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Policy Workshop II: External Actors and Public Opinion. How Perceptions Influence Politics

Megatrends spotlight 2022 11, 12.07.2022

Perceptions create the framework within which we form opinions and take decisions. This makes it important to monitor how they develop and end up shaping public opinion and politics in Africa. Over the past weeks, Megatrends Afrika has explored different perspectives on how perceptions influence politics. On 15 June 2022, we discussed the results with political decision-makers and representatives from academia and civil society.

External involvement on the African continent is stirring much debate – and at times also concern and controversy. Take China as an example: In 2021, Quartz Africa reported “Africans’ favorable view of China comes with one small caveat”. This year, a headline by the Voice of America read “China Wins Battle of Perception Among Young Africans”. The reach of external influence in Africa, then, is increasingly measured through perceptions.

At Megatrends Afrika, we, too, have sought to engage with the multiple African perspectives on, and perceptions of, external actors. For our second Policy Workshop, we discussed findings from our research with stakeholders in politics, academia, and civil society. We presented three perspectives on the larger topic of perceptions: (1) the discourse on large Chinese infrastructure projects in Kenya, (2) the perceptions of African and non-African migrants in Senegal and Uganda, and (3) the impact of public opinion towards the Russian war in Ukraine on the voting behaviour of African states at the United Nations (UN). These perspectives were drawn from research by Megatrends Afrika scholars Karoline Eickhoff (SWP), Tobias Heidland (IfW), and Emmanuel Rukundo (IDOS).

Our panellists drew upon their recent research to unpack public opinion in specific countries and examine the underlying mechanisms shaping these perceptions. The discussion focussed on the perceptions of both traditional Western powers and emerging actors such as China and Russia. It covered state-to-state relations but also drilled down into the sub-state level, examining specific social groups and foreign communities.

How Kenyans perceive Chinese Mega Projects amid toppling debt and nearing elections

Based on the findings from recent research in Kenya, Karoline Eickhoff shared her insights on the different political discourses around major Chinese infrastructure projects. As Kenyans prepare to head to the polls in August, the country is facing a severe debt crisis that is stoking controversy over the relationship between foreign investment and national debt. Large-scale Chinese projects are variously viewed as symbols of independence and modernity, manifestations of usurpation, or colossal losing deals. While leaders across political camps and citizens appreciate Chinese-funded public infrastructure investments, parts of civil society and the citizenry criticise the government’s debt management practices.

What does this mean for Germany's Africa policy? Among other things, the policy debate should go beyond the notion of competing with other external actors over influence and engage diverse perspectives on Kenya-China relations.

How Ugandans and Senegalese perceive African and non-African migrants

Tobias Heidland presented extensive data from a survey his team conducted in Uganda and Senegal. The data shed light on the perceptions and attitudes of the local population towards African and non-African migrants. It turns out that social and societal aspects play a much greater role than individual economic considerations. Socio-tropic and socio-economic factors largely determine how migrants are perceived in their African host communities. In this context, access to social services is a major concern for many citizens.

Moreover, China is sometimes perceived as a major economic threat. But citizens in both countries distinguish between the geopolitical dimension as a whole and the individual migrant arriving in their community. Positive examples of migration should therefore be highlighted and best practices taken into account. Strategic communication could focus on the benefits that migration can bring to a society.

How Africans perceive Russia’s aggression against Ukraine

Lastly, Emmanuel Rukundo addressed the question of how voting behaviour at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly related to African public opinion on the war in Ukraine. His research findings are based on a so-called sentiment analysis, which uses statements on Twitter to analyse how Africans viewed the conflict during its first weeks.

The research shows that the increasingly negative sentiment in Africa regarding the current Ukraine-Russia conflict is correlated with the voting behaviour at the UN. Media coverage such as reports of discrimination against African students arriving from Ukraine at European borders left a clear impression on African citizens. This shifted the debate on social media and influenced the voting behaviour of African states at the UN.

What does this mean for German Africa policy and its positioning in a new multipolar order? The West is losing influence and legitimacy in Africa. This calls for new policy approaches that transform the much-vaunted “partnership of equals” from a buzzword into an actual blueprint for policy. It is important to look beyond the governmental level to not only include members of African society but also to address them directly and exchange ideas with them.