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Dear NATO: Russia did not create Pan-Africanism!

Pan-Africanism as a political ideology isn’t some kind of Russian influence operation; it actually predates even the Russian Revolution

 “A critical US partner in northwest Africa is turning toward Russia amid warnings from the top US commander in the continent that the Russians are trying to “take over” the entire Sahel region of Africa.” So began one of several articles and think pieces decrying the Nigerien government’s recent decision to eject the U.S. military from the country. Through the course of the ensuing 1,200-word treatise published on CNN, not a single paragraph, sentence or phrase bothered to so much as acknowledge the material fact that a sovereign state took a foreign policy decision it was entitled to take – much less examine what the reason for that decision might have been.

The entire message that the article’s American writers deemed worthy of communicating to their audience was that the Sahelian region of Africa is exclusively a staging point for another installment in the decades-old Tom-and-Jerry routine between Uncle Sam and Count Vlad. According to this narrative, the major foreign policy shifts taking place in Africa today boil down to Russia besting the U.S. and its NATO allies, as both 800-pound gorillas push 1.2 billion human-shaped African chess pieces across the planetary geopolitical board game between both warring formations of Countries That Actually Matter.

Reading the Western narrative, such as in the article mentioned above, one would think that there is a Cuban Missile Crisis-style confrontation taking place between the U.S. and Russia regarding Africa, with our various countries serving as little more than an aesthetic backdrop to the unfolding 21st Century Cold War. Only after reading articles like this a couple of times does one realise that in the 1,200 words invoking the spectre of Russians “taking over” a country in the Sahel, not a single mention is made of the fact that there is no evidence of any Russian military presence in Niger.

The actual story is a lot more prosaic

When one distills the hysteria down to its essence, it comes down to two things – that the U.S. appears to be losing military influence in the Sahel, and that America’s reliable ally, France, is rapidly losing the economic, political, military and cultural stranglehold that it once had on 14 African countries who were tied up in the so-called Francafrique arrangement. The only possible reason these two things could ever happen simultaneously, the Western reasoning goes, is that there is an unseen hand guiding events in this direction.

“What other reason could there be for such events? Could it be Africans exercising their sovereignty to make foreign policy decisions in line with their own interests and aspirations? Definitely not, because who ever heard of such a fanciful notion? No, it definitely has to be Russia and China, but mostly Russia. Actually, only Russia. Yes, it must be Russia. Vladimir Putin is the one behind this.”

In reality, after decades of being treated as nothing more than a slightly irritating organic speed bump between the global economy and natural resources, Africa’s population has changed dramatically. First of all, a new generation of Millennials and Zoomers has largely replaced the post-independence generation across the continent. Africa’s median age currently sits at 19, which by quite some distance is the youngest population on the planet. On its own, this is a game-changer that significantly disrupts whatever external perception exists of Africa’s status quo.

These hundreds of millions of teenagers and young adults living in the information age in Niamey, Lusaka, Dakar, Goma and Dodoma have access to cheap high-speed internet and $60 Android smartphones, which have given them the same access to information and expectations as their contemporaries in Bologna, Saskatchewan, Marseille and Stavanger. If the post-independence generation of Africans once struggled with global information asymmetry, which throttled their expectations and made them more likely to accept an externally-imposed status quo, that situation is emphatically not the case with their successors.

Africans making political decisions in line with their own African interests and aspirations has traditionally been viewed as “radical” and a sign of Communist involvement by the wise old men in Paris and Washington, D.C. They now need to understand that the only mystery is that these geopolitical shifts even took this long to happen.

A Nigerien adult born in 2005 who has had access to the accumulated knowledge of humanity via a smartphone all his life does not need a Russian to tell him that something is fundamentally wrong with Francafrique. He can see that Niger has uranium which it has exported cheaply for decades while struggling with electricity, and France has no uranium but excess nuclear power while importing uranium from Niger for pennies over the same period. It does not take Vladimir Putin to tell him that the economic relationship between Niger and France is at best, one-sided, if not outright parasitic.

