Ask not what foreign nations are doing for Africa…

…but what Africa is doing for foreign nations: Tanzanian President Mkapa on the future of Africa’s relations with the world

  Mkapa Enters

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by former President of Tanzinia, Benjamin Mkapa, hosted by Zhejiang Normal University’s Institute of African Studies and the China-Africa Business College. President Mkapa delivered his speech, titled “Unscrambling Africa in the New Millennium” (在新千年实现非洲的自主发展), to a large conference room packed full with African and Chinese students, professors and perhaps three Americans (myself included).

“With every visit to China, I feel inspired and have hope for the future.” President Mkapa began on this complementary note, before launching into an thoughtful and eloquent review of African countries’ shared history of colonialism, the so-called “scramble for Africa” and the subsequent post-war neo-colonial “economic occupation” of independent African countries by traditional powers. Referencing prominent African historians and scholars, he concluded his historical discussion by arguing for the past several centuries Africa in fact developed Europe to the same extent that Europe underdeveloped Africa.

However, in the 21st century, he transitioned, “thankfully, new drama is unfolding in Africa”, one in which African countries can and must be “proactive in charting the path of a new, equitable globalization.” This process will require both an “unscrambling of outstanding and existing ties with the developed world” (rethinking, for example, ongoing EPA negotiations with the European Union, which “defile, dismiss and degrade” fundamental goals of African nations) and a strengthening of “fresh” relations with the BRICS and the South. He concluded his lecture with a discussion of China’s widely acknowledged development successes, emphatically asserting: “Africa must learn from China.”

African students watching Mkapa

Beyond its intrinsic interest to a China-Africa, international politics nerd like myself, his speech had another characteristic that I greatly appreciated: a decisive emphasis on African agency in this process of “unscrambling” and realigning relations with foreign nations. (The Chinese title of the lecture actually captures this better than the English—“自主发展” means ‘autonomous’ or ‘independent development’. At one point Mkapa quotes an African saying: “The desire to cheat and the refusal to be cheated is the source of noise in the market.” He explains, “We must raise our voices.” Accordingly, he argues, “the success of failure will be primarily decided by Africa”.

Unfortunately, to this day much analysis of the role of foreign nations in Africa continues to frame African actors as passive objects of great powers (see, for example, the (in my opinion) anachronistic discussions of Africa as the “new battlefield” of China v. the US/Japan/”the West”). While justifiably contextualizing Africa’s current development challenges within the history of colonialism and neo-colonialism, Mkapa uses his speech to firmly assert the essential role of local agency in the continents future development. What can African countries do, he repeatedly asked, to ensure that interactions with foreign powers, new and old, are benefiting Africa rather than hurting it?

Africa should not be too preoccupied about what Europe can do for Africa; rather, it should be reviewing what Africa is doing for Europe. Not what the US is doing for Africa; rather, what the Africa is doing for the US. And similarly, it is not what Africa can do for Asia – and in particular for China – but what China can do for Africa.

Liu Hongwu, Mkapa and Liu Guijin If Africa needs to “unscramble” ties with developed countries like the US in order to move forward, do these countries have any  role to play in the future? I posed this question in the Q&A segment, to a wave of laughter from the audience. (He had just finished an extended indictment of the US’s ineffectual tendency to morally shame African countries, when I sheepishly raised my hand and announced: “Hello…um…I am Zander…from America.”) His response: “Yes, there is a very big role.”

Namely, developed countries need to do a much better job “accepting the independence” of African countries and giving them more space to operate independently. To do so, “we” [the developing world] must do a better job of waiting for advice to be sought, actually listening to African leaders and not “hurrying” to impose our own views and values. In addition, he emphasized, “in fighting poverty, make sure that you are helping us and not increasing it.”

Broadly speaking, his speech was a fervent call for African nations and leadership to be “proactive”, acknowledging their own agency in international political negotiations – whether they be with the US or China. Based on this, his response to my question suggested, the role of developed countries is also to acknowledge the agency of African actors.

As I sat there, hands still shaking from speaking in front of a large group of people that included a former head of state, I could not help but share the President’s optimism for the future.

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