Africa needs to focus on developing its own economy and building its own institutions
The 15th Brics summit ended on August 24 after six new countries were admitted to the fold. After long periods of speculation about “disagreements” over welcoming new members, outgoing Brics chair Cyril Ramaphosa laid the issue to rest. From January 1 2024, Brics will add Argentina, Ethiopia, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Local and foreign media hailed this development as the strengthening of a “multipolar world order”.
Without many people being aware, the vocabulary of international politics is loaded with terminologies and phrases, the meanings of which are not quite known. These concepts are frequently used to the point that their supposed meanings appear normal, whereas their purpose has always been “to impose a liberal globalised civilisation on the world today”. The rivalry between the West and Soviet Union gave rise to what was falsely referred to as the Cold War, a term that rings untrue in the contexts of Africa, Latin America and Asia, where its effect was far from cold.
Experts fervently talk about moving from a unipolar to a multipolar world, and the Brics expansion is interpreted using this fissured polarity lens. There is confusing excitement that the inclusion of the new members will create a multipolar world and that Brics will serve as a counterweight to Western hegemony. While many people in peripheral places (Africa included) yearn to break free from the influence of their former colonisers, the bipolar vs multipolar characterisation does not accurately reflect the complexities of their situation.
The important point that needs attention is that African scholars, politicians and the media frequently and recklessly use this phraseology without considering the implications. Their artificial interpretation of geopolitical developments inadvertently perpetuates what Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan terms a “binary fallacy”. The problem lies in over-reliance on imported terminologies that are relevant for other places, but definitely not our troubled continent.
The binary mode of thinking about geopolitics paints a picture of a world rapidly evolving into a battleground between opposing poles, but without properly situating the African continent. This thinking finds its roots in the “blob”, in reference to the North Atlantic foreign policy establishment. This establishment cannot overcome the Manichean psychology and entrenched ideological fixation that emerged during the prolonged US-Soviet rivalry.
Thus, the binary thinking is similar to Manichean thinking which “always needs an enemy” — the world must be seen through a black-and-white lens. Appetite for creating an enemy in every situation is the reality in Brussels, London and Washington. Such an approach is ill-suited to Africa due to its position in the world. Considering Africa’s history of marginalisation and exploitation as well as its enduring experiences with external groups, attempting to frame the situation as a dichotomy oversimplifies the complex reality it faces.
Africa’s historically limited involvement in the global arena is often overlooked as the continent is “playing second or third feudal age”. To depict Africa’s position in global politics, Kenyan academic Francis Onditi employs the metaphor of a “butterfly” — where the West, and increasingly Asia, resemble the “thorax” (centre), while African states symbolise the “wings” situated on the periphery.
Africa’s disturbing binary perspective is informed by the Western creation of the world, an abstract concept. For centuries the West saw itself as the centre of the world, GMT Zero. The Western “standard of civilisation” continues to be used to justify the domination of other people in different parts of the world. Europeans argued that these places were not “civilised” enough to be self-governing and that they needed to be brought into the “civilised world” by force.
The challenge for Africa is that it needs to be aware that new powers also have a penchant for framing themselves in the image of the old powers. The late British academic Andrew Linklater talked about “secondary imperialism in the ‘civilised’ society of states”. Political developments in the late 19th century, particularly in Japan and Russia, are instructive. These states emulated the European state reconstruction and tactics to promote national identification and imperial “civilising missions”.
Japan invaded Taiwan, Korea and China to showcase its ability and willingness to bring the benefits of “civilisation” to what was deemed an “uncivilised” population, in a bid to challenge European perceptions about itself. The Russian Empire was the largest in Europe and included possessions in Asia, Europe and North America. The Russian expansion into Central Asia during the 19th century was modelled on the British rule in India.
When appealing to African countries Moscow falsely claims that it stands apart from European colonisers. In this regard Russia presents itself as a proponent of anti-imperialism and claims to be the sole major power that refrained from establishing colonies on the continent.
Yet Russia’s attempts to colonise Africa were simply unsuccessful, as seen in its endeavours to establish a coal station for its steamships following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and to exploit local resources. At the same time, China has also been criticised for behaving like a secondary or third “civilised” force within its territory, Asia and beyond.
The question that arises from the obsession with the multipolar world is: what is the excitement all about, since Africa is not even one of the “polars” in the envisaged arrangement? University of Nairobi academic Adams Oloo argues that “Africa remains an underdog in international politics”. The continent is ensnared in a geopolitical bind, and to boost its relevance it is beholden to a belief that it must either align with former colonial powers or opt to forge connections with rising players such as China and Russia.
Indeed, everyone who comes to Africa has a “gift” and wants to be celebrated. For example, earlier this week China announced a R167m donation to help curb blackouts in SA, and US secretary of state Antony Blinken said in June that SA was in danger of losing its benefits under The African Growth and Opportunity Act, Washington’s flagship trade programme. The “powers” deal with African countries in a paternalistic manner as if they were incapable children, and nobody can blame them.
One important element the binary lens in geopolitics and its insistence on a new world order appears to miss is that the stacking of countries in the international system does not allow either multipolarity or plurality. And since Africa occupies the base of the global pyramid, its enthusiasm about the multipolar is probably driven by a strong desire to float its begging bowl rather than demanding respect and fair treatment from the old and new players.
Post-Marxism philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that the emergence of economic powerhouses has made it impossible “to demarcate large geographical zones as centre and periphery, North and South”. Whether this observation is valid or not, the asymmetrical relationship between advanced capitalist and Third World countries, including the Brics economies, remains.
The modifications to the current global hierarchy of states are necessitated by an emerging transnational capitalist class that is found in both advanced capitalist countries and emerging economies. This group benefits from the emergent “civilising missions” and their activities, at the expense of the subaltern classes or the “transnational oppressed classes”.
Therefore, the touted multipolarity will produce secondary or third “civilised” forces alongside the rapidly growing transnational oppressed classes. If multipolarity were to become a reality the unexpected is likely to occur, and Africa might find itself wanting and without alternatives. With Brics, or in effect the Russo-China conglomeration, it can be deduced that the world is entering a complicated era of third “civilised” forces.
A new group of “civilised” societies will emerge that will seek to emulate the imperial model. As the leading states within Brics, China and Russia could be harbouring self-interests relating to cultural, historical and ideological assimilation. However, this unfolding drama does not end with these two countries as Brics expands to include more countries.
Some of these countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE, are increasingly acquiring land in Africa for a variety of reasons. For example, Liberia is set to concede 10% of its territory to allow the UAE to meet its climate commitments. This agreement concerning the transfer of pollution rights, as provided for in the Paris Climate Agreement, will be made public during COP28.
This emerging group of “civilised” societies could also be working in the interest of deadly capitalist forces rather than to empower the historically marginalised groups. The current pattern of economic globalisation is driven by a new imperial social formation that comprises corporations, globalising state and interstate bureaucrats and politicians, globalising professionals as well as merchants and media. For example, China’s ICBC has a 20% stake in the Standard Bank Group.
The end of US dominance is unlikely to result in the upgrading of the rights of subalterns or transnational oppressed classes. “Uncivilised” people all over the world will get a fresh dose of the new standards of civilisation driven by the economic imperatives of the old and emerging powers.
Africa needs to find its own way forward. The continent must not rely on Brics (read China and other emerging powers) or any other external power to deal with its issues. It needs to focus on developing its own economy and building its own institutions. This is a hopeful message, one Africa should take to heart.
• Hadebe is an independent commentator on socioeconomic, political and global matters, based in Geneva, Switzerland.