Home > Publications > Global politics > Out of Step: The West’s Waltz with Africa

Out of Step: The West’s Waltz with Africa

Africans after war in Ukraine
Alan Doss

Alan Doss

A former Under Secretary General of the United Nations and former President of the Kofi Annan Foundation. He chairs the Advisory Board of Oxford Global Society and is a founding member of Diplomats without Borders.

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

The views expressed are solely those of the author (s) and not of Oxford Global Society.

In March 2022, the United Nations General Assembly (GA) voted  to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, despite intense Western lobbying, nearly half of the African Union’s (AU) 54 members did not endorse the resolution.

Given Africa’s doleful experience of imperialism and colonialism, Western governments may have expected that African countries would be more sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause. Moreover, the AU has long up-held the principle that frontiers should be respected, fearing that tinkering with territorial boundaries might set off a cascade of irredentism across the Continent. Indeed, Kenya’s ambassador to the UN made that point forcefully to the UN Security Council, referring to the “”embers of dead empires.”

An analysis of the African vote on the 2022 resolution (and later vote in February 2023 on a comparable resolution) reveals a nuanced response to the Ukraine crisis, however. Twenty seven African states voted for the resolution, which included not only western aligned democracies but also a few non-democratic or hybrid regimes with military ties to the West. Only two states voted against; the rest abstained or were no-shows.

This mixed response from Africa states is not surprising. Africa is not a single country but a continent encompassing an eclectic array of historical, ethnic, religious, social, cultural, linguistic and economic topographies north and south of the Sahara. African interests are not monolithic.  

One reason suggested for the refusal of some states to condemn the Russian invasion was a nostalgic appreciation for the political and material support that the Soviet Union provided to the African liberation movements during the continent’s struggle against colonialism and apartheid. However, the African leaders of that era have mostly passed from the scene. Today it is the daily struggle to make a living rather than the past struggle for liberation that preoccupies most Africans.

A more plausible explanation lies in the role of Russia as a pragmatic purveyor of political, and security assistance free of the conditions and constraints that circumscribe Western aid.  

More generally, Africans charge the West of applying double standards, pointing to the unauthorized 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 NATO intervention in the Libya civil war, which forestalled an AU effort at mediation. The paucity of Western support for the fight against extremist armed groups operating in the Sahel is also contrasted with the lavish aid provided to Ukraine. The economic impact of the war has also caused domestic problems for African countries relying on imported grain from Russia and Ukraine.

Back to the Future?

The Ukraine crisis has divided the Security Council. But even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, concerns were voiced about the prospect of a new Cold War. Russia’s efforts to extend its influence in Africa, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, have played into this narrative.  

The prospect of a new version of the Cold War is deeply troubling. The original version proved profoundly harmful to Africa. Autocratic and shady regimes were rewarded with political patronage, funding and arms in return for loyalty to their Cold War patrons (not only in Africa). Conflicts in the Angola, Congo and Somalia (among other countries with fragile polities) descended into proxy wars fueled by big power sponsorship. Flagrant violations of human rights and corruption were ignored (or abetted) in favour of bolstering security and economic ties. That patronage benefitted rapacious and despotic rulers like Sese Sekou Mobutu and Mengistu Haile Miriam, who led their countries into economic and social ruin.

Encouragingly, some leaders from African democracies have already rejected this “back to the future” scenario of Cold War competition.

Macky Sall, President of Senegal was clear in his view of the dangers. He told the U.N. General Assembly in September 2022 that “Africa has suffered enough from the burden of history,” and that “It does not want to be the breeding ground of a new Cold War.”

Ghanaian President Nana Akufo Addo recently remarked to visiting US Vice President Kamala Harris that “the US may have an obsession of China’s activities in Africa, but Ghana doesn’t and it just wants to engage with the world including China and the US.”

Redefining relationships

Even if a new Cold War is unlikely, the West still needs to review and refresh its engagement with Africa to reflect the pivotal shifts underway in the international order.

So what tenets should guide the West’s future relationship with Africa? And what policies of the past should be eschewed or rectified?

First and foremost, the West should not judge and aid African governments based solely on their willingness to advance western political and economic interests.

During the Trump administration, the US embraced a highly competitive approach to Africa. John Bolton, then US National Security Adviser, openly stated that “every decision we make, every policy we pursue, and every dollar of aid we spend will further U.S. priorities in the region.” In the same statement, he stated, “we will make certain that ALL aid to the region—whether for security, humanitarian, or development needs—advances these U.S. interests.”

Fortunately, the Biden administration has taken a different tack. Its strategy in Africa, announced last year by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, presents African countries as “valued partners, not pawns in a global rivalry.”

Europe too emphasizes partnerships as evidenced in the Joint Vision for 2030 agreed at the 6th European Union-African Union Summit in 2022. Nevertheless, Pascal Lamy, the former EU commissioner cautioned that “the colonial shadow still marks approaches and viewpoints on both sides, trapping dynamics and models of development cooperation in the past.” Perhaps a Europe-Africa truth and reconciliation process is needed to address the injustices of the past.

