Al Jazeera Centre for Studies and Al Jazeera Mubasher hosted a web conference entitled “Africa: Challenges in a Changing World” on Wednesday and Thursday, 29 and 30 June 2022. It was attended by a group of researchers and experts in African affairs and moderated by Al Jazeera Mubasher presenters Rawaa Augé and Salem Almahroukey.
Over the course of two days, the conference discussed the political and economic challenges that the continent faces, like military coups that have increased in recent years, causing instability in several countries, and the economic implications of the global coronavirus pandemic and the Russian war on Ukraine as well as chronic crises that the continent has been suffering from such as corruption, border disputes, the spread of armed groups, and the inability to invest in the vast natural and human resources it has. It also discussed the ways of dealing with them.
Moreover, the webinar discussed the frantic international competition over Africa and the opportunities and challenges it could lead to. It concluded with a discussion about the reality and prospects of Arab-African relations and how they can be strengthened.
Wariness of the policy of axes
The conference argued that Africa is facing a number of critical challenges, including international polarisation; a new Cold War; the growing conflict between major powers over influence and dominance, the acquisition of wealth, and the imposition of agendas by force; and the attempt to dismantle the unipolar world order to establish a multipolar order in which China and Russia will have new positions. In this regard, the speakers warned the continent’s states and governments of polarisation and bias towards any parties, stressing the importance of staying away from the policy of axes that had previously divided the world between the communist camp and the capitalist camp. They also said that African states can turn this conflict and competition into an opportunity that will benefit them if they know how to manage their foreign relations with the competing poles in order to serve their interests, and if they invest in their natural and human resources and vital strategic location.
In this context, the speakers reviewed the comparative advantage of each of the parties to the international competition – such as China, Russia and the West – and how it can be benefitted from. They pointed out that what Russia offers in terms of security support to the African regimes that are loyal to it is not a free service, but a reward for their loyalty and animosity towards the West, which in the long run, harms the interests, security and stability of Africa.
They also pointed out the importance of caution against the excessiveness of Chinese commercial debts, asserting that these debts have political, security and military costs, the impact of which will be evident in the future. In addition, they emphasized the importance of benefiting from Chinese funding for the improvement of infrastructure while preventing it from becoming a tool for political dependency as well as the transparency of and supervision of awarding bids for Chinese projects and deals in order to prevent corruption.
The speakers also drew attention to the danger of relying entirely on Russia and China due to their tendency towards authoritarianism and totalitarian rule, and thus the possibility that it will pass on to the African countries that support them.
Additionally, the speakers made a comparison between China and Russia on the one hand and Western countries on the other. Although they acknowledged the double standards of Western freedom, democracy and standards of good governance, they stressed the urgent need of African countries for these values and the importance of adopting them regardless of their source.
A position for Africa in the new world order
The conference explored the state of the current world order and the harm it suffered as a result of the United States’ unilateral leadership following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The speakers maintained that the world is currently witnessing a movement towards a multipolar order in which Russia and China have a position. They asserted that Africa can find itself a position as well because of its strategic location, resources and populations.
In this context, the conference explained that Africa needs not to get rid of Western tutelage and fall into the arms of Russian or Chinese tutelage, but rather independence and to work in accordance with the interests of African countries and peoples, not the interests of the ruling elites.
The speakers also highlighted the nature of current and upcoming wars, noting that they are no longer limited to the use of weapons and military equipment, but include information and cyber warfare and economic sanctions; and therefore, African states must possess the necessary tools to deal with all of these challenges.
Furthermore, they insisted on the need for the African continent to take its precautions regarding the looming global food crisis due to the Russian-Ukrainian war. In this regard, they mentioned the potential role it can play not only to prevent hunger but also to become the world’s food basket – if it capitalises on resources and capabilities.
Dealing with military coups
With regard to transforming post-coup military institutions into professional institutions that carry out the basic tasks of border security and overcoming the "revolutionary” mentality that has long harmed the continent, the speakers underlined the need for change in the perspective of these institutions. They are neither "patriarchal institutions" nor "guardians of the people," but professional institutions, like other state institutions, and have functions and roles that they should not exceed. Therefore, they must not get involved in politics and economics.
As for the mechanisms for achieving this, the speakers discussed important points that should be considered. The most important of which pertains to African military institutions themselves and the importance of their identity as national – not ethnic, regional, sectarian or elitist – institutions. They must operate in accordance with the provisions of the constitution and not change it to suit the rule of military generals. They must also be part of the state – not vice versa; and regulatory, legislative and judicial bodies should exercise their responsibilities regarding the inspection of the budgets of these institutions and how they are spent. Another issue is the independence of the military institutions, and their inability to deal with private international security companies that were established and run by former generals in colonial states. These serve the agendas of their own countries, not those of African ones. In this context, they also discussed the importance of African armies being "national armies" that fight organised crime groups that carry out human, arms and drug trafficking and are allied with terrorism, rather than establish relationships with them behind the scenes.
The speakers also warned of what they called the “tricks” of African coup regimes, especially when the military general that led the coup takes off his military uniform, runs in sham elections and wins to gain legitimacy, and then changes the constitution to remain in power for an unspecified term.
At the end of the conference, the participants called on African countries and elites to strengthen cooperation among themselves to capitalise on the advantages they enjoy and reduce dependence on foreign powers to avoid the harmful political and security costs that such dependence requires.