Robert R. Bianchi
October 13, 2021
Many debates over African politics mirror questions about the changing character of the international system.
In a post-American world, what is the optimal number of rivals for a multipolar balance of power? Can stable alliances or concerts of powers substitute for absent hegemons?
Among the many afflictions that Africans must endure today, the most dangerous might be their leaders’ growing enthusiasm for geopolitics. Across the continent, politicians are convinced the time is ripe for African nations to become more influential and autonomous actors in world affairs. In this context, the metaphor of Island Africa acquires a double meaning—the continent is both distinct and central at the same time, able to assert a unique identity while claiming a greater share of power in global networks that need its resources and consent more than ever.
In the past, great powers exploited Africans as colonies and pawns, but now the tables have turned—China and Russia are undermining American and European dominance—and African leaders look forward to playing a new version of the great game, this time in a starring role.
This self-confidence may surprise observers accustomed to seeing Africa as a sphere of influence constantly vulnerable to outsiders competing to carve out special zones and dependent client states. Indeed, America’s diplomats and generals still imagine Africa as remaining in exactly this sort of passive posture. Inside the Beltway, the prevailing view is that Chinese companies and Russian mercenaries are creating mischief, exploiting Africa’s weaknesses for their own gains while sabotaging Western efforts to strengthen local militaries against growing threats of cross-border terrorism and insurgency.
With increasing alarm, Washington warns African leaders to beware of debt traps and arms races that threaten peace and democracy. Reject Chinese telecom investment, limit Russian military training, don’t turn your backs on Western friends who’ve provided the arms and finance that kept you afloat for so many years.
African leaders have grown accustomed to these admonitions and they’ve learned to use them to good advantage in playing off outside powers against one another. Having multiple options strengthens the leverage of African negotiators in many fields—trade, resource extraction, arms deals, human rights disputes, technology transfer, diplomatic standing, aid packages, loans, investments, and more.
At the same time that African rulers are juggling foreign relations, they are also trying to sort out power relations among themselves. If Africans are going to rule Africa, then which countries will lead and which will follow? If the dream of pan-African unity is as elusive as ever, then what practical steps can encourage greater integration? If the continent is too vast to be governed as a whole, then how many Africas should there be?
For the largest and strongest African countries, the slogan of regionalization has become the favored response to these questions about inter-African power.
For the largest and strongest African countries, the slogan of regionalization has become the favored response to these questions about inter-African power. The basic approach assumes a broad consensus over the historic existence of distinct regions shaped by topography, ecology, climate, migration, culture, language, state formation, trade networks, and links to other continents. The number of regions is open to debate, but usually limited to five or six. Supposedly, each region has a particular political dynamic—an implicit hierarchy of power with one or two preeminent states standing above their neighbors.
The promise of regionalization is to create benevolent hegemons in each zone—top dogs that will promote the interests of their neighbors instead of exploiting them. In theory, this handful of local hegemons would create a continent-wide balance of power system that would promote peaceful competition and development to the benefit of all Africans. Regional institutions would have the authority to negotiate with non-African states, channeling aid and investment to agreed sectors and locations. They would also provide collective security and defense bolstered by formal processes of representation and deliberation.
The implicit aim of regionalization is to legitimize hegemony by cloaking it in the rhetoric of balance of power stability. These are the moves of weak governments whose greatest threats are not from neo-colonialist foreigners but from their neighbors and their own citizens. Unable to rest their legitimacy on real consent, they hope to create an illusion of popular support by fulfilling the manifest destiny of transnational regions and, ultimately, of the entire continent. By enshrining hierarchy and sidestepping civil society, the would-be hegemons are likely to spark exactly the wars and revolutions they dread and claim to be preventing.
Regionalization is a formula for bringing the great game home, making the struggle for power an African affair disguised as greater integration, development, and global influence. National borders are supposedly inviolable, but sovereignty must be pooled to overcome debilitating fragmentation. Consensus is valued, but decision making should be concentrated in fewer hands and more expert circles. Multiple hegemons presumably respect one another’s right to coexist, but ranking and subordinating are inherent aspects of trying to balance unequal partners. In this way, balancing becomes a pretense for narrowing hegemonic elites and winnowing their number over time.
This approach to centralizing power—as opposed to legitimate authority—invites resistance and bloodshed from many directions at once. If Africans have been so determined to expel foreign oppressors, why should they now rally behind home-grown princes with similar predatory instincts? In an era of global civil society and transnational rebellion, why would African citizens resign themselves to watching local elites command a global playing field while they remain on the sidelines? In fact, the more popular sentiment in Africa favors greater devolution of power and local autonomy—precisely the opposite of regionalization’s path toward hegemonic consolidation.