French president Emmanuel Macron also made a pitch for a fresh approach as he set off on a recent visit to Africa. He spoke of “modesty and listening” based on a policy of “profound humility.” That is good counsel, which I hope he and other Western leaders will heed.

I say that because when I was working for the UN in Africa, I often met visiting Western ministers and senior officials. Not all, but quite a few would jet in for a day or two to deliver their lofty prescriptions only to be replaced a few months later by new ministers with a new set of messages and priorities. There was a constant churn of international interlocutors and policy pronouncements. Partnerships were unidirectional rather than consensual.

Debt and dependency

That point leads me to a second admonition: Western leaders (and their economists) should regularly question the advice that they so liberally dispense to African leaders.

I vividly recall the structural adjustment programmes imposed by the World Bank and the IMF (and the countries that dominate those institutions) on cash strapped African governments unable to service their debts.  Yes, debt to western countries and the multilateral financial institutions was significantly reduced, but the facile formula of open markets allied to budgetary cutbacks did not produce an East Asian style economic miracle. Instead, local manufacturing of products like textiles were squashed by cheap imports from Asia. The budget cuts fell disproportionately on public health and education and the poorer segments of society.

Right now Africa is facing another debt crisis. Ghana and Zambia have already defaulted; other countries will likely follow. The current crisis is due in good measure to externalities beyond African control, notably the economic impact of the COVID, the Ukraine crisis and the sharp rise in interest rates, exacerbated by some imprudent borrowing. However, Africa’s debt profile has shifted since the debt crisis of two decades ago; the amount of government debt held by private sector creditors and bond holders has jumped significantly. Western states will need to work closely with African governments, the multilateral financial institutions and private debt holders to ensure that this time around the debt crisis does not again penalize the poorest.

In doing so, the West will have to partner with China, which has become Sub-Sahara Africa’s largest creditor, and must therefore be an integral part of any measures to address the crisis.

Trade not only Aid

Even though China is Africa’s largest bilateral financier, aid to Sub-Sahara Africa from the OECD countries increased over the last two decades from US$14.29 billion in 2001 to $62.2 billion in 2021.

But what difference has aid made to the lives and livelihoods of Africans?

Western donors genuflect to the notion of “national ownership” in aid management. In reality, however, aid policies are largely defined by the donor and not the beneficiary country. As Stephen Browne points out in his trenchant and well informed critique of aid (not only western aid), “there is no aid without influence, whether the desire to assist countries is a prime motivation or only an incidental one.” Greg Mills of the Brenthurst Foundation in South Africa also questions the effectiveness of aid to Africa, pointing out that “donors have spent $1,111 per person over 30 years to lift the incomes of Africans by $352.”

I am not proposing that western aid should be discontinued; it has made a valued difference, especially in the social sectors and in humanitarian emergencies. However, the way aid programmes are planned and delivered needs an urgent reset. Donors – governments, multilateral organisations, and private philanthropies – usually demand tight controls to prevent corruption and ensure that the aid is used as intended. However, these strictures signal that they do not truly trust national governments to manage effectively and honestly the aid they provide despite the rhetoric about partnership.

Of course, publicly-funded donors are accountable to their taxpayers and therefore have a responsibility to ensure that their money is well spent. Aid is always very vulnerable to criticism at home, especially when budgets are tight.

Nevertheless, thousands of projects funded by a multitude of aid agencies, each with their own procedural exigencies do not advance national accountability in Africa (or elsewhere for that matter). The poorest countries with the greatest needs struggle to manage this complexity, which drains rather than builds national capacities. Budget support for key sectors like health and education (or direct cash grants to poor communities) would be a more efficient way to provide aid. That does not mean a blank check. If audits and assessments reveal that there is misuse, diversion or waste, then the support would be promptly terminated.

Reforms to aid practices could improve its effectiveness but as Mills and Browne (and others) argue, aid will not end extreme poverty in Sub Sahara Africa, which even before Covid was almost nine times the average for the rest of the world.

Western countries should champion policies that encourage responsible investment (national as well as foreign) and trade in order to promote the economic growth and human development that will reduce poverty. At the moment, however, foreign direct investment (FDI) to Africa while increasing only represents 5.2% of global FDI. Moreover, a large part of this FDI goes to the oil and gas sector and extractives (often benefitting influential local elites), rather than into sectors that can generate mass employment and higher incomes.

Importantly, in 2022, under the auspices of the African Union, a continental free trade agreement was adopted. Increasing trade within the Continent, especially in food products, will stimulate growth and employment. Easing African access to Western markets to complement that ground breaking initiative would also help Africa to get on a faster growth path.

Perceptions count

Finally, for the West to become a genuine and not only a rhetorical partner, Western perceptions of Africa must change.

Africans often feel that the West treats them condescendingly. Much of western media reporting on Africa conveys an impression that the continent is terminally afflicted by war and disease. Well-meaning humanitarian organisations that use images of desperate refugees and hungry children for fundraising inadvertently reinforce that image.

Migration from Africa has added to the perception of a continent in disarray. Africans drowning in the Mediterranean as they try to reach Europe draws some public sympathy but that does not translate into effective action from European governments because, politically, migration is radio-active.

