LAST Thursday an international conference on war-torn Syria in London pledged in half a day a record $10 billion; raising $7 billion in immediate humanitarian aid.
For a watcher of international responses to African crises, that must have been mind-blowing. That’s because as Ebola ravaged parts of West Africa in 2015, donor meetings with much lower targets of $1 billion struggled over months to get the pledges.
Meetings on the crisis in Somalia, have got a pittance. Past conferences to raise money for people threatened with hunger in the Sahel and Horn of Africa, have fallen flat on their pledge targets.
Many Africans and Africanists blame this on racism. No doubt racism plays a role in the relative indifference to African crises, but it’s probably a small one. After all, there is racism in the west toward Arabs and prejudices against Muslims, yet the money thrown at the Syrian crisis surpassed what bigger African ones would ever get.
The explanation, then, is somewhere else. There are five things, in addition to the historical ones, that might explain it.
1. To begin with, the world doesn’t fear or much respect Africa. In the Middle East, what Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Israel says is taken seriously, because they have the diplomatic, economic, or military muscle to do something that can upset the world or regional order (Saudi Arabia can pay for a coalition to attack Yemen from its own money, but Africa can’t pay for peacekeeping in Somalia or South Sudan).
The three African countries that could have that kind of clout – Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa – are currently either economically troubled, badly governed, weakened by corruption, or too internally divided and messy to assert that kind of authority.
2. The old days of Ghana’s pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, or Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere are truly gone. The approach of African countries to the world is not to offer a different philosophical vision or try and change it, or to present different policies about how the global order should be organised. It mostly blames, accuses, and threatens.
For example, the way the UN is organised, with five countries dominating the permanent Security Council (SC) is anachronistic. Reform of the SC is long overdue, and Africa must have a seat at the table.
The first difficulty is that there is no consensus on which African country should take the seat. But the continent has also not offered any ideas on making the UN a more accountable body, beyond the single question of the SC seat.
A protestor is attacked by plain clothes security officials in Cairo: Too much effort tends to go into beating down most things in Africa, rather than building them up. It has limited experimentation and new ideas. (Photo by Hong Wu/Getty Images)
However, at the recent African Union summit, its outgoing Chairman, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, reverted to type – he said Africa would walk out of the UN if it didn’t get an SC seat.
After previously threatening to walk out of the Rome Statue establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC) that the continent’s leaders say is biased against them, at the end-of-January summit they agreed to draw up a “road map” for that withdrawal.
An idea for a new court, or some concrete points for how to make the ICC work better for them would most likely have won international support among those seeking change at The Hague. Sure threats and boycotts can produce change, but it will not be based on your ideas if you didn’t offer any.
Not taking risks
3. The failure of, especially, the wider African political and policy class to engage the world creatively is also evident at home, in the fact that no one is taking risks on new things.
Thus when post-conflict countries like Rwanda, Uganda, Congo, and Burundi, faced with transition and long-ruling leaders who brought stability have to transition, they jump back to the old way of doing things, scrapping term limits to keep the big men on.
Barring a bit of Kenya in 2010 and Burkina Faso last year, few countries resolve crises and uncertainty by opting for more open politics and policies that increase freedom of thought, creativity, and experimentation. They close down.
4. Africa is also notorious for not acting out of its enlightened self interest. Right now, its largest economy, most populous nation, and largest oil producer Nigeria is hurting badly in the face of the global crude price slump.
So is Angola, and other oil and gas producers. Nigeria’s ability to craft economic and social strategies to beat back the deadly Boko Haram jihadist rebellion has been seriously affected by the drying up of oil revenues, the source of over 90% of its export earnings.
Nigeria, along with Angola, Algeria, and Algeria are members of OPEC, which is flooding the world market with oil.
Saudi Arabia, the big kahuna of OPEC, refuses to cut production because it wants to protect its market share, critical for when prices rebound.
However, the present low prices oil also mean that new oil finds in countries like Kenya and Tanzania of recent years are now not viable for commercial production, and those in new producing countries like Ghana production cannot bulk out.
Beyond whining, neither Nigeria, Angola, or Algeria have pushed any position that would force OPEC and, especially, Saudi Arabia’s hand or move global oil prices.
There is the continental African Petroleum Producers Association (APPA) which comprises 18 members - Algeria, Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, South Africa, Libya, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Sudan.
Playing smart poker
It has the numbers to marshal some action on oil, but it is paralysed and largely leaderless. For it to shake things up, it needs to recognise that the Saudi Arabia position on “market share” is not just aimed to stall American shale oil producers, but also to kill the development of the oil industry in the African countries that have been striking oil all over the place.
For Africa to shift oil in its favour, it needs to bring a new stack of cards to the poker game. A classic example of how that might be done is being exemplified by Iran which, after the signing of the nuclear agreement with world power and the recent lifting of international sanctions against it, has gone on a vigorous shopping and selling spree for everything. Iran, a single country, is probably taken more seriously than the 18 African countries in APPA.
5. Seven years ago a resurgent China surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trading partner. The China-Africa trading partnership has been a boon for many of the continent’s economies, as has China’s role in either building or financing mega infrastructure.
In the last year, economic growth has slowed in China, and its imports from the continent are down to 40% from previous levels, and economies like Zambia and others are hurting and on the brink.
While the China bonanza was on, Africa didn’t diversify. In the end, China revealed starkly that Africa’s emperors were all naked: that after 60 years they still could not come up with a different plan beyond flogging natural resources.
Compare that to post-Communist nations in eastern Europe like Poland or Estonia.
In a world where the economy is changing in ways few have mastered, where climate change is posing new challenges to past ways of production, and where young people can’t find work, there is a desperate search for new approaches.
Right now, Africa is not tinkering or experimenting with things that might be a solution to these problems that the rest of the world can copy. Until it does so, the world won’t invite it as an equal to the party. It will discount it.