Outside powers might endorse these developments for several reasons. They could concentrate on their higher priority struggles with one another while leaving Africa to its own devices. The greatest costs of government and security would be borne by African elites without constant and direct engagement from foreign patrons. Foreigners could maintain their distance while competing more vigorously—though not more safely—for commercial and diplomatic advantage.
Great powers—despite their divergent interests—are buying into the African discourse on regionalization without appreciating its inherent flaws and self-defeating tendencies.
And, with so many rivalries between states and opposition movements, opportunistic foreigners would have wide room for troublemaking if they chose to weigh in, openly or covertly. Prime examples include the competition between Nigeria and South Africa for unofficial leadership of pan-Africanism, the confrontation of Egypt and Ethiopia over control of the Nile River Valley, and long-simmering tensions pitting Algeria against Morocco in North Africa and Kenya against Tanzania in East Africa. Following this logic, great powers—despite their divergent interests—are buying into the African discourse on regionalization without appreciating its inherent flaws and self-defeating tendencies.
Many debates over African politics mirror questions about the changing character of the international system in general. In a post-American world, what is the optimal number of rivals for a multipolar balance of power? Can stable alliances or concerts of powers substitute for absent hegemons? Can new hierarchies form under rising powers willing to provide public goods to an international society that is both more interconnected and more fragile?
Sadly, the African and global discussions often underestimate the importance of legitimacy and its unavoidable reliance on popular consent and wider participation. At both levels, governing elites are so preoccupied with clinging to power that they neglect mounting worldwide demands for greater power sharing—among nations, classes, and generations.
In Africa and beyond, power sharing is fleeting, and power grabs are endless. Entrenched elites pour more energy into refurnishing their penthouses even as the lower floors and foundations are crumbling beneath them. But no system of hierarchies and hegemons is salvageable. Circulating elites and fine tuning their pecking orders are certain recipes for failure—unless we become so discouraged as to conclude that war and revolution are the only remedies left for unjust institutions incapable of reform and self-correction.
Turkey’s Desperate Drone Diplomacy
Interview with Faisal Ali, The New Arab Magazine, October 24, 2021
1) A lot of focus has been on Turkey’s agency in reaching out to Africa, but to what extent does the desire of African countries to seek out new partners play into this?
Africa’s relations with other nations are far more reciprocal than most observers realize. African politicians are highly skilled at manipulating outsiders who wish to manipulate them. Both sides tend to overestimate their leverage and imagine they can control other people who have wills of their own.
Turkey’s desperate drone diplomacy is a stunning example of the miscalculation and self-defeating opportunism we see in political maneuvering across Africa.
Turkey’s desperate drone diplomacy is a stunning example of the miscalculation and self-defeating opportunism we see in political maneuvering across Africa. Turkish leaders are rapidly squandering the goodwill and trust they’ve tried to cultivate in African societies over the last two or three decades. By presenting Turkey as the arms merchant of choice—willing to pour fuel onto active war zones and looming cross-border conflicts—Ankara has abandoned its humanitarian and peace-making gestures of the past. The Erdoğan regime has mismanaged so many crises—financial collapse, refugee flows, pandemic outbreaks, and maritime disputes—that it feels compelled to use arms deals to generate cash and political support in Africa that it cannot muster at home.
This is a combined economic and diplomatic blunder that Turkish leaders will regret for years to come. No amount of drone sales can stop the hemorrhaging of Turkey’s economy or rescue it from chronic dependence on energy imports. Whatever advantage Turkey’s drones enjoy in cost and quality is temporary. Drone technology is widely available and evolving rapidly. It’s a buyer’s market where African leaders have multiple options, few locked-in dependencies, and no limits on use or choice of targets. Drones are notoriously lethal for civilians and defenseless populations—precisely the ordinary citizens that Turkish diplomats once claimed to prioritize in distinction to other foreigners who supposedly catered only to Africa’s elites. Now, Ankara has cast its lot with weak and embattled governments that are directing greater fire power against their own people as well as their neighbors. The current list of customers covers every corner of the continent where would-be hegemons are vying for regional dominance—Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola, Morocco, and Rwanda leading the pack.
The likely fallout from increased violence in these conflicts is obvious and alarming. Ethiopia and Nigeria are two examples that illustrate the wider pattern. Ethiopia’s rulers are killing ever larger numbers of insurgents and using famine as an instrument of war. At the same time, they are intensifying their spat with Egypt for control of the Nile River waters. The last thing this region needs is a larger arsenal of foreign-made weapons. In Nigeria, drone sales threaten to inflame several conflicts at once. Governors in some of the northern states are trying to buy Turkish drones directly—bypassing the federal government and military commanders. They are calling for local vigilante forces to quash bandits and terrorists that regular troops have not eliminated, particularly in gold mining districts with revenues beyond Abuja’s control.
