That Africa is rising is now a truism. So is the argument that a new and intense struggle for its soul is currently underway, and that once again it is not well positioned to influence its proceedings and outcome.
African leaders may preside over states enjoying sovereign equality with others, but that has not won them the respect they may think they deserve from their Western counterparts.
Yet, it remains clear that Africa’s pursuit of economic independence can succeed only if its engagement with the rest of the world is underlain by relationships based on mutual respect.
That, though, remains a pipe dream, at least for now, for two key reasons.
First, important decisions about Africa continue to be made in Western capitals.
Secondly, African leaders not invited to events where some of the decisions are made protest their exclusion, emphasising how it shows that they are not treated with respect. As I write this column, controversy is already brewing regarding the impending EU-Africa Summit.
In April, African leaders will head to Europe for the shindig, from which Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has been excluded. Mugabe happens to be the current first vice chairperson of the African Union.
Commenting on the snub, Zimbabwe’s foreign minister, Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, lashed out: “How could one say they do not want the first AU vice chair to be at the summit? That would be ridiculous; it would be absurd.”
He was in good company. A more vehement reaction came from his Zambian counterpart, Wylbur Simuusa, who suggested that African leaders are disrespected because their voice is fragmented, “We must now speak with one voice and make sure we act in the interest of Africa.”
If they speak together and continue to be disregarded, he argues, there should be a boycott by all. In fact, he suggests that this is already on the cards: “That is why for the EU-Africa summit coming up, where Zimbabwe has been singled out with restrictions for President Mugabe from attending, the position that the AU has taken is that if Zimbabwe won’t go, then Africa will not go.”
And while that row continues to simmer, another one is rearing its head. Should they accept the invitation, 47 African heads of state and government as well as Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the Chairperson of the African Union, will descend on Washington this August. Again, Mugabe has been excluded.
Apparently Barack Obama has invited only those African leaders who are in ‘good standing with the United States.’ Also excluded are the leaders of countries that have been suspended from the African Union, such as Egypt. And so before the storm over the EU’s behavior dissipates, another one threatens to engulf US-Africa relations.
The two standoffs are a result of sanctions slapped on Zimbabwe at the beginning of the past decade, which the country’s leadership interprets as a callous response to its pursuit of economic indigenisation policies. Meanwhile, Mugabe’s enemies claim they are the result of Mugabe’s sustained ‘suppression of democracy.’
Also excluded is “wanted man,” Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir who Western powers want to see face charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Also involving African leaders, but without the acrimony are two other summits. There are, for starters, the China-Africa summits, often the targets of negative media reporting due to the Chinese policy of not interfering in the internal matters of foreign governments.
Western media and governments meanwhile argue that the policy is a convenient cover for African dictators seeking to suppress democracy and conceal the violation of human rights and freedoms.
Their critics, however, interpret this as hypocrisy, arguing that despite protestations regarding the supremacy of democracy and human rights, these same governments subordinate them to the pursuit of national interests, including supporting dictators whenever it suits them.
Perhaps most intimate of these jamborees is the Franco-Africa summit, which brings together leaders of French-speaking Africa and their convenors in Paris.
The seeming harmony ensues from a silent and mutually supportive understanding in which African countries continue to be treated as France’s overseas protectorates. And, in return, for behaving, African leaders receive diplomatic, economic, and military support.
This game has been played and reinforced by both parties, often with short-term gains but long-term uncertainty, especially for the clients.
And so while it may be true that Africa is indeed rising, there are indications that it remains firmly nailed to its second-class status in global affairs.