of expertise; and increase knowledge on rising partners like China by investing in more research hubs within African universities. Moreover, specific measures are required: firstly, the ‘take-it-all’ mentality of accepting short term, opportunistic offers should be avoided.
Loans, grants and donations should fit African countries’ national development plans and translate into projects that will directly affect people’s living standards.
And what’s one thing that’s improving in the way Africa engages with China and the wider world?
Most African countries are aware that the continent is facing rising interest from new and traditional partners. This isn’t a China versus US or China versus the West equation anymore. Analyses of geopolitical competition generally focus on how China and Russia are challenging traditional US and European partners in Africa without considering the continent’s increasing engagement with emerging economies such as India, Turkey and the EAU.
African governments are increasingly better at avoiding the zero-sum trap (especially when dealing with US-China rivalry) and they are adopting measures that strategically play rivals against each other to get better deals.
The ‘take-it-all’ mentality of accepting short term, opportunistic offers should be avoided. Loans, grants and donations should fit African countries’ national development plans.
You’re a guest lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Oxford. What’s a book/text everyone should read before taking your class?
I teach Africa’s international relations from the perspective of African actors i.e., how African state and non-state actors behave, organize and deal with international processes manage power dynamics. The psycho-sociological concept of agency is key in my teachings.
The text ‘What is Agency?’ by Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische is compulsory reading before taking my class as the authors disaggregate agency and demonstrate how agents socially engage within structures which can lead to social change even in an incremental way.
And what three books/texts are your students currently reading?
Navigating Beyond the Eurofetishist Frontier of Critical IR Theory by Alina Sayed and John M Hobson
African Agency in International Politics by William Brown and Sophie Harman
China-Africa and an Economic Transformation by Arkebe Oqubay and Justin Yifu Lin
As an African woman in academia, what’s something you wish people paid more attention to?
The stark underrepresentation of African women in academia.
You’re from Benin Republic and have a Yoruba first name. What’s your story and how often do you share this story?
My family’s lineage is Yoruba and originates from Iseyin (Oyo State, Nigeria) and Ajase (Yoruba name of Porto-Novo in Benin Republic). I have family living in both countries today. Yoruba people are present in Nigeria but also in Benin Republic, Togo and Ghana. This is linked to the history of the Yoruba kingdom.
I still meet some people in Nigeria who are not aware that there are Yoruba people outside of Nigeria and who are surprised to hear that one can be francophone and speak Yoruba. In those cases, I share the story about my Yoruba lineage.
And how do you feel about African borders?
The story of African borders is a tumultuous one since the border split following the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference and that split still has repercussions on border disputes today. In some regions like West Africa, the dynamics weren’t those of ‘borders’ but rather of ‘spaces’, especially for some nomadic groups like the Peuls (French for Fulani) who circulate in a more horizontal way across the current vertical borders, especially in the coastal West African countries.
This said, African people have inherited these borders and are managing disputes. But Africans are also increasing intra-regional trade and initiatives like the African Continental Free Trade Area have now become a priority.
Yoruba people are present in Nigeria but also in Benin Republic, Togo and Ghana. This is linked to the history of the Yoruba kingdom.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Writing is a journey.
In terms of practical tips, the best advice I’ve received is to start writing in the morning when the mind is still fresh. Another meaningful advice I have received is to use one’s frustration as a trigger for writing and making it right by telling another story.
Most of my notable writings on Africa’s external relations and negotiations with new strategic partners come from this frustration and willingness to debunk some of the myths and clichés.
And what’s a hack for reading/writing academic texts?
Limit colloquialisms and avoid too much jargon. Academic texts should be accessible to larger audiences.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days? (Please include the names of articles and books, if possible)
The story of African borders is a tumultuous one since the border split following the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference…
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on several research projects but one that I am particularly excited about is a report that I am putting together with the CORA network—which is a Dakar-based network of African academics and thinkers from the continent and the diaspora—on how best to shape the future of Africa-China relations.
The report will bring together next generation of African scholars investigating Africa-China dynamics in technology, mining, building research networks, and business.
In a field where African authors are still underrepresented this project will contribute to addressing this imbalance.
Question from Grieve Chelwa: If you had a yearlong all-expense-paid fellowship and were given the chance to write a book about African history, how would you write it?
It would be a book on the history of Africa’s International relations. I would write it by putting a focus on African leading figures (women and men) before, during and after the independence years, their role, action and impact on the conduct of Africa’s international relations.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
If your life was a book, what would the title be?⎈
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