It is an incontestable fact that the world is undergoing majorgeo-strategic shifts. One of the interesting aspects of these shifts has been the anxiety that is faced by the major global players, which validates the saying that when the big neighbour sneezes, everyone is likely to catch a cold. Africa’s predisposition has been to stay as far away as possible, lest it catches a cold. However, there is only so much that this approach can achieve. In this competition of geo-strategy, the world is being redefined, which means that Africa itself is being redefined. In other words, it’s a radically significant process to which Africa cannot afford to stay indifferent.
Europe’s – and to a lesser extent America’s – anxiety has a lot to do with the reordering of the world. It is a world in which the West is used to being on top of the food chain and from the higher rung it lectures others on what the rules and values are or should be, and how to play by them. Therefore, it is not surprising that in the process of redefining the world – the rules and values that govern it – Europe has been very aggressive. It is as if it fears that it could become the next Africa and find itself at the bottom of the food chain. Why is this a problem for Europe?
Well, Europe understands that it has had an overwhelming influence in defining the image of Africa, especially over the past half-century; it knows full well the role it has played in misrepresenting Africans – as a hopeless people without agency; a people whose life chances are left to western benevolence. This was evident in the media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, as Europe battled with one of its worst health crises in decades. Even as the death toll worsened in its own backyard, Europe seemed to be preoccupied with the “mystery” of “Why aren’t Africans dying?” It was incomprehensible that Africans could perform better than Europeans in containing the effects of the pandemic. All kinds of “analysis”, including the advantage of poverty (a headline the BBC was forced to retract), were used to explain Africa(ns)’ reluctance to conform to the image Europe had shaped for them and confirm Europe’s predictions of high death rates in Africa.
Meanwhile, while African institutions had money, they couldn’t find vaccines to buy because western governments had hoarded them beyond what they needed for their people. Again, the western media narrative had to weaponize benevolence by showcasing the donation of vaccines that were near expiration or those that had already expired.
So, in the present context of the war in Ukraine, and ensuing food and energy crises, Europe understands that its vulnerability invites others to define it just as it has done for Africa. Similarly, it understands that the ability to define others is a weapon to strip them of their dignity. It is, therefore, not surprising that Europe is the most nervous in the ongoing process to reshape the world, as it fights to prevent itself from becoming another ‘Africa’. Those who are nervous are susceptible to becoming aggressive. So has Europe.
This time again, western coverage of the war in Ukraine is repeatedly predicting the worst for Africa, not Europe where the war is taking place. War is in Europe but the victims are in Africa. The images of the catastrophic consequences of the war are the “Starving” and “Hungry” Africans. Despite the greater effects of the war on Europe, famine-fearing Africans dominate western media coverage.
In the media war opposing the West and Russia around the food crisis in Europe, Europeans claimed that Putin was not allowing food to leave Ukraine while Putin claimed that sanctions and mined passages were the reason the food remained in storage. So, Africa’s top leaders, Macky Sall and Moussa Faki, were mobilized to pressure Putin who, according to the western media narrative, was threatening Africans with hunger. Russia was starving Africa. Sall apparently told Putin that Africa was “at the mercy” of the war in Ukraine – in other words, at Putin’s mercy. While, in fact, Europeans wanted to beg Putin for food, they couldn’t imagine sacrificing their dignity in the process. How could self-respecting people line up to beg Putin for food, they must have asked themselves.
At any rate, the sides reached an agreement, and shortly after, western media reported with a sigh of relief that, finally, the ships had lined up to “load up wheat for hungry Africa.” Yet, it was soon revealed that the wheat was distributed in Europe. Clearly, Africa had just been used to preserve the dignity of Europe from appearing to beg for food. The fact that Macky Sall and Mousa Faki could find themselves in a situation where they were used as pawns didn’t sit well with self-respecting Africans. Why was it important for Europeans to preserve their dignity but not Africans? It was a sense of déjà vu where African actors play an active role in the misrepresentation of their continent. But most importantly, one where Europe still finds that it is in its (geo-)strategic interest to strip Africans of dignity, especially when it feels vulnerable.
Indeed, the changing nature of the global geostrategic environment and the dangers it presents for European leaders suggest that Europe is likely to double down on this attitude. Since the end of the cold war, an effective multilateral system had restored a degree of confidence in the West and allowed its ideals to rule the roost. It wasn’t vulnerable and, therefore, had no reason to be anxious. However, the relative decline of the West vis a vis the rising powers in the East and Russia’s insistence that it is a major power to reckon with have brought new realities.
The strategic question for Africa is how she can exist in a fast-evolving world order that is keen on stripping the dignity of the indifferent. Clearly, the first place for Africa to assert itself is to resist attempts by those who insist on defining it. Those who are losing their sense of self cannot be in a position to define others. However, since western benevolence is a tool that assaults African agency, then it is essential that Africans identify some of the main challenges they face and mobilize material and intellectual resources to address them. For instance, it should be problematic that a continent of one billion people living on some of the most fertile and virgin lands find themselves in a situation of begging for food from anyone. However, it is reassuring that a number of initiatives have been established as anchors of African dignity. The creation of the African Center for Disease Control (CDC) is one of such initiatives. In the same vein, African institutions have responded to the refusal to access covid vaccines by establishing pharmacological manufacturing capabilities in South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, and Senegal. In November last year, the African Medicines Agency (AMA) came into force. Clearly, Africans have realized that the most pressing issue is not the cheapness of life-saving drugs but rather access to them, not to mention the safety and reliability of supply chains. There remain challenges related to technology, training of specialized personnel, and investments in research, but the journey has begun.
In a similar light, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement was established to ease intra-Africa trade and different institutions such as the Pan-African Payment and Settlement System (PAPSS) will facilitate intra-Africa trade without relying on the dollar. If Africans have learned anything from the current confrontation between the major global players and the subsequent removal of Russia from the swift financial system, then it ought to be evident that 1) our banks need to transact with each other without any intermediaries outside the continent and 2) trade within the continent should not rely on foreign currencies.
The African Peace Fund is yet another initiative that seeks to bring the resolution of conflicts in Africa under the agency of Africans. It is embarrassing that Mali and other countries in West Africa had to rely upon their former colonizer to help them deal with the terrorist threats in the Sahel region. SADC’s and Rwanda’s timely and remarkably successful interventions in Mozambique show that there is an alternative that puts into practice the ethos of African unity and solidarity.
For long, Pan-Africanism was said to be rhetorical. However, these initiatives of practical Pan-Africanism suggest that it is an ideology that can secure the dignity of Africans. The goal is to set up more such initiatives that address the key challenges facing ordinary Africans so that every aspect of the security of Africans is secured. The fact that initiatives for food security and Pan-African media have not been established suggests that there is still much work to do. But the train has left the station and those who seek to project their anxiety onto Africans will have to find other tricks.