Africa needs African solutions to overcome challenges from abroad

African countries have never been so closely connected to the problems facing the entire world, writes Simon Allison

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki is urging Africans to write their own narrative. Herman Verwey / Getty Images
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In the early 2000s – an altogether more hopeful age, in Africa – former South African president Thabo Mbeki coined a phrase that would define continental policymaking for the decade to come. “African solutions to African problems,” he said – and that’s what the African Union has been trying to achieve ever since, albeit with decidedly mixed results.

But maybe Mbeki wasn’t thinking big enough. As 2016 turned into 2017, there are certainly plenty of African problems to be grappled with. In the north, the governance vacuum in Libya shows no sign of abating, with disastrous knock-on consequences for the region.

In the east, South Sudan is still mired in a civil war, and Somalia’s tenuous stability is maintained only by a 22,000-soldier army of self-interested peacekeepers.

In the west, Nigeria’s economy is spiralling out of control, while Gambia’s president Yahya Jammeh is desperately attempting to make good on his prediction that he would rule for a billion years, even if his people said something different in November’s election.

In the south, Zimbabwe faces a potentially messy transition of power as Robert Mugabe shows signs of weakening. At the same time, regional superpower South Africa is struggling to contain increased social unrest, with the brutal reality of the country’s gross inequalities rapidly diminishing Nelson Mandela’s “Rainbow Nation” dream.

And in the centre, observers are on genocide watch in Burundi, while more unrest and violence is expected in the Democratic Republic of Congo until president Joseph Kabila makes good on the recently-agreed deal for him to step down after elections.

It’s a daunting laundry list of conflict and crises, one that will stretch the limits of continental diplomacy and peacekeeping to – and probably beyond – the breaking point.

Nonetheless, the African narrative this year will not be defined by these African problems. Instead, Africa must confront global headwinds that will have an even greater effect on the lives and livelihoods of nearly 1 billion Africans.

These headwinds are epitomised by the election of Donald Trump in the United States. Although Mr Trump has barely mentioned Africa, his campaign promises – if enacted – will reverberate throughout the African continent. Of particular concern is his denial of climate change, and his pledge to tear up the Paris climate-change agreement. With scientists predicting that African countries will be among the first and hardest hit by climate change, this could have devastating consequences in the long term.

In the short term, African economies are already under pressure from a sluggish global economy – and in particular the end of the commodities boom.

"In 2016, real GDP growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to have been the weakest since the 2008-09 global financial crisis. This was largely because of the poor performance in its two largest economies, South Africa and Nigeria, which together make up about half of Sub-Saharan Africa's GDP," said Standard Chartered economist Razia Khan in the journal African Arguments.

For a continent that remains all too dependent on its extractive industries, this is making growth even harder, and increasing the potential for unrest, especially in countries such as Angola, which has failed to turn its oil bonanza into sustainable development.

At the same time, it’s becoming harder and harder for both African countries and companies to borrow money from world capital markets, which will further stifle growth and innovation.

Then there’s the growing power of the developed world’s populist right-wing movements, including but certainly not limited to Mr Trump: think the Front National in France, the Five Star Movement in Italy and the Danish People’s Party. Even though not all these movements are in government, their influence is shifting global rhetoric in a direction that is starkly more isolationist and authoritarian.

This is bad news for Africa. The more isolationist the world becomes, the more pressure there is to reduce or cut completely the aid money on which much of the continent still relies for basic services.

The effect of this is already being felt by African civil society organisations, who are competing against each other for access to a dwindling pool of grants from western governments (in particular, large funding reductions from Scandinavian countries are hitting hard). As cuts increase even further, education and health services are likely to suffer.

Increased authoritarianism is also a problem. From an African perspective, perhaps the single most chilling act by Mr Trump was his apparent endorsement of Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, who proudly admits to murdering suspected drug runners while encouraging his government to do the same. According to Filipino police statistics, more than 6,000 people have been assassinated by law enforcement, paramilitaries and vigilantes since Mr Duterte was sworn in on July 1 last year.

The message that this sends to human rights abusers in Africa is loud and clear: you can get away with murder. A crucial brake on the worst excesses of bad leaders is in the process of being removed.

It’s not all doom and gloom. In adversity lies opportunity, and the changing world order also provides a chance for Africa to rewrite its own narrative. As analyst Ronak Gopaldas explains: “Amid this geopolitical shake-up, an opportunity exists for the continent to now exploit a vacuum created by increasingly fragile Europe, an inward-looking and protectionist US and a rebalancing and domestically focused China.

“With crafty and ambitious leadership, it may in fact be possible for the African continent to meaningfully exert its influence on a global stage.”

Take aid, for example. While there is no doubt that a reduction of aid will have severe short-term consequences, this also provides a platform to break the continent’s aid dependence and create its own sustainable development models that don’t rely on the largesse of former colonial powers. Or take the commodities bust, which has so badly exposed the mismanagement of oil-rich economies such as Angola and Nigeria.

While the current pain can’t be averted, they also provide a lesson to other countries on how not to manage natural resources, hopefully paving the way for transparent, inclusive models of resource management in the future.

Mr Mbeki was partly right. Africa needs African solutions – but not just for African problems. Unless African leaders figure out how to mitigate and overcome severe global headwinds, it’s going to be a long and difficult year for the continent. No one said it was going to be easy.

Simon Allison is the Africa correspondent for the Daily Maverick in South Africa and a research consultant for the Institute for ­Security Studies