Interview on Africa’s position in the world with Murithi Mutiga, head of programs with the International Crisis Group in Nairobi
Africa hardly played a role in the geopolitics of the United States under Donald Trump; the competition with China and Russia was given priority. Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow have been pampering African countries at special summits for years. Washington was also holding such a summit with African heads of state for the first time since 2014 this week. In addition to the 49 heads of government, the president of the African Union, Moussa Faki Mahamat, was also invited. But Western influence in Africa is waning. Take trade between China and African countries. It reached a historic high of $254 billion in 2021, while that of the United States with Africa decreased from $142 billion in 2008 to $64 billion in 2021.
“Asian, Turkish and Arab companies come to do business, they come to engage, bringing in their airlines, their businesspeople, settling here, engaging in partnerships, they see it as an opportunity for long term business. While the United States and Europe treat Africa paternalistically, as a problem area that must be solved,” says Kenyan Murithi Mutiga, head of Africa at the think tank the International Crisis Group. “That difference in approach means that the partners of the future are the ones in the east.”
With the new balance of power in the world, stripped of the hegemony of the United States and Europe, Africa no longer accepts lessons from the West. Murithi Mutiga is surprised that this is not getting through to the West.
“It is amazing that the West was surprised when the continent refused to side with the United States and Europe in the conflict with Russia over Ukraine,” Mutiga says in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.
Does the independent position of African countries in the war in Ukraine expose a grudge against the West?
“What arouses feelings against the West, of course, are first the memories of humiliating colonialism. And what Europeans and Americans forget is that in the Western world the Cold War is remembered as a time of peace, but almost everywhere else as a period of conflict. The Soviet Union and the United States fought their wars through proxies in Africa. They changed sides according to their own interests. This happened in wars in the Horn of Africa and in Angola and Congo.
“And then there is the Western hypocrisy. Europeans fail to realize the anger that NATO’s intervention in Libya provoked, just when the African Union was working on a peaceful solution.
“From this comes the tendency in Africa to remain nonaligned on the Ukraine issue. Europe will have to understand that Africans will henceforth make their decisions autonomously, in a multipolar world in which no one ideology dominates.”
Africa felt belittled?
“Yes. In the 1980s and 1990s, the continent had become subservient to the economic policies of Western institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
“At that time I was working as a journalist for the Kenyan newspaper Daily Nation. The first thing that was impressed upon us in the editorial office were the names of the representatives of the World Bank and the IMF in the country. The West bullied Africa with the anti-social policies of those two institutions. Americans and Europeans don’t realize how much we detested that.
“The United States used to be able to help settle conflicts, but in the biggest war in Africa in a long time – the conflict in Ethiopia between the central government and the state of Tigray – they proved virtually powerless.
“Ten years ago, the United States still had enough influence to enforce South Sudan’s independence. The war in Ethiopia shows what can happen if there is less order in the world. Turkey, the Emirates, Eritrea, they determined the outcome of this war. Such are the consequences of a new era without hegemonic control.”
Which African country can fill the vacuum?
“One of the major problems is that the giants are struggling. Nigeria is drifting along in difficult economic and security circumstances. South Africa used to be seen as a moral compass but now it cannot even solve its problems in its own governing party. And Ethiopia will have to recover for many years to reclaim its influence. Africa has dire challenges but a weak leadership. There is a vacuum in leadership.
If foreign powers can no longer force an African country into peace talks, who can? African solutions to African problems, without outside interference? In Ethiopia it only worked after two years, when the African Union finally acted.
“Ethiopia has a complex history, with wars fueled by elites. This war was very popular among the masses. It shows how deep-rooted the grievances are and that makes it difficult to come to a solution. Until the parties were exhausted. Wars in Ethiopia usually end by their own internal logic. Sudan, on the other hand, where a peace agreement was recently concluded, has a its own homegrown culture of dialogue, despite its bloody history, but the elites have always been able to engage with each other, in contrast to Ethiopia where they sometimes seem to be buried in their grievances and their hostilities to one an another”.
Is the influence of the West over? The United States warns African countries about the dangerous influence of autocratic China and Russia.
“To reduce the debate to a dispute between democracy and autocracy, Africa will not accept that. We know how the West maintained autocrats in Africa, most prominently the megalomaniac Mobutu of Zaire.
“The forms of governance in Africa are determined by local circumstances, not by the partner we deal with. China is not forcing its governance model on us.
“And Africa is not turning away from the West either. At the height of the war, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy was very anti-Western, but now that the damage of the war must be repaired, he still needs Washington, the World Bank and the IMF once more.”
This article was first published in the Nehterlands newspaper NRC on 12-12-2022