Over the past 20 years, China has become Africa’s single most important trading partner after the European Union. Its trade with African countries has more than tripled and is set to increase substantially, partly due to the Belt and Road Initiative.
China’s interest in Africa has had many geopolitical consequences. It has reignited the attention of Western governments in a continent that was widely considered hopeless. It has also paved the way for so-called emerging countries’ scramble for Africa. More importantly, it has revamped Africa’s geopolitical value, adding the continent to the various battlegrounds between the West and its competitors. This rivalry goes well beyond access to global market shares and technological competition.
Problems with the current global security architecture lie in a fundamental difference over norms and principles of the world order. Among the five permanent United Nations Security Council (UNSC) members, the rivalry often pitches three – France, the United Kingdom and United States – against China and Russia. The three push for a human-centred world order based on liberal values, dialogue and the responsibility to protect. Russia and China promote a state-centred approach, emphasising state sovereignty and state security.
As relatively marginal actors in the UNSC without veto powers, African states are caught in the middle of this competition, revealing the vulnerabilities of their own domestic and international situations.
State-building in Africa is shaped by liberal values, even though the exercise of power often contradicts those tenets. However, Africa’s young governments seem to support the vision promoted by Russia and China. With their often ill-defined borders and semi-autocratic regimes, states in Africa are sensitive about safeguarding their recently gained sovereignty and territoriality.
Furthermore, non-Western states, such as China and Turkey, have shown that socio-economic gains can be attained without the burden of liberal democracy. This contradicts the West’s post-Cold War development discourse. Despite Africa’s obvious governance challenges, the experiences of China and some Asian tigers are attractive to countries on the continent.
The dissonance between the West and its competitors was evident at the UN Security Council’s first meeting on the situation in Ethiopia, held on 2 July. Since November 2020, Ethiopia’s Federal Government has faced armed opposition from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).
The meeting transcript clearly shows the international community’s different perceptions. Notions of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’ were primarily used by African members (Kenya, Tunisia and Niger) and others such as Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Vietnam, India and France (a Western exception). They were predictably supported by Russia and China, who consider the situation in Tigray a domestic matter. In contrast, the ‘Western’ bloc represented by Norway, Estonia, the United Kingdom, United States and France emphasised the alarming humanitarian situation and the urgent need to help civilians.
This dichotomy may explain the widespread view in Ethiopia and elsewhere that Western governments and public opinion support the TPLF, which the media widely portrays as the underdog. Humanitarian organisations can also be influenced by this perception of bias towards armed opposition groups, which complicates their access to people and communities in need.
Consciously or not, the positions of Western governments and civil society organisations could undermine the entrenchment of liberal values and practices in Africa – while increasing the influence of China and Russia. For some African governments, the notion that civilian suffering is more important than sovereignty and territorial integrity is seen as an attempt to undermine the interests of their young nation states.
Western countries and their African counterparts are at different points in their histories. While most in the West completed their state formation processes over centuries, notably through violence, the authority of many African governments is still being contested. The paradox is that liberal democracies can only flourish in sovereign states that control their territories through a monopoly over the legitimate means and use of force.
With this growing difference in the global order, the West should consider alternative approaches to governing societies. Not only do most Western governments struggle with this, but they can be self-righteous in their views, based on the conviction that liberal values are more sustainable.
There is a lot of support for liberalism itself – both in Africa and globally. But it is often perceived as a Western project that tends to side with armed groups or opposition parties promoting secession or territorial state fracture in other parts of the world. South-Sudan, Ethiopia, Cameroon and Burundi are recent examples. Along with economic and security considerations, such views push many African states towards Russia and China, who use the situation to advance their interests across the continent.
Economic liberalism has contributed to socio-economic progress in many parts of the world, including China. African states certainly don’t need more authoritarianism. As the prevalent governance model throughout most of the continent’s history, it has shown limited results. However, unless Western governments can balance their push for liberal values with support for state building, the modest gains achieved over the past decades in Africa could be eroded.
To use a market analogy – the promotion of democracy and human rights needs to be more adjusted to the perceptions and needs of the customer and less to the anxieties of the supplier.
Entrenching political and economic liberalism is a long-term project that must consider the inherent challenges of state building. Far from being linear, state building is a tortuous, often violent and almost always contested process. And its success should be assessed against the backdrop of the situation in individual countries.
Paul-Simon Handy, Senior Regional Adviser, ISS Dakar and Addis Ababa and Félicité Djilo, Independent Analyst focusing on peace and security
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