Africa’s Crises, Russia and the EU

By Dr Adam Mayer

Western NGOs, aid organizations, governments and the concerned public attempt at what most of them see as their best: to help Africa’s struggling regions. But, it may be our concept of human rights need include economic rights. This means taking into account matters such as the right to gainful employment and free movement of labor, in order to truly help address Africa’s economic problems – as well as successfully meet Russian President Vladimir Putin’s economic and military challenges in the African theatre, represented by mining companies and the Wagner Group. Industrial policy and industrialization also have to be allowed back to the Western discourse on African development, if we are to remain relevant for a rapidly changing continent. With the Cotonou Agreement on EU-African economic cooperation defunct now for two years, it is time to build new, more equitable frameworks for the economic and trade relationships between Europe and Africa. 

Russia and Africa: Success and challenges

In the 2010s, Africa’s observers felt increasingly optimistic about the continent’s economic prospects. Rwanda, Botswana, and even Ethiopia before the Tigray war, gave experts ample reason to celebrate real African economic success stories. In 2018, Nigeria overtook South Africa as the country with the highest GDP on the African continent. Nollywood (Nigerian) films appeared on Netflix; Nigerian, Tanzanian, Kenyan, Ghanaian music became popular all over Africa and beyond; a modern industry was born, partly due to YouTube. Additionally, an absolute monarchy, Eswatini, rose up for democracy in 2021, and a Black African author, Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 35 years after Nigerian Wole Soyinka.

African diasporas were also given a sense of empowerment by Obama’s presidency. In 2020, Dynasty, a Netflix series, featured a (partly) ethnic Igbo clan as the masters of an Atlanta planters’ mansion. Coffee table books suddenly appeared, many of them on contemporary African design, as well as on modern and contemporary African art that auction houses such as Sotheby’s now noticed. The celebrated film Black Panther brought Afro-futurism to the global mainstream. There is a term that expresses hope: ’Africa rising’, and the phenomenon it covers is both real and spectacular. 

At the very same time, Africa saw tremendous challenges, many of them economic. In Nigeria over the last decade, 70% of the population lived on less than $2 a day. West Africa’s giant polity also underwent the most serious security challenges. Today, 22 out of the country’s 36 states (or provinces) are under martial law: therefore, the army is often deployed on anti-terrorist missions. The radical Islamist sect Boko Haram continues its attacks despite the recent death of its leader Shekau. Insurgents in the Delta threaten stability. There is wholesale bunkering of oil in the Niger Delta. Bandits including nomadic pastoralists and others, secure grazing rights by attacking sedentary villagers, and minorities in the South-West and the South-East are arming themselves contemplating secession, while the center holds fast. All this is making Nigeria a paradoxical ’successful failed state’, where army, navy and prisons are functional, but where the state does not protect the security of its citizens even with their help – and neither does it succeed in properly ensuring a hunger-free life for much of the population.

Besides, just in the last two years, coups d’etat happened in Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea Conakry and Chad, ending decades of stable democratization in West Africa. The region’s migration crisis went from bad to worse, with Libya mistreating immigrants – including Africans – and many Mediterranean actors weaponizing emigration out of Africa. In 2015, a grave migration crisis affected Africa, the MENA region, and Europe. The long term migration crisis was fueled by war, law and order problems, as well as a cost of living crisis, especially on the West African coast: these challenges in turn strengthened ideological answers in the form of political Islam and pentecostal Christianity (including the ’prosperity gospel’ that promises material rewards for the believer in this life, not just the next). 

Looking for the right answer(s)

The Western – especially the European – response to this situation was increased willingness to engage in fair trade, aid, and capacity building in administration. But it stopped short of helping African actors (especially governments) to design what we may call ’industrial policy’, ie. industrialization locally – except in some places, such as Rwanda, where mobile phones and cars are today manufactured. In most other places on the continent, deindustrialization, launched in the early 1980s to early 1990s, still characterizes economic policymaking. Worse yet, in the last twenty years, Africa has become a dumping ground for China’s (and the EU’s) substandard products.

The EU protects its agriculture against other producers except in exclusively tropical produce. The Yaoundé Agreements, the Lomé Conventions and the now defunct Cotonou Agreement have built policy on what may be called a myopic view: they use European bargaining power to secure rights and raw materials for Europe’s companies, while often harming African economic interests. An example is fishing, where overfishing now depletes local livelihoods in Senegal, Gambia, and other countries, with French companies as the main culprits. European companies also dominate cash crops as monopsony (single) buyers. Negotiations today still happen between companies and traditional Sufi religious orders’ elites who together fix the buying price with  help from national governments .Some major structures remain (with local elite consent) that we cannot classify as anything else but classical colonialist: an example is the CFA (the regional currency, still managed from Paris), another is the infamous, and deeply anti-democratic practice, of French involvement in coups and counter-coups in West Africa (the latest one in Guinea Conakry on September 5, 2021, with alleged French backing). 

