Al Jazeera Centre for Studies organised a web conference in collaboration with Al Jazeera Mubasher titled “Africa: Chronic Challenges and Increasing Risks” on Sunday and Monday, 16 and 17 July 2023. The conference featured the participation of a distinguished group of researchers and experts specialising in African affairs.
With Al Jazeera Mubasher presenter Salem Almahroukey as moderator, the conference discussed the current and future challenges facing the African continent over six sessions. It shed light on the phenomenon of irregular migration from the continent to Europe and the resulting risks. It also examined the implications of climate change on food security in African countries. Additionally, the conference delved into the policies of major powers towards the continent, particularly France, China and Russia, and the ongoing rivalry between them to establish presence and influence, as well as the impact of that on the independence of African countries and their ability to effectively utilise their resources.
The speakers at the conference dedicated a portion of their discussions to examining the nature of internal and interstate conflicts occurring in many African countries. They explored the backgrounds of these conflicts, and analysed the reasons behind the challenges encountered in reaching solutions for them.
They also addressed the increasing frequency of military coups on the continent in recent years, and the implications of these coups on the security and stability of its countries.
The conference concluded its sessions by discussing the future of Africa in light of the ongoing changes in the traditional balance of power, especially following the polarisation that occurred in the world since the outbreak of the Russian war on Ukraine about a year and a half ago.
The importance and context of the conference
The conference was held in the context of the grave challenges Africa faces that may lead to further fragility of states, populations and communities in the foreseeable future and threaten food security and resilience, as Dr. Mohammed Mukhtar Al Khalil, the Director of Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, explained in his opening speech. He added that the centre’s interest in research and events related to the African continent is not solely because of the internal conflicts and economic and social problems experienced by most African countries but also because Africa is at the centre of international conflicts, resulting in considerable competition among major powers to establish presence and influence. This presence and competition, he said, should be scrutinised and analysed to understand interactions and anticipate consequences. He also said that Africa is – and will always be – present to the Arab audience not only politically but geographically, historically and demographically.
In a session dedicated to the discussion of irregular migration from Africa to Europe and the necessary measures to regulate it while considering the interests of migrants and destination countries, the speakers concluded that this type of migration poses a structural threat to the African continent and requires a collective international approach within the framework of “border management and migration mechanisms”. This then would necessitate a comprehensive plan for the development of the African continent to prevent its countries from becoming labour-exporting nations. Additionally, it involves improving the conditions of migrant detention in countries of departure, respecting their legal and human rights, defining precise definitions for “migration” and “asylum”, providing security and protection according to international law, ensuring actual and affordable migration opportunities, and European countries, particularly France, fulfilling their responsibility towards poor African nations given their history as former colonies for durations ranging from 70 to 130 years, which has undermined their capacities and ability to develop.
In its second session, the conference discussed the risks and implications of climate change in Africa, as well as the most effective ways to address them. The speakers revealed that the continent, particularly in its eastern regions, is among the parts of the world most affected by climate change. This is indicated by the continuous drought that started in 2008 as a consequence of “the crime of greenhouse gas emissions to which Africa did not contribute.”
The speakers argued that climate change has negative effects on the entire continent, including the loss of biodiversity, decreased food production, and severe climate fluctuations that harm the lives of the population.
They also pointed out that the drought is not the only prominent phenomenon resulting from climate change in Africa, but also the unusual amounts of rainfall. Abnormal rainfall patterns have led to floods, soil erosion, deaths, and the displacement of nearly one million people in Somalia and South Sudan due to the destruction of their villages by heavy floods.
Moreover, waves of desert locusts that have invaded the region over the past two years, resulting in the destruction of crops and plantations. This has threatened the lives of tens of millions of people, especially those whose livelihoods are "fragile" and dependent on seasonal agriculture and pastoralism.
The speakers recommended the implementation of agricultural policies that keep climate change from getting worse and mitigate its impacts, particularly through policies that "support farmers", enhance their competitiveness in agricultural production, and therefore achieve food security. These policies would include improving the "agricultural infrastructure" by increasing agricultural land area, training agricultural labour, especially youth, developing transportation methods, focusing on agricultural financing, and promoting the establishment of independent agricultural cooperatives free of the control of major foreign corporations.
The speakers also suggested that if the countries of the continent prioritise the agricultural sector and adopt a protectionist policy towards agricultural production, the majority of the population will remain secure and self-sufficient in their villages, and not be compelled to migrate to cities in search of employment or risk their lives by embarking on perilous journeys to Europe on “death boats”.
The conference dedicated its third session to discussing the internal conflicts that undermine the foundations of security and stability in Africa. The speakers attributed the causes of these conflicts to a combination of internal and external factors. One of the primary factors mentioned was the deep legacy of Western colonisation, which sowed division and discord among the peoples of the continent. This legacy also fuelled ethnic, tribal, regional, religious and sectarian conflicts and supported governing systems and "loyalist" minorities aligned with foreign powers.