A Malian born in 1999 has grown up to see her country in one “security partnership” or another with NATO member states, and yet insecurity and terrorism have only become progressively worse and more widespread across the country over that same period. She does not need a Russian soothsayer to tell her that whoever is not part of the solution must, in fact, be part of the problem. The idea that Africans can only reach such conclusions and act on them if long-nosed Vlad whispers it into their ears is a racist, tiresome trope in Western discourse. It can easily be recognised as the same school of thought that led P.W. Botha, an Apartheid-era prime minister in South Africa, to famously claim that “Most Blacks are happy (under Apartheid) except those who have had other ideas pushed into their ears.”

Across the continent, there is a perfect storm of extremely youthful age demographics and widespread access to cheap information and communication, which has created an African paradigm that does not accept that it is Africa’s place to be eternally poor or to play political vassalage to anyone. Consequently, Pan-Africanism has gained new wind as the only political and economic ideology that offers any sort of sustainable way forward, which is the context of recent geopolitical events.

For that matter, Pan-Africanism as a political ideology isn’t some kind of Russian influence operation; it actually predates even the Russian Revolution. South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) and Jamaica’s United Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA), both of which spawned from Pan-African ethos, were founded in 1912 and 1914 respectively. The Russian Revolution, which was the background for all that is recognisable about the post-WW2 Russian state, took place in 1917. The basic desire for freedom, self-determination and economic prosperity is and has always been ever-present in Africa, as it is in any other human society.

African freedom and sovereignty are not a Russian creation.

Old Habits Die Hard

Of course, none of this pareidolia and disingenuousness is anything new, as anyone who has followed post-WW2 NATO behaviour would know. In the 70 years since massive, unaccountable, secret bureaucracies became the norm across the alliance, the use of Russia as an all-in-one, catch-all bogeyman has led to some very interesting scenarios, even at home. Sometimes, it would be the U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy or FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover who would ruin dozens of lives by accusing them – with zero evidence – of being Communists during the so-called “Red Scare” era. At other times, intelligence and law enforcement agencies in the NATO alliance would spend decades and hundreds of millions of dollars on cartoonishly over-the-top spying operations targeting their own citizens on the hilariously improbable off-chance that they might be working with Russia.

In 2011, it emerged that London’s Metropolitan Police had instructed undercover officers to infiltrate environmental protest groups and establish intimate relationships with key female figures in these groups so as to find out who was behind them. Some of these unfortunate women even ended up having children for their “husbands” – a number of whom turned out to be already married men. If NATO member states are prepared to illegally spy on and traumatise their own citizens to such an extent in an effort to establish the existence of a (nonexistent) material link to Russia, then it is no surprise that the foreign media narratives promoted by these states are similarly paranoid, reductive and blinkered.

The real issue behind this fundamentally flawed way of viewing the world is not the existence of Russia, China, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, or any of the numerous bogeymen that the NATO empire has invoked to similar effect over the past 70 years. The problem, in fact, lies within NATO itself – specifically within its sprawling, cavernous military-industrial complex that answers to no one. When your biggest – some would say your only – tool is a loaded gun, you will eventually find reasons to fire it regularly. And what better excuse is there for the Twitchy American trigger finger to squeeze than to invoke whatever 21st-century iteration of the Red Scare that happens to exist?

A couple of decades ago, this gun found reasons to unload itself on Afghanistan, then Iraq – despite the absence of a shred of evidence suggesting that either military adventure should have ever happened. The ensuing mess ended up becoming a 20-year financial bonanza for the same forces now attempting to use the same tactics to manufacture a nonexistent pretext for hostile military engagement in Africa. This time around, the groundwork for NATO military action or violent regime change in and around the Sahel is being constructed on the fatuous idea that Francafrique is falling apart because Putin is puppeting the Sahel.

Africans with a measure of influence in setting continental agenda or shaping popular discourse must, as a matter of personal survival, strenuously resist any effort to reduce political events and shifts across the continent to the profoundly misleading “Putin did it” narrative. In a world where 1.2 billion Africans are seen as little more than organic traffic cones in a world controlled by the tiny group of Countries That Actually Matter, we owe it to ourselves to avoid enabling or aligning with any narrative that seeks to deny us our agency.

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