A New Love for Africa?

Does Harper’s visit to Senegal and the DRC signal an end to Canada’s disengagement with Africa?

By: /
15 October, 2012
By: Edward Akuffo

Last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Senegal on his way to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where he attended La Francophonie Summit. For observers of Canada-Africa relations, this may have raised hopes of a revival of Canada’s engagement in Africa, which has undergone a period of stagnation under the Conservative government. Harper followed Canadian foreign-policy tradition as he used his visit to speak against human-rights abuses, especially sexual violence in the DRC. Moreover, he announced a new aid package for Senegal as a “reward” for undergoing successful presidential elections. The prime minister fell short, however, of making a promise on Canada’s readiness to commit more resources to Africa’s peace and security efforts.

Development assistance and peacekeeping are the central pillars of Canada’s internationalism. These have contributed to the construction of a moral identity for Canada in Africa that stands in contrast to the colonial baggage of countries such as Britain and France, and the belligerent posture of the United States and the Soviet Union (Russia) during and after the Cold War. Drawing on its moral identity, Canada, for the most part, has pursued human-rights-oriented foreign-policy goals such as poverty alleviation and human security in African states. These goals are not without challenges. However, Canada’s moral identity was sustained by the Liberal government under prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.

Harper’s Africa policy appears in sharp contrast to that of the Liberal government, which forged closer co-operation with African states and regional institutions on human-security issues, and increased aid to the continent, notably at the beginning of 2000, continuing this policy until the government was defeated in the 2006 elections. The Liberal government’s signature support for the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), a “made-in-Africa” policy to promote democracy and good governance, and market liberalization to integrate Africa into the global economy, as well as support for the African Union’s (AU) peace and security efforts (particularly in Darfur) put Africa high on Canada’s international co-operation agenda. This has changed under the Harper government, which has concentrated Canadian aid on addressing child-mortality and maternal-health issues. The government has been criticized, especially by Canadian non-governmental organizations, for not doing much to increase aid levels in other areas, and for concentrating on promoting accountability for Canadian aid. Yet, keen observers would agree that despite the contrast between the Liberal and Conservative governments’ policies, Africa has never been a foreign-policy priority for Canadian governments.

At a meeting with African diplomats on Jan. 20, 2009, then-minister of foreign affairs Lawrence Cannon said that the Conservative government’s priorities lay in Afghanistan, emerging economies, and Latin America. Following this meeting, the government closed down embassies in countries including Malawi and Cape Town, in South Africa. Moreover, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has cut eight African states from its list of countries of focus, including Rwanda, which is still recovering from the 1994 genocide. Although Harper has maintained Canada’s commitments made under the Liberal government to end impunity for war crimes and bring peace and security in Darfur, his government has not done much to improve upon Canada’s relationship with the African Union’s security efforts. These are among the reasons Canada could not count on African votes in its failed bid to secure a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council in 2010.

Is it a newfound love for Africa that inspired Harper’s recent visits? To be sure, he was in Uganda in 2007 for the Commonwealth Summit, and was in Morocco in January 2011 to negotiate for trade and investment deals for Canadian businesses. While Harper’s visit to Morocco was not necessitated by a summit, his recent visits to Uganda, Senegal, and the DRC were driven by Canada’s obligations to the Commonwealth and la Francophonie. Therefore, it appears that Harper’s presence in Africa is not indicative of a substantive change in policy towards the continent – rather, it is an afterthought for a region in which Canada’s diplomatic influence is dwindling.

Nevertheless, taking into consideration that Canadian foreign policy in Africa has been prime minister-driven since Lester B. Pearson, Harper’s visits should be greeted as a sign of some commitment to engagement. Yet, there is nothing new in the Conservative government’s overall policy when one takes a long view of Canada’s approach to Africa. Since Lester B. Pearson, Canada’s engagement with Africa has cycled through periods of increasing momentum, stagnation, and revival.