The speakers attributed the continuation of these conflicts and the difficulty in finding solutions to the external factor, namely the competition among major powers for the continent's resources. They utilise all means, including illicit methods such as employing "mercenary combat companies" like the Wagner Group, to advance the agenda of supporting states like Russia.
After reviewing the causes and nature of conflicts, the speakers deduced that conflicts are likely to persist, and even escalate, unless the efforts of the African Union succeed in ending the bloodshed. Furthermore, the speakers emphasised the need for external parties to stop fuelling and perpetuating these conflicts.
The fourth session discussed the policies of major powers, particularly France, China and Russia, towards the continent. It examined how the continent's rich energy, natural resources, human resources and strategically located ports attract these countries. The session also touched on the ongoing competition between these powers to establish presence and influence in Africa, and the impact of their rivalry on the independence of African countries and their ability to effectively utilise their resources.
The speakers in this session maintained that Africa will remain open to international competition and continue to attract global powers throughout the 21st century. They noted that China will remain a preferred choice for many African countries due to its non-colonial history in the continent. However, the speakers affirmed that this does not mean the absence of traditional powers such as the United States, Russia and France from the scene. Other regional powers with interests and aspirations in the continent, such as India, Turkey and Japan, have joined the competition as well.
Regarding French influence, for example, the speakers highlighted the "failure of the French military approach aimed at controlling African countries," as seen in Mali and the subsequent withdrawal from the Sahel region. Major international players have even begun to compete with France in terms of economic influence on the continent. The speakers determined from this example that any withdrawal of traditional colonial powers from Africa would leave a void that other powers would seek to fill and exploit, thus perpetuating competition and international conflicts over the continent. This brings to light the need for African peoples and governments to take initiative and strive for political and economic independence, which can be achieved only through wise regimes that reconcile with their peoples and embrace the values of their societies.
Between political reforms and military coups
The fifth session reviewed the factors leading to instability in many countries of the continent, particularly those that hinder political reform and are then engulfed in a spiral of violence and military coups. These circumstances have negative impacts on various aspects of life, especially the spread and exacerbation of corruption and the marginalisation of other political and ethnic groups.
The speakers cited examples of successful political reform as a comparison to those that failed to materialise.
They also held that military coups in Africa have been occurring since the African countries achieved "independence." However, the past three years have witnessed an "intensity" in military coups unprecedented within such a short timeframe. In fact, in 2020, 12 out of the 13 coups that occurred around the world were in Africa. In 2021, the continent experienced six coups, four of which were successful. Statistics indicate that over the past two decades, the continent has experienced an average of two coups per year, signifying the continuity and persistence of coups. However, recent coups have displayed characteristics that may distinguish them from previous ones. Some of them received popular support, and most of them were carried out by young officers born in the 1980s, as seen in the coups in Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso. Also, these coups took place amid the growing phenomenon of terrorism in Africa and the intensification of international conflicts in the continent, particularly between former colonial powers and new international powers seeking to establish influence and promote their interests, with some of them having armed military presence in the region.
The speakers pointed out that when military officials seize power, it is difficult for them to maintain it, and even more difficult to leave it. This shows that African democracy is facing a crisis and will continue to suffer for years to come unless people rise against coups and regimes.
A globalised society
The sixth and final session of the conference discussed the impacts of globalisation on the countries and societies of the African continent, particularly negative ones.
The speakers contended that the African continent entered the era of globalisation unprepared, without a sufficient social or national agenda to deal with the challenges and risks it poses. This has led to the decline of the ability of African countries to maintain national independence, resulting in the fragmentation of "African unity" and exacerbating the crisis of fragile and vulnerable regimes, states and societies.
The speakers reasoned that the political pressures resulting from globalisation have led to the depletion of political, social and economic content in political systems. Globalisation has also facilitated the emergence of interest-based systems and groups operating outside the framework of the law, treating national resources as if they were their own private assets. This has contributed to the spread of corruption and political and administrative chaos, as well as the growth of poverty, unemployment rates and social disintegration.
The speakers added that the negative consequences of globalisation on the African continent even extend to the "civil relations system," as communities have either abandoned, or come close to abandoning, the national bond in favour of sectarian, tribal and familial relationships.
They asserted that the dangers of globalisation in Africa will continue due to the presence of multiple international players and the intensification of conflict between them; and the complex and intertwined nature of interests, as well as the “comprehensiveness” of globalisation, which disregards geographical boundaries, further exacerbate these risks. This is made evident by climate change, for example.
Thus, the speakers stressed the importance of enhancing national identity and shifting the conceptual framework and perceptions of the states controlling the global order from conflict, domination and the exertion of influence to cooperation and integration. They also underscored the importance of developing a "Pan-African movement", with political, economic and social liberation dimensions, that calls for building a "modern Africa" based on African self-determination.
The speakers concluded their discussions by highlighting the importance of the awareness of African leaders and political and intellectual elites of the risks and challenges of globalisation. They accentuated the need for them to develop a unified "self-aware vision" that guides Africa's engagement and interaction with risks based on both perceptual and cognitive dimensions.