___Revised version of an article that was first published in German in: Außerschulische Bildung. Zeitschrift der politischen Jugend- und Erwachsenenbildung, (2019) 4, 33-36 (translation by the author).___
The role of the African continent in current globalization processes is more than complex – it is between old and new dependencies, between external globalization projects and African visions of order. Unlike immediately after independence in the 1960s, or the economic crisis of the 1970/1980s, when the continent hardly seemed to play a proactive role in globalization processes, the phase since the dawn of the new millennium has been marked by new competitions in Africa (keyword: second scramble for Africa), but also clearly noticeable own visions of world order.
Global past and post-colonial dependencies
Since the emergence of an almost ineluctable global entanglement between 1840 and 1880, called “the global condition” by global historians, the African continent has become an integral part of various global orders made – be it as one of the main foci of European missionary projects; be it as origin of a further expanding slave trade even after its legal abolition spanning from the Transatlantic in the West to the Indian Ocean in the East; be it as a field of competition for various European companies interested in the continent’s raw materials; be it as the subject of a race between European powers around zones of influence and spaces for settlement; be it as a field of competition for various European companies interested in the continent’s raw materials; or as a continent subjected to racist and Eurocentric orders of knowledge. Often overlooked, but equally important, are the diverse interdependencies that actively originated from the continent itself – for example in the areas of trade, knowledge production or religion (see, for instance, Iliffe 2017). Africa has been positioned by external forces in the global condition, but Africans have also positioned themselves and the continent in global entanglements.
Historically, so far there have been three major patterns to integrate Africa into a sort of world order. The first was related to the early modern establishment of a worldwide system of plantations in the Caribbean, Brazil and in the Southern part of what was to become the United States. This system was depending on labour force transported from Africa to the plantations. The second pattern was a mix of forced settlement, direct and indirect rule in colonies covering the vast majority of Africa between the 1880s and the 1950s (in Southern Africa lasting until the 1980s). The third pattern was related to the expansion of the Cold War divide into the continent (with its peak in southern Africa exceeded in the mid-1980s). The Cold War opened some opportunities for African leaders to negotiate the position of their regimes between the two camps (and at times even playing the “Chinese card”), but in general Africa’s role in these world orders has been expressed in terms such as “dependency” and “exploitation”. Overall, despite the role the Non-Alignment Movement (from 1961), the successful fight against colonialism and apartheid or the (failed) attempt to create a “new world economic order” in the 1970s (see Harshé 2019), in the scientific discussion of the Global North African actors were rarely attributed importance as independent actors. This has changed only recently with empirical insights into the role of various African actors in global politics and the growing acceptance of post-colonial arguments on African agency.
Africa after the end of the Cold War
The end of the Cold War marks a historic turning point in Africa: since then no stable global order has emerged, instead various world order projects of different actors are competing against each other. And increasingly both governmental and non-governmental African actors are trying to counter this with their own projects. At first, in the early 1990s, it seemed as if Africa would be integrated into what has been imagined as a “liberal world order” through democratisation projects and UN interventions in violent conflicts. This order was orchestrated essentially by the sole leadership of the United States and dominated by “western” values. Because of the failure of UN peacekeeping missions, the subsequent withdrawal of the West from Africa, but also the arduous political transitions on the continent, this perspective suddenly came to an end (see Keller and Rothchild 1996). In response to these developments, member states transformed the Organization of African Unity (OAU) founded in 1963 into the African Union (AU) in 2002. Since then the Union has been working on an ambitious double project: the establishment of an African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) and a complementary African Governance Architecture (AGA). The economic and social ambitions of the continent’s body were spelled out in 2013 in Agenda 2063. The Africa We Want (see Karbo and Murithi 2018).
New global powers and more confident African actors
With the rise of China as the most significant external player in Africa the dynamics between external and African globalization projects accelerated rapidly. In the slipstream of China, a whole range of “new” actors are pursuing their interests on the continent: India and Russia, now also Australia, Brazil, Turkey or Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. In addition, the old western or colonial powers follow their interests in Africa. In addition to the U.S., these are mainly France, Great Britain and Italy. This includes an interest in raw materials, the long-term lease of large amounts of land for food production and security policies (for example in the so-called “war on terror”), while others want to stop migration from Africa to Europe in North Africa (cf. Cornelissen, Cheru and Shaw 2012). A strong symbol of these developments is China’s “new silk road” or “Belt and Road” project, which incorporates the Horn of Africa and East Africa into China’s global power ambitions. Meanwhile it has triggered some counter-moves, not only in Africa.
Increasingly these states, or the multinational corporations operating from their territories, are facing reactions from leading regional powers such as Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Rwanda or South Africa, but also regional organizations like the African Union or the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS), as well as African private companies, such as in the mining and communications sectors, or religious groups. Hence, in research, “Africa” or African states have increasingly been attested “agency”, i.e. forms of exercising de facto sovereignty (cf. Brown and Harman 2013). In a critical reflection of the western dominated state of research on the role of Africa in globalization processes, this has led to the formulation of Africa-centred theoretical approaches (see Bischoff, Aning and Acharya 2016).