In the last five to ten years, Russia arrived onto this scene with its most nefarious (and technically speaking, in terms of even Russian law, actually illegal) mercenary group Wagner, a Private Military Company headed by Putin’s personal confidante Yevgeny Prigozhin. This intervention came allegedly to ’help’ Africans secure their own maneuvering space versus Western governments and powerful multinational corporations. By early 2022, some of these MNCs have had to leave, along with the French Ambassador himself in February 2022, from Mali. After French military withdrawal, NATO troops that formed Barkhane, an anti-Islamist operation, left too. In the wake of Western corporations, there came Russian companies everywhere, from the Central African Republic to Mali, and Russian ’reservists’ in form of the Wagner company. 

France, despite its military involvement elsewhere, chose not to back immediate counter-coups in Mali, Burkina Faso, or Chad. It is currently counteracting anti-France coups only on the plane of ideas: the Republic enlists political philosophers, such as the globally famous Cameroonian thinker Achille Mbembe, to the cause of a modified but continued ’Francafrique’. Despite the obvious value in enlisting Mbembe, who has an African as well as a global following, we could imagine that for many West African people, perhaps the majority, this will not necessarily work. Indeed, in order to convince a Gambian or Senegalese fisherman of the West’s good intentions, more practical steps would also be necessary. Giving fishermen nets to fish, as the saying goes, is of course a great start (especially for NGO action). But ensuring that enough fish stay in their shallow waters where local fishermen reach with their boats, could be the great next step. Then codifying this into trade treaties and conventions will ensure that European companies would need to further restrict their socially harmful practices, even in Africa. 

Russia, on its part, has done very much to expand its public relations operations on the continent. Russian TV channel Russia Today (RT) is now available in most places. Analysts on RT are busy explaining the possible benefits of economic delinking and autarchy to African audiences all through the continent. As long as our own concept of human rights systematically excludes economic rights, and our oil companies, as well as our trade treaties, continue to destroy local ecosystems and local livelihoods, we are fighting a losing battle for Africa’s hearts and minds. President Macron posing for photo ops with historian Achille Mbembe might be as short lived an idyll as when the British Royal family pictures briefly included a Black princess. More meaningful, and more real, change could come in true independence for regional currencies, equality in trade negotiations, and even Western government help with African infrastructure projects, electricity supply, and (re-)industrialization. Many African women will prefer forms of employment other than basket weaving and our NGO’s logical frameworks and project plans should reflect on this fact – by underwriting re-industrialization and industrialization proper. At the most ideal (and most difficult) level, European economies should ready themselves to opening their agricultural markets to Africa’s agricultural produce. Let us also remember that a single worker in formal employment in the least developed regions of Africa feeds as many as ten to twenty kin in any given ”dwelling compound”,where relatives often live together. Embedding precarious structures of part time employment will not provide adequate income levels to the most vulnerable communities. Hence, it is important to stress here the central need for stable electricity supplies, and help with re-industrialization. 

The African lessons from… Ukraine

European countries watched with horror as the bulk of the countries that voted with Russia (or abstained from voting) in the recent UN General Assembly vote on Russia’s assault on Ukraine, were in fact African. A sense of long term disappointment, fatigue, and even a sense of betrayal by Europe, is behind such a development. The African vote went to actors that provide hope – however false this would be. Between Europe and Africa, equal standing between partners must replace outdated modes of cooperation, such as maintaining the CFA and financing mercenaries who depose democratically elected governments. Backroom deals with crooked generals will equally not be forgotten by Africans as easily as we think. It is time to lay out new norms for the Europe-Africa economic relationship matrix, before it is too late. Otherwise he West becomes unimportant in Africa, where development would happen despite us, with Africans working with others rather than with European or Western countries… 

Putin uses images and concepts of European racism to undermine the European Union in Africa. The latest in the steady flow of those images are those of African refugees, mostly university students, fleeing Ukraine, subjected to mistreatment at the EU’s border in Poland and elsewhere. These images and videos have reached African audiences everywhere, thanks to social media. The concept of Fortress Europe will not convince Africans to feel any love for Europe. It is perhaps also time for us even to remember that it was not only Karl Marx who had advocated for emancipation in terms of the freedom of movement for labor: a century before him, none other than Adam Smith, the father of capitalist economics, had done so in the Wealth of Nations. Smith saw this freedom as one of the prerequisites for the invisible hand to properly function. It is really our lack of imagination and lack of openness to challenge the macroeconomic status quo even in activist and NGO circles (where more state intervention in the economy has been seen as radicalism), that together block our vision for a better, less crisis-ridden world. Legalizing and also regulating African immigration into Europe would end the appalling conditions that precarious workers all over Southern Europe face in agriculture as illegals. And a new Convention, replacing the Cotonou Agreement between Europe and the ’African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States,’ must now reflect on the problems with its predecessors’ inadequate understanding of economic equity in international relations. 

Dr Adam Mayer is a professor of International Studies and Communication at the Széchenyi István University Győr, Hungary

To quote this article, please use the following reference:  A. Mayer (2022), “Africa’s Crises, Russia and the EU”

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