For well over a quarter century and on and off for much longer, Africa’s big countries have been absent from an active role on the continental scene and dealing with its problems.
They prefer to leave it to others, and some of the not-so-powerful ones have stepped up to fill that role.
It has not always been so. There was a time when the bigger powers were more visible and provided leadership in many areas.
Those of a certain age can remember the role of countries like Egypt in the decolonisation of Africa and the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU).
Those a little younger can recall Nigeria acting the sheriff in West Africa. It regularly picked up the stick and beat sense into heads of some naughty leaders or murderous rebels. And if they couldn’t get back into line, it forced them out of town and some sanity would return to their countries.
After the end of apartheid, South Africa played a similar role. It kept order in its neighbourhood and even as far as the Great Lakes. The sheer force of Nelson Mandela’s moral authority brought change in conflict-prone areas. His successor carried on in the same vein, this time by force of ideas.
But even then, all those engagements were largely to solve problems, not to build capacity or partnerships.
Then things appeared to change and they became less active and all but disappeared from the scene.
Egypt seemed to withdraw from any significant engagement with the rest of Africa. It became more preoccupied with internal issues and the volatile region of the Middle East. It appeared to be more concerned with defining its place in the region.
Nigeria has been beset by a horrible terrorism that it has failed to defeat so far. In addition, many of its politicians have increasingly become inward looking. Ironically, at the same time its business people have been expanding into the rest of Africa.
In the last decade, South Africa has been mired in corruption and what South Africans call “state capture”. It squandered the moral and political capital the struggle for liberation and Mandela’s short presidency had given it. Instead of being a leader, the country became a meddler in other countries’ affairs.
Now, things are beginning to change yet again.
For instance, South Africa is trying to deal with the legacy of the last ten years as it also strives to find its place in the world again.
For its part, Egypt has been making a return to active engagement with fellow African countries. Its business people have, for a while, been aggressive in looking south for markets. Now the politicians have also woken up to that reality.
Five years ago, President Abdel Fattah El Sisi announced the establishment of the Egyptian Agency of Partnership for Development (EAPD).
It has noble objectives: supporting African cadres through training courses, responding to emergency needs of African countries, contributing to transfer of knowledge and sharing experiences, advancing trade between Egypt and the rest of Africa, and enhancing South-South cooperation.
Every two years since 2015, the EAPD has been organising workshops for media practitioners from across Africa. This year the workshop is going on in Cairo, from July 14-28, on the theme: media and sustainable development in Africa. Under that, participants will discuss more specific topics.
They will talk about the role of media in supporting African cooperation, in reinforcing security and development, and women and empowerment.
Is this new direction an indication of where Africa is going or should be going?
In one sense, yes. It is recognition that African countries are interdependent and that their destinies are interlinked. There is no escaping the reality that to get to where we are going requires closer cooperation.
But this can only be so if this cooperation is built on the logic of real partnership aimed at eventually ending the challenges it is meant to correct, not on that of the traditional donor-recipient relationship we are used to and the attitudes that come with that.
All said, the EAPD is bound to be a big deal in Africa and with it, Egypt is reclaiming its role as one of the continent’s powerful countries that should be playing a much greater role in African affairs
The views expressed in this article are of the author.