Understanding Africa’s place in this current multipolar world requires a quick trip down memory lane through the eyes of its largest nation, Nigeria.
Nigeria has been largely absent as a major foreign policy player in Africa for the best part of a decade. Under Muhammadu Buhari, its president from 2015 to 2023, Nigeria became more insular and irrelevant as an actor on the global stage.
President Bola Tinubu, who took over in May, is hoping to make Nigeria internationally relevant again. The recent coup in Niger and his position as chair of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) provided an early opportunity to stake out his position. International allies such as the European Union and the United States have all signalled a willingness to work with a potentially reinvigorated Nigeria.
To achieve that aim, Tinubu would have to learn from the past. Buhari’s inward-looking approach was a marked departure from the peak of Nigeria’s foreign policy relevance during the Olusegun Obasanjo presidency (1999 to 2007).
Nigeria had a muscular foreign policy across West Africa where it was the regional hegemon and the rest of the continent where it dominated the African landscape with a freshly-minted power in post-apartheid South Africa. Obasanjo bestrode the foreign policy arena like a colossus, engaging Nigerian troops in peace-keeping missions, restoring São Tomé and Principe’s ousted president and welcoming two US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Obasanjo worked closely with Thabo Mbeki of South Africa at the forefront of rejuvenating the African Union (AU).
However, a failure of Obasanjo’s impressive success was that it was built on his larger-than-life personality. Nigeria’s heft on the global stage was never institutionalized and upon his exit from office, his successors who did not have the same networks and interests did not follow through.
Nigeria’s neglect of the global arena serves as a metaphor for Africa’s reduced engagement for much of the past decade and a half. But that is changing.
A New Approach?
In 2023, African leaders are increasingly making the case for greater African influence in the world. Kenya’s President William Ruto is calling for an overhaul of the global financial architecture that has been unfavourable to Africa for decades. Kenya is also spearheading an UN-backed multinational troop deployment to restore a semblance of peace in Haiti. Tinubu has his hands full as ECOWAS chairman seeking to beat back coups in West Africa and restore democratic order. African leaders have made finding a solution to the Russia-Ukraine war a priority given both countries’ importance to food security across much of the continent.
Africa exerting its influence globally is a much more fraught exercise in 2023 than the likes of Obasanjo and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki had to contend with during their tenures. It is a delicate balancing act that requires diplomatic nuance to navigate a multipolar world. Consider the state of the global world order from the end of the Cold War until about 2010. This period was characterized by the United States of America being at the peak of its power globally, spreading the message of economic liberalisation and free markets across the globe. The Russia that emerged after the breakdown of the Soviet Union was inward-looking and with little financial clout. It discontinued the aid it provided to its Cold War allies in Africa and elsewhere and by the accounts of prominent foreign policy experts associated with the Kremlin, it was a “superpower only in the limited sense that it possesses nuclear capability”. China’s rise as a superpower was only just beginning and it was not the behemoth it is today. China’s influence in Africa was also nascent.
The US-led western order was therefore hegemonic and African leaders, almost by default, formed partnerships with the US and its allies.
That world has given way to a much more multipolar world where the US, while still the world’s foremost superpower, has competition in Africa. China has muscled in with financial clout to become Africa’s largest trade partner, a feat it achieved in 2009. Chinese trade with Africa last year was 282 billion USD. Yet China’s appetite for risk in Africa seems to be waning: there has been a slowdown of financing since 2019 which could spell trouble in the medium term for African states. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is urging African countries to diversify trade and deepen regional cooperation.
Relatively newer players like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, India and the United Arab Emirates are all staking claims for cooperation. Russia, though still diminished financially and dwarfed in trade volume and aid to Africa, represents a major competitor for western interests through its arms sales and the paramilitary Wagner Group which supports coup leaders, warlords and would-be dictators in Mali, Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic. This surfeit of options has been dubbed the “à la carte world” by some analysts.
Economic Concerns will Lead the Way
Many African countries are figuring out how to straddle this divided world based on their own interests without alienating any of the world’s major powers. China’s loans, although much criticised, have been a crucial source of funds to build much-needed infrastructure across the continent. Financial aid and investment from western governments and companies provide foreign direct investment. Countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic who feel shunned by their traditional western partners or those where coups have taken place are turning to Russia. The desire of many African states — including nominally pro-western Nigeria — to join the BRICS alliance is a sign that many see the need for an alternative.
What Africa needs most is investment to support its teeming population of mostly young people. Debt sustainability is also top of the agenda of many states across the continent that are on the brink of financial distress following the disastrous consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and economic mismanagement. Africa also needs an industrial strategy that ensures its countries benefit more from the value chain of its raw materials. There needs to be a concerted effort by African countries to embrace manufacturing which has the potential to provide jobs, a model that has lifted millions out of poverty in Southeast Asia. This would require investment in infrastructure like electricity and logistics to improve export revenues.
These economic needs will form the basis of Africa’s foreign affairs strategy in the years to come. Western powers should seek to partner meaningfully and honestly with African countries through finances and expertise. But no one should expect unwavering African loyalty — African leaders are signalling that they will act in their countries’ best interests just as western countries have done for decades.
Democracy is another sticking point. Afrobarometer polling from 36 countries on the continent suggests there is a majority (53 per cent) willing to countenance support for military rule “if elected officials abused their power”, indicating that there is a weariness with democracies that are not benefitting the people. The west should support democracy where it is growing and must also assist with development. There should also be a consistency of purpose. Many voices in coup-hit Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger wonder aloud about what they see as Western hypocrisy which condemns their own coups but shows support to coup leaders in Chad and now as it seems, Gabon.
As Zambia’s President Hakainde Hichilema has put it: “You can’t eat democracy. Human rights may sustain the spirit, but not the body. Particularly in young democracies like mine, governments must deliver economically if they are to retain the people’s consent. When multiple administrations fail to do so, disillusionment can grow not just with them but with the process itself. Few will subsequently fight when it’s on the line.”
Based in Lagos, Aanu Adeoye is covering West and Central Africa as the Financial Times’ (FT) correspondent.
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