Transregional arenas of action of global integration
Despite (and rather because of) all the dynamics of globalization, Africa is contradictory, heterogeneous and not a continent characterized by unified interests (cf. Ferguson 2006). Its population is young (41% of people are under 15 years old); it is expected that the population will double from 1.2 billion (2016) to 2.4 billion by 2050. Yet in international comparison life expectancy remains low (52 years). In many parts of the continent the developmental challenges described in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) remain very present: poverty, malnutrition, high child mortality, insufficient access to clean water, low levels of education, persistent discrimination of women, often a lack of access to land and means of production, etc. pp. (United Nations 2019).
On the other hand, there is a great wealth of mineral resources that – with a view to economic growth figures – periodically leads to narratives such as “Rising Africa” (Economist 2011): Niger and Namibia produce 16 percent of the world’s uranium, South Africa is responsible for 46 percent of global chrome and 77 percent of all platinum exports, 53 percent of global cobalt production and 21 percent of all industrial diamonds come from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Botswana controls 22 percent of worldwide diamond production, etc. (all numbers 2012). There are also significant African shares in the global mining of bauxite, iron ore, gold, coal and manganese. And many countries are hoping for brighter futures, based on gas and oil discoveries off the coast of Africa.
Against this contradictory background, right now the negotiation of external and African globalization projects is particularly intensive in five fields, which are all transregionally structured (i.e. they are not necessarily “global” – cf. Middell 2019). And certainly, the following selection cannot be conclusive or complete.
Crisis of multilateralism: The rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States, the dismantling of rule of law in Eastern Europe and the Russian Federation, wildly sparked trade and currency wars as well as aggressive Chinese geopolitics only poorly reflect the extent to which the “liberal world order” not only has come under pressure in recent years, but has been systematically hollowed out (see Ikenberry 2018). In this situation, the African Union on behalf of its member states is trying to build strategic partnerships, which promise predictability and sovereignty. This applies in particular to partnerships with the United Nations on the one hand and the European Union on the other, both of which have been systematically developed since around 2007.
Currency competition: France has had its former colonies since 1945 integrated into a common currency union, the Franc CFA. At first this stood for the Colonies Françaises d’Afrique, later for the Communautés Françaises d’Afrique (each with a variant for West and one for Central Africa, BCEAO and BEAC resp.). The Franc CFA was pegged to the EEC’s unit of account, the ECU, and later the Euro and thus promised exchange rate stability – but it also meant that policy options of West African central banks were lost. There is currently an advanced effort by ECOWAS to replace in its 15 member states the FCFA with the Eco (a decision which has been postponed again and again since 2003). The introduction of its own common currency would specifically affect eight member states, now still working with the Franc CFA. It would give back to them currency sovereignty, with all risks involved.
Trade Balkanization: Until a few years ago, Europe was Africa’s main trading partner. With the Treaty of Rome (1957), initially 18 colonies of France were associated with the EEC. Preferential trade access to the European market was later granted under the Yaoundé Agreement (1963-1975) and Lomé Conventions (1976-1999), respectively, to the group of African, Caribbean and African countries Pacific (ACP). Since the subsequent Cotonou Agreement no longer complied with the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the EU decided to offer Regional Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). Negotiations started after the turn of the millennium, but have not yet been completed in all cases. Basically, the negotiation results thus far have distorted some of the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) by introducing very different membership rights (e.g. in the Southern African Development Community, SADC). This has undermined regional integration efforts in Africa.
Peace and security partnerships: Faced with numerous violent conflicts, especially larger transregional conflict complexes (Sahara, Red Sea, Horn of Africa, Great Lakes), and insufficient funding through membership fees to the AU and the RECs, in building the APSA the African Union is heavily depending on support by its partners. For decades the United Nations has been the main source of funding for peace support operations (currently around USD 7 bn per year). In addition, the EU’s African Peace Facility (APF) is the most important source of finance for other measures, especially the promotion of the AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Inter-regionalism has thus become an important feature in processes of globalization around Africa.
Control of migration and refugees: Climate change and violent conflicts has displaced millions of people in Africa, the vast majority of whom are IDPs. Most people find refuge in their own region (in 2017 they were 19 mn African refugees). The prospect of economic improvement also leads to that people from Africa want to emigrate to Europe. Border closures and life-threatening passages across the Mediterranean have initiated a special and unwilling form of cooperation between Africa and Europe, including the relocation of the EU’s external border to Africa and half-hearted return operations. The choice of networking and demarcation formats on both sides illustrates how difficult it has become to make clear-cut statements about “globalization”, “regionalization”, or inter-regional practices.
Africa is undoubtedly neither the continent of the future nor a detached observer of global events on the side (this would also assume that there is only one globalization, with one regional centre). The continent’s actors are diverse, state and non-state. They each have their own interests and can therefore be found in coalitions together, often across political regions and their partnerships with other regions (i.e. the principle of inter-regionalism). In particular at times when there is little prospect for rule-based multilateralism, this could serve as a framework and arena for solving global challenges.
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