Africa: US-Africa Summit – The 3D approach

The odds of global recession are increasing as the Ukraine war escalates. A collapse in one region will augment the odds of collapse in the others. The World Bank’s comprehensive study titled ‘Risk of Global Recession in 2023 Rises Amid Simultaneous Rate Hikes’ highlights that almost all nation-states “are tilting towards a cascade of economic crises in global financial markets and emerging economies, leading to long-term damages”. The report blames central banks around the globe for raising interest rates to tackle inflation : “Even raising the interest rates to an unprecedented high not seen over the past five decades will be insufficient to pull global inflation down to the pre-pandemic levels.” Many world leaders will therefore turn to supply disruptions and subside labour-market pressures; multiple economic shocks having severely limited the borrowing capacity and fiscal space of lower-income countries.

In Washington, D.C., the US-Africa Leaders Summit (13-15 December) is mainly focusing on the traditional pillars of economic development. The 3D approach to Africa – Defense, Development and Diplomacy – is the privileged way to address the challenges on the continent.

When Africa is taken as a whole, the most challenging issues remain political instability, insurgent groups, democratic backsliding, post- Covid-19 economic recovery, environmental degradation, and climate change. The US officials are underscoring the need to forge ahead “in collaboration, conjunction and coordination with African partners”. As opposed to only earmarking financial aid, the US is fully aware that China and Russia are also seeking bigger influence on the continent (with China seeking allies to modify the rule-based international system, and the Russian Wagner Group’s increasing involvement within struggling states).


Africa’s political, economic, and security landscape has undergone significant changes over the past decades and continues to evolve. Addressing the continent’s human security challenges, many of which are simultaneously global and local in character, requires strong policies at the national level as well as regional, and international cooperation.

At the backdrop of the US-Africa Leaders Summit, several security crises were unfolding on the continent, including post-election violence and post-Covid 19 procurement scandals. Discussions touched on good governance and the role of the military, Africa’s peace and security architecture, and Africa’s growing global importance.

While numerous internal threats and vulnerabilities exist (such as state corruption, high unemployment, and social inequality), many security concerns in Africa stem from transnational threats such as violent extremism, piracy, drug trafficking, human trafficking, toxic waste dumping, and climate change, among others. African militaries, who historically have been focused on traditional security concerns (i.e. defending national borders from attacks by other states), are, along with civilian authorities, reorienting their focus to protecting citizens from these transnational threats.

Another rapidly changing aspect of Africa’s contemporary security environment is the ever-growing interest and presence of powerful external actors. The BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) and other emerging powers have taken an increased interest in Africa.

In the face of all these challenges, there is renewed interest in the idea of ‘African solutions to African problems’, to be realized through the security architectures of the African Union (AU) and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs). Whether these nascent institutions are individually and collectively up to the task, however, is a critical, yet-to-be answered question. Realizing the full potential of the AU and RECs hinges in large part on member states mustering the political will to utilize them and provide requisite resources.


When dictators, semi-autocrats and democratizers flock together

As African leaders and their hand-picked delegations are packing their luggage to fly to Washington, D.C., it is important to emphasize that US officials are fully aware that African aspirations should be the primary focus of the second US-Africa Leaders Summit – and not African leaders who have a different (and quite personal) agenda from their people. This is based on the research made by independent democratic scholars and institutions (V-Dem and IDEA being only two of them).

“Diplomacy is part science and part art. Alliances are made, deals are cut, conflicts are left unresolved and civil rights are either promoted or trampled. Diplomacy is conducted under the idea that bringing disparate peoples together and negotiating differences can maintain stable and sometimes peaceful relationships between nations – but at what cost and who decides who is coming to dinner and who is not? Where US diplomacy toward Africa is concerned, one can certainly wonder how the art is conjured, who is stirring the pot and who decides that some dictators and certain autocrats come to the White House, and some don’t,” asked Benin’s former Minister of Justice, Reckya Madougou, in an open letter.

According to the White House, the US will work with their African partners “to support democratic institutions and civil societies in Africa and to enhance accountability and the delivery of basic services”. However, when one looks at the guest list for the summit, legitimacy is still being given to certain autocrats, human and civil rights abusers, as media and social media perpetrators.

A question often asked since the launch of the Arab Spring in January 2011 is what effect will popular protests have on democracy in the rest of Africa. Frequently overlooked in this discussion is that Sub-Saharan Africa has been experiencing its own democratic surge during this time with important advances in Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger, Nigeria, and Zambia, among other countries. This progress builds on nearly two decades of democratic institutions setting up on the continent (which was slowed down recently due to the pandemic). Even so, the legacy of “big-man” politics continues to cast a long shadow over Africa’s governance norms. Regime models on the continent, moreover, remain highly varied, ranging from hardcore autocrats, to semi-authoritarians, democratizers, and a select number of democracies (Mauritius is no longer in the latter group).

Recognising these complex and still fluid crosscurrents, democratic embarked on an analysis of the linkages between the Arab Spring and African democracy – with an eye on the implications for governance norms on the continent over the 2030 horizon.

A key finding from several reports is that the effects of the Arab Spring on Africa must be understood in the much larger and longer term context of Africa’s democratic evolution. While highly varied and at different stages of progress, democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa is not starting from scratch, unlike in most of the Arab world. Considered from this broader and more heterogeneous perspective, the direct effects of the Arab Spring on Sub-Saharan Africa’s democratic development are muted. There are few linear relationships linking events in North Africa to specific shifts in democratization on the continent. That said, the angst and frustration propelling the protests and unfolding transitions in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, resonate deeply with many Africans who are also facing global inflation and recession, as well as bad governance.

The Arab Spring has thus served as a trigger, rather than a driver, for further democratic reforms in the region. There have been protests in more than a dozen African capitals demanding greater political pluralism, transparency, and accountability following the launch of the Arab Spring. Some have even explicitly referenced North Africa as a model. Likewise, a number of African governments are so fearful of the Arab Spring’s influence that they have banned mention of the term on the Internet or public media.

The democratic protests in North Africa, consequently, are still having an impact and shaping the debate on the future of democracy in Africa. They are also teaching important lessons that democracy is not bestowed on but earned by its citizens. Once initiated, it is not a passive or self-perpetuating governance model, but one that requires the active engagement of citizens. Perhaps most meaningfully, then, the Arab Spring is instigating changes in expectations that African citizens have of their governments. In Mauritius, Nishal Joyram frequently refers to Tarek elTayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010 in Tunisia – which became a catalyst for the Arab Spring against autocratic regimes.

*Based on data from Polity IV and Freedom House, important features of democracy, such as multipartyism, respect for civil liberties, independent media, and periodic elections, in fact do not allow genuine contestations of power. In other words, they wish to garner the reputational benefits of democracy without commitments to shared power, representation, and equality under the law. Such quasi-authoritarians comprise a fifth of African regimes. These cases pose illuminating tests as to whether still democratic institutions, like Electoral Supervisory Commissions, can withstand the pressure of powerful individual politicians seeking to perpetuate their influence by undermining checks and balances on executive authority.

In Washington, D.C., many semi-authoritarian leaders who do not want to adopt genuine democratic practices, or to facilitate smooth transitions from power, with proper electoral reforms, will be smiling for the group picture.

Those leaders who tend to stay too long are likely to depart on terms considerably less favourable to themselves, n’est-ce pas ?


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