Actually, most African refugees do not get on boats heading towards Europe; they shelter in neighbouring countries. Africa accounts for only 14 percent of the global migrant population. Regrettably, the distinction between refugees fleeing violence and persecution and migrants looking for economic opportunities is ill-understood by the general public in the West. Western governments must urgently find a better and more humane way to manage African migration and refugee flows; deportations may hinder but will not stop the flow.

I not am saying, of course, that negative news should be censored or avoided. There are self-inflicted wars in Africa (Sudan is a current example). All governments (including those in the West) should be called out for egregious failures of governance and disrespect for human rights. Indeed, independent opinion surveys from organisations like Afrobarometer show that Africans themselves want those failures to be exposed and rectified.

Nevertheless, progress in Africa, such as the huge reduction in infant mortality, the rise in school enrolment and increase in life expectancy, deserve recognition. There is still a way to go (especially in terms of gender parity) before Africa ends extreme poverty but the continent Africa should not be written off as a “basket case” (as Henry Kissinger once infamously labelled the newly independent Bangladesh).

Africa, Democracy and the Changing International Order

In the decades following the end of the Cold War many African countries, encouraged by western governments, embraced the notion of democracy. Now this trend has fallen off with the Mo Ibrahim Foundation reporting that a “decade of governance progress [is] threatened by worsening security, democratic backsliding, and COVID-19”. Several military coups in West Africa confirm that democracy is under pressure in that sub-region, although to their credit the AU and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have refused to recognize them. Ironically, those coups have been led by military officers trained in the West.

Opinion polling shows, however, that Africans have not renounced their attachment to democracy. But Africans (youth in particular) have been disappointed by the inability of democratically elected leaders to achieve progress with jobs and better living standards; democracy has not delivered. And in countries shattered by conflict, people are frustrated by their governments’ inability to curb or end the violence despite military interventions from the West (and the UN).

Forward to the Future

Over the 60 years since the majority of African countries gained independence, we have witnessed profound changes in the global political, economic and social landscape. Change continues but what role will Africa play in the reconfiguration of global power and prosperity?

By 2050, Africa will likely have a population close on two and half billion people, which means that a quarter of humanity will be living in Africa. So, all of the grand challenges for the planet’s future, including climate change, will need Africa’s commitment and cooperation.

Africa rightly demands and deserves a prominent place in the international order. Ideally, Africa would have an enhanced presence in the Security Council. However, that’s not an immediate prospect given the divergence of views on reform.

But there are other ways in which the West can ensure that Africa’s voice is heard and heeded in the international arena.

First, Western governments could press for adjustments to Security Council rules of procedure to give more weight to the views and voices of the African non-permanent members on issues of direct concern to the Continent; the use of the veto could be restricted.

Second, if action concerning Africa is stymied in the UN Security Council by permanent members, Western governments should support alternative approaches via the General Assembly, where Africa has more than a quarter of the votes.

Third, Western countries can press for greater African representation and more senior positions in groups such as the G20 and multilateral institutions like the UN and Bretton Woods Institutions.

Fourth, Western government must actively support Africa’s demands for “climate justice”. The West cannot ask Africa to put on hold its efforts to harness its fossil fuels while it slow walks the path to a greener future. 

Finally, the West should not fixate on the African ambitions of Russia and China alone. There are other state actors like Türkiye and the Gulf States that are pursuing influence in Africa, and not necessarily in alignment with Western agendas.

Russian security support, especially in the Sahel, relies largely on the Wagner group and the supply of arms, all paid for with economic concessions. However, mercenary interventions in Africa have usually not ended well and I doubt that Wagner will have greater success.

China is facing a rash of defaults on its loans and is reducing its financial commitments to Africa. Western donors cannot replace that funding, but they should invest in African infrastructure, especially renewable energy, and social progress, using more flexible procedures that speed up the approval and implementation of major programmes.

African governments will have to up their game to take advantage of the political and economic opportunities that renewed interest in the Continent may offer. To do so, they will have to recognize and deal with domestic threats such as jihadi Salafi insurgency, which has erupted in countries where governance has faltered or failed. The refusal of leaders to honour term limits, rigged elections and ethnic exclusion have all precipitated violence. The West would be short-sighted if it quietly accepts such abuses in the name of stability. Repression should not be confused with stability.

Today, Africa is the most youthful society on Earth with the highest rates of population growth in the world.  The Continent is urbanizing rapidly. And although it remains well below global averages, internet and social media use in Africa is rising quickly, especially among the young.

Youthful populations can be blessing or a bane. They can provide a boost for the economic growth that Africa needs to reduce mass poverty. But deprived of opportunity, they are a danger. During my decade working in UN peace operations in Africa, I encountered an array of rebel groups, disaffected soldiers, and ethnic militia, mainly comprised of young people with few opportunities for a better life.

This is where the West should focus its attention, connecting to young people through civil society and the digital dimension. The West must stay in step with this generation and recognize and support their ambitions, which will determine not only Africa’s prospects but also our common future.