Fully-integrated Africa can engage development suitors better

The Twitter hash-tag #TICAD7 (7th Tokyo International Conference on African Development) trended across the continent because most of Africa’s newsmakers were in the Japanese Port-City of Yokohama attending the summit that discussed how to develop their countries, back home. 

First launched in 1993, TICAD is part of Japan’s wider strategy on international relations engagement with Africa and is organized in partnership with strategic entities such as United Nations, World Bank, and African Union.

Many an observer has called it the ‘Japanese version of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC)’ as they both appear to be interested in the same outcomes.

Although it is great when rich economies like Japan show interest in Africa, it is more important for Africa to know its own interests and how to secure them from its many wealthy suitors.

Japan, China, India, three independent economies, each has their respective platforms to engage with the continent, seeking to advance their sovereign interests in each African country.

In a way, Africa is openly flirting with multiple suitors and sometimes, their interests have clashed. It takes a smart player to juggle multiple relationships without causing clashes among them. 

The presence of the African Union Commission at TICAD gets one to wonder whether Africa has a unified agenda with Japan and if so, what is it and what tangible outcomes should we expect?

But a journalist friend of mine who covered the conference for a UK-based media outlet told me that TICAD7 was dominated by sideline events of bilateral engagements between African countries’ government delegates meeting key players in Japanese administration to secure deals.

“It was an opportunity to push through bilateral agendas with Japan and other multilateral non-state actors present at the conference and I think many African governments came out with good deals,” she told me.

Japan and its peers such as China and India have well-defined interests in Africa. As a continent, Africa too, must define its interests with each of its suitors and know how exactly to secure them.

In that regard, the African Union Commission has an opportunity to exercise leadership, especially as it appears, we have decided to engage richer countries as a continent, not individual country.

Luckily, I think the Japanese can be regarded as fairly trustworthy and their approach to African development is one to be encouraged as it is more private sector-oriented and a belief in small scale enterprises as holding the answers to questions such as job creation.

For example, Japan through its international development arm, JICA has hugely contributed to Africa’s integration efforts through financing one-border posts.

But African governments are not showing the right attitude to integration especially at the regional level, choosing competition over cooperation.

Prime Minister Abby’s initiative of identifying Africa’s future business leaders and giving them the skills training they need, in some of the Japanese respected educational institutions, is another initiative to applaud.

What Africa needs to do is to drop its ‘dependency mentality’ and seek to get in charge of its own development agenda, pick and assign roles to partners needed to achieve that agenda.

I would not mind, for instance, the Kigali International Conference on African Development (KICAD) or the International Conference on African Development (ICAD) hosted in rotation by each African country just like the AU Summit.

On a lighter note, TICAD reminded me of a recent story from one of the neighborhoods in an East African city; it is a tale of a poor man, Derrick Isumba and his rich neighbors.  

Recently, Derrick got a strange notification on one of his smartphone applications; his neighbor had added him to a WhatsApp group created to discuss ways of helping his household to develop; the group had at least fifteen other members, all quite wealthy.

The WhatsApp group admin, a wealthy neighbor who lived in a palatial two-storied ultra-modern manor had for some time been irritated by his poorer neighbor Derrick, whose semi-modern house with a decaying roof, was only three blocks away and it, kind of distorted his view.

It is also reported that Derrick’s household was also fond of blaring the gate-bells of his wealthy neighbors, seeking to borrow household items such as salt but mostly to borrow money.

Often times, he would borrow no more than $100 yet he would always mortgage a piece of his massive plot which he had inherited from his father. 

By now, Derrick owed in excess of $2000 dollars to his wealth neighbors and they literally owned his assets as he had mortgaged them for cash bailouts. 

In spite of the debt, he continued to borrow. His neighbors, ironically, continued to lend him, further sinking Derrick’s household into debt. This situation worried Derrick’s children who feared they would lose their inheritance to their dad’s debtors.

But Derrick, knowing how indebted he already was to the Admin and his friends, reluctantly accepted to be part of the group and prepared for the first meeting which would take place in the lavish living room on the upper floor of his wealthy neighbor. 

He had become a household head whose welfare was in the hands of his wealthy neighbors.

The views expressed in this article are of the author.