But the need for Canada to (re)engage Africa seriously, particularly at the regional level, has never been as important, as the continent is now clearly on the foreign-policy radars of the United States, Japan, the European Union, and the BRIC countries. To these states, Africa appears to have (re)gained geopolitical and geo-economic significance in the 21st century. According to the International Monetary Fund, Africa’s economy is expected to grow above five per cent in 2012 and 2013, despite the negative effects of the global recession. As the China Daily reports, Africa is likely to become China’s largest trade partner in three to five years. All indications are that the continent is on the path to rapid economic development, despite the security challenges it faces.

What is Canada doing about this?

On the economic front, there is a need to go beyond development assistance of the kind that Harper announced on his visit to Senegal. While not denying the high poverty levels in parts of Africa, and the continuous relevance of development instruments such as food aid, Canada needs to better appreciate Africa’s economic potential, and increase its trade and investment links on the continent accordingly. Canada has been called the mining superpower in Africa in view of Canadian mining investments in more than 30 African countries. Canada should build on this reputation and strengthen its links with NEPAD to expand and diversify its investment profile in Africa. Canadian investments could, and should, be made in other sectors of Africa’s economy, including agriculture and manufacturing. More importantly, Canada would make a real difference in Africa’s development if it were to show more commitment to corporate social responsibility and the promotion of human rights and job security for Africans – areas in which the commitment of Chinese investors is seriously deficient. This would help sustain Canada’s moral identity on the continent.

On security, Canada needs to rethink its approach to Africa. Canada’s participation in the NATO air strikes that led to the demise of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and his regime does not appear to have been driven by an innovative policy on Africa. Canada appears to have chosen to bandwagon with the international community to enforce Security Council Resolution 1973 of March 2011 to protect civilians in Libya. The unpopularity of the NATO airstrikes among African states should send a signal to Ottawa that the African Union is looking for true partnerships with the international community to resolve conflicts in the region. Therefore, what Harper needs is improvement on the Liberal government’s commitment to help support the African Peace and Security Architecture of the AU and the standby force it maintains to intervene in Africa’s hotspots.

Therefore, Canada should support the Oct. 12, 2012, UN Security Council resolution asking the AU (in co-ordination with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)) to present a military plan in 45 days requesting authorization for joint AU-ECOWAS intervention in northern Mali, which is being controlled by Islamist extremists and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Canada’s support for the AU-ECOWAS plan would be strategic in the fight against terrorism in Africa as a whole, and help to promote human rights in Mali, specifically. As well, it would be a symbolic gesture of thanks to Mali, which played a crucial role, with Burkina Faso, to secure the release of the celebrated Canadian diplomat, Robert Fowler, and his assistant, Louis Guay, who were kidnapped by AQIM in Niger in 2008. More importantly, support for an African-led intervention in Mali could foster a more consistent and long-term security co-operation effort between Canada and the AU.

To be sure, neither the Conservative nor the Liberal party has a record of consistency when it comes to Canada’s Africa policy. The Chrétien government, against whose record Harper’s is typically compared, disengaged with Africa in the mid-1990s in the name of balancing the budget, only to re-engage the region beginning in the late 1990s. Harper’s policy, and that of past governments, suggests that Canada’s stop-start engagement with Africa goes beyond party lines or ideology. It is deeply rooted in the way Canada has perceived Africa as only a target for aid, and not of strategic or economic importance.

Given this historically narrow perspective, significant change would result if Canada were to reimagine Africa, and begin, on a consistent basis, to commit more resources to boosting economic and security co-operation. It might also be strategic for Canada to propose the creation of a permanent institution for dialogue, such as regular summits with African leaders at the regional level, to boost its image and influence on the African continent. This would be a smart move in light of the fact that other powers – the European Union and China, for example – have already put in place such structures to engage African leaders.

There is more in Africa than the challenges of poverty and violent conflict that have encouraged a Canadian policy that focuses on aid and peacekeeping activities. Perhaps, if Harper’s government were to consider the continent through a new lens, Canada would see the expanding opportunities in the region. Let us hope that Harper’s visits mark the beginning of an improved Africa policy that takes into consideration Canada’s moral identity on the continent, and the geopolitical and geo-economic importance of Africa in the 21st century.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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