As a rule, all relationships are sooner or later tested when the stakeholders’ imperfections come to the fore. And when these partners are the 200 countries of the world, one would expect nothing short of dramatic treachery and betrayals.
The arena of matrimony is particularly susceptible. One story has a naïve girl whose man, during the wedding night, proceeded to shed previously undeclared prosthetic legs, dentures and other fake body parts, leaving a net husband of the most grotesque appearance!
As Africa energetically courts the countries formerly derided as the Axis of Evil, a word of caution is in order: Entering thoughtlessly into binding international relationships could have consequences much worse than the fright, despair and despondency suffered by the poor girl, whose die was now cast.
That is precisely the painful lesson countries in the Global South have learnt in the hands of deeply flawed Western ‘friends’ whose true objective turned out to be not the “democratic freedoms and human rights” they relentlessly megaphoned at everyone, but rather an asymmetric trade balance in their favour, and a voracious fiesta of the hosts’ natural resources. No wonder many totalitarian regimes around the world continue to enjoy copious Western support as long as that serves the purpose.
In one viral video, the German ambassador to Namibia exhibits unbelievable temerity as he demands an explanation from the nation’s democratically elected president as to why there are more Chinese than fellow Germans in his country nowadays. Goodness! When did African countries commit to eternal fealty to former colonial masters? I felt that President Hage Gottfried Geingob’s sharp reprimand of the envoy was not strong enough!
After decades of such condescending treatment of Africans, the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. There is right now an odious fallout of many Francophone countries with Paris, a reality enacted to great relief by the recent string of military coups in the Sahel and elsewhere. Ditto, the entrenchment of an economic paradigm of “looking East” for more respectful and less intrusive partners, which is gaining serious currency across the continent.
Russia - obviously encouraged by China’s meteoric incursion into Africa - is also positioning itself to swoop down on the opportunities being gradually vacated by Western powers, from whose exploitative clench Africa is frantically winching itself.
Arguably, Beijing’s engagement with Africa – notable for the construction of social amenities and serious infrastructure throughout the continent - including the projected nuclear reactor in Uganda courtesy of the China National Nuclear Corporation – is nobler than Russia’s rough, hurried and belated entry.
Loans much cheaper than anything the Bretton Woods lenders could conceivably provide, and which China sometimes waives, have provided poor countries with an exciting alternative development financing strategy.
On the other hand, the Kremlin’s trademark opening move has been to send in menacing mercenaries such as the late Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin’s Wagner into Africa’s and Middle Eastern troubled spots. Tellingly camping near oil wells and rare mineral mines, they proceed to help “quell local social unrest”, meaning to carry out brutal occupation of swathes of other countries in total disregard of civilians’ liberties. In a greatly globalised world, I would counsel Russia to adopt a more 'user-friendly' approach for results. And, of course, to undertake a few exhibition projects in Africa.
In the foreseeable future, Africa’s pursuit of allies - whether Eastern or Western – might remain a dreadful choice between the devil you know and the devil you don’t know, to paraphrase the popular adage. Sure, some developmental partners come with bouquets and smiles, others with barbs and scowls. But none comes without ulterior, self-serving motives.
Here is my point. The events in Russia in the recent past, particularly the merciless clobbering of Ukraine, a sovereign state at its doorstep, should give every African nation the goosebumps before plunging hurriedly into the arms of Eastern powers. The mysterious liquidation of Mr Prigozhin (a man who despite “making many mistakes” in Putin’s own words served Russia’s overseas military agenda faithfully and effectively), is hardly any more reassuring. Who knows? What is good for the Ukrainian goose might be good for the African gander later on.
One thing goes for Europeans and Americans, though. Even at the height of their social-economic imperialism, they did retain a facade of genuine respect for human rights, and some predictability. Association with them definitely helped some nascent African nations attain impressive developmental milestones. Unlike the man in the story, they shed their dentures and prosthetics with some sense of occasion!
Meanwhile, there is fear in some quarters that African leaders’ increasingly intimate cavorting with traditionally undemocratic regimes could inspire a resurgence of the despotic practices of the past and normalise intolerance and prejudice which were considerably eroded by pro-democratic waves and activism in the last few decades. The rise of corrupt black ‘oligarchs’ is also not entirely unthinkable.
All said, one must appreciate the fact that Africa is now, unlike in the past, much freer to choose its rightful friends and partners without undue external pressure.