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Africa’s New Reality

The economic power of African states is rapidly growing. Canadian engagement with the continent should grow with it argues Edward Akuffo.

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19 November, 2013
By: Edward Akuffo

David Hornsby’s recent article, “Turning Perceptions into Reality: Canada in Africa”, reinvigorates an old debate and reinforces contemporary thought that Canada needs a comprehensive strategy towards the African continent in response to the changing fortunes of many African states.  This argument is espoused by some of the contributors to CIGI’s 2013 Canada Among Nations project, “Canada-Africa Relations-Looking Back, Looking Ahead”, and I also take it up in my book, Canadian Foreign Policy in Africa. Yet, David’s call for a nation-wide debate on Canada Africa-relations is quite novel. His tactful use of evidence in support of his arguments, and his emphasis on three issue areas – economic, developmental, and personal – has already gained traction with some observers, judging by the response on social media.

This stands in stark contrast to other recent articles on (Canada)-Africa issues.  A cursory look at the articles on OpenCanada reveals that African issues receive few to no comments, Facebook likes, tweets, or Google recommendations. What is even more surprising is that articles on recent hot-button issues such as NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011, in which Canada played a commanding role in the person of Lt-Gen Charles Bouchard, also did not receive any comments, Facebook likes, tweets or Google recommendations. For example, see “The ICC in Libya: Beyond Peace vs. Justice” by Mark Kersten. 

To be sure, articles on Canada-Africa relations and the responses they elicit, similar to other Canadian foreign policy issues, carry little weight unless the ideas being discussed are eventually integrated into policy decision-making. However, lackluster public interaction with published commentary reinforces the sense of disengagement that has come to characterize Canada-Africa relations. 

Is this a result of debate fatigue? A defeatist mentality? Or just a general lack of interest in the Canada-Africa relationship? Should we be concerned that this is the state of affairs some 50 years on from Canada’s first efforts to engage the African continent in a focused way?  David’s article provides some answers which I will not reiterate here. My main purpose is rather to complement his argument by briefly highlighting the structural challenge that has been created by centering Canada’s Africa policy on development assistance and peacekeeping. This focus has resulted in a policy unsuited to the changing economic and security environment on the continent and the ‘rebirth of African actorhood’ in international politics.

It is important to note that the seemingly new reality of Africa’s geopolitical and geo-economic importance did not begin in the past decade or so with the aggressive pursuit of energy and natural resources by emerging economic powers like China. It dates back at least to the loss of Africa’s actorhood in the Berlin Conference of 1884, when the continent was partitioned among European colonizers, arbitrary divisions that were then reinforced by Cold War politics. What is noticeable during this period is that resources from the continent were used to spur economic growth elsewhere. Not surprisingly, the United Kingdom, France, United States, and the USSR, among others, forged close ties with various African leaders. What appears to have changed is that African states for the first time in modern history are now experiencing rapid economic growth, courtesy of globalization, which they can leverage for their own sakes.

This reality, however, remains largely unacknowledged in Canada. Canada’s official diplomatic relations with the continent began with the decolonization process in the 1950s and our view of Africa is deeply embedded in the idea of a continent in crisis in both the political and development arenas. This view has been perpetuated over time through a concentration on development assistance and peacekeeping. In other words, humanitarianism, albeit characterized by what David Black calls ‘consistent inconsistency’, has taken precedence over the pursuit of national and business interests, interests that are widely viewed by the Canadian public – especially NGOs – as anathema to Canada’s moral (aka humanitarian) identity in Africa. Sadly, this has contributed to a Canada-Africa relationship that is anachronistic and a textbook example of the consequences of policy neglect.

The neglect of Africa in Canadian foreign policy goes beyond party ideology or the lack of interest of a specific prime minister. In fact, knowledgeable observers of the Canada-Africa relationship would agree that the continent has never been the priority of any Canadian government from Lester B. Pearson to Stephen Harper. Foreign policy, as we all know, is anchored in the pursuit of the national interest, without which it would make no sense to craft it in the first place. The failure of Canada to clearly articulate and pursue its national interest is at the core of its disengagement with Africa. The slashing of Canada’s diplomatic representation in Africa by the Harper government appears to be a natural consequence of the deeply held perception among the Canadian public that the African continent is poor and conflict-ridden, and therefore it would likely be immoral to pursue economic opportunities there. To a large extent, what we have today is a self-inflicted wound that has festered further with every passing year.

A careful study of Canadian policy reveals, on the one hand, the conflicting interests of the business sector, which although it perceives Africa as a difficult environment in which to operate, still sees opportunities for investment and trade. On the other end of the spectrum is the Canadian public, represented largely by NGOs, who are fixated on doing humanitarian work and therefore press the government for more and effective aid to African states. It appears that the Canadian government for the most part has listened to the humanitarian voices, albeit in a limited way, in terms of resources allotted. Although aid and peacekeeping are still necessary in view of the widespread poverty and pockets of violent conflict in Africa, this approach is too narrow and insensitive to Africa’s geopolitical and geo-economic status in global affairs. In other words, African states still need Canadian humanitarianism but this is not all they need. Moreover, humanitarian efforts have not been comprehensive enough to create jobs for youth, build critical infrastructure, or spur industrialization, all of which the continent yearns for.

David Hornsby is right that the changing circumstances on the African continent require a nation-wide debate on Canada’s role there.  This debate, however, should be sensitive to the structural challenge of policy inertia; to Africa’s regaining its actorhood through rapid economic growth in various states; to the changing configurations of power at the regional and sub-regional levels; and to the emerging critical mass of middle class and civil society organizations, including students’ groups, professionals, and village dwellers.  In a globalizing era driven by 24-hour satellite television and other communication technologies, many Africans in all corners of the continent have gained valuable information about standards of living in industrialized countries and this is informing their contribution to governance arrangements at state and regional levels. African publics are becoming more engaged in domestic and international politics and are no longer willing to accept discourses that brand Africa as a ‘hopeless continent’, in spite of the security and development challenges it still faces. Indeed, the growth of democratic governance and accountability has provided a space for African publics to be highly critical of their own governments, demand better services, and call for judicious use of national resources to provide education, healthcare, and create jobs for millions of graduates.

Any nation-wide debate and resulting overarching and comprehensive Canadian strategy towards Africa should therefore be grounded in a new understanding that blends humanitarianism with the national interest and by extension, business interests – without losing sight of Africa’s agency. A comprehensive strategy will require accountable, transparent, and close partnerships between the Canadian business sector and civil society groups at home and in Africa. Close collaboration between stakeholders from both communities will put pressure on the Canadian government to provide the necessary political and diplomatic leadership and material resources to enhance peace, security, and economic development. 

Civil society-business community partnerships could help broaden Canada’s narrow perception of a continent that now undoubtedly occupies an important place in the political global economy. Whether the integration of CIDA into Foreign Affairs will facilitate this and more active Canadian engagement in Africa generally remains to be seen. Regardless, I thank you for launching the debate, David. Let us hope that it will bring together all those who see the mutual interests of African states and Canada and who seek to build strong and lasting partnerships based on those interests.

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