Drones or no drones, Erdoğan is getting the cold shoulder from Nigerian officials who see him as trying to export Turkey’s political quarrels to African hotspots.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan is wasting his time pleading with Nigeria to shut down the schools run by Fethullah Gülen, his archrival and accused coup plotter back home in Turkey. Abuja rejects the request as a clumsy effort to encroach on Nigerian sovereignty. Gülen’s schools are very popular in Nigeria and they helped persuade Abuja to welcome Turkey’s early overtures to Africa when Gülen and Erdoğan were still allies. Now, Nigerian rulers are telling Ankara to launch its own subsidized school network for poorer students if it wants to compete with Gülen’s higher-end market of tuition-paying customers. Drones or no drones, Erdoğan is getting the cold shoulder from Nigerian officials who see him as trying to export Turkey’s political quarrels to African hotspots.
2) How can African countries leverage a more multi-polar world to identify which partners can further their development, trade and security interests?
A multi-polar world is, at best, only a mixed blessing for Africa, especially when it is accompanied by a more fractured political landscape across the continent. African leaders are eager to play rival outsiders against one another, but that increases the risk that non-Africans will aggravate conflicts between rival states in every subregion. African governments that try to exercise greater agency in world politics make themselves more vulnerable to a host of stronger powers willing to exploit inter-African tensions for their own gain.
The vision of a united Africa is a phantom—whether its supposed leader is a purely African coalition or a combination of continental and foreign powers. Nonetheless, that vision is a constant source of rival ambitions that threaten the lives and welfare of ordinary citizens in every country. Governments in Africa and elsewhere seek to maximize state power—often at the expense of the citizens they claim to serve. Their projects aim at greater centralization and hierarchy rather than local empowerment and development. From this perspective, most people in Africa face simultaneous assaults on their freedom from both domestic and foreign powers. In societies with high levels of political consciousness and independent channels of mobilization, those assaults are bound to provoke resistance and rebellion—and, in many cases, those responses will spill over national borders.
Today, Africa is teeming with civil society groups, social movements, and insurgencies that are not adequately represented in any of the proliferating national or international projects for integration and development.
In Africa and beyond, dozens of would-be great powers would like to think they can steer the continent from the top down with little or no consent from its citizens. Naturally, such ambitions are futile and self-defeating. In the long term, power can only endure if it rests on legitimate authority—not on force and self-serving elites. Today, Africa is teeming with civil society groups, social movements, and insurgencies that are not adequately represented in any of the proliferating national or international projects for integration and development. These deficits in representation and legitimacy inevitably create weak leaders who scramble for support from one another and from foreigners—from everyone except their own people who are the ones that matter most.
3) You’ve written about Islamic globalization, which I think of more broadly as another form of South to South linkage and inter-connectivity. Does increasing ties between African countries and Middle Eastern ones (including Turkey) fit into that pattern – and if so what are the implications of that for global politics?
Islamic globalization is a spontaneous process with no official leadership and little recognition outside of the societies creating it. Muslims everywhere have been interconnected throughout history in many ways and at multiple levels. In contrast, their political institutions have usually been fragmented and at odds with one another. Today, national rivalries are the main sources of political cleavages, but they are increasingly mitigated by the integrating forces of intercontinental markets, migration and travel, higher education, open information networks, and the rejection of patriarchy. Focusing on the sclerosis of formal politics obscures the profound dynamism of economic, social, and cultural forces accumulating below—and often in opposition to—the ruling elites. These trends are empowering middle classes, youth, and women across the Islamic world, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Europe, North America, and China are no longer exceptions to the global pattern despite the steady rise of Islamophobia and racism in those societies.
The South is no longer a geographic concept but a geopolitical one. South-South linkages can describe common aspirations of all communities—not just nation-states—to construct a more just and egalitarian world.
From this perspective, the South is no longer a geographic concept but a geopolitical one. South-South linkages can describe common aspirations of all communities—not just nation-states—to construct a more just and egalitarian world. Those aspirations aim at reforming international organizations such as the United Nations, at fashioning a global ethic based on common principles from world religions, and at sharing the planet’s resources with greater equity and self-restraint. In this sense, the new South can be universal—independent of culture, religion, military power, wealth, nationality, or colonial history. Belonging to such a South is a matter of choice—not of fate—for Africans, Muslims, Westerners, Chinese, and everyone who values humanitarian and cosmopolitan ideals.