Africa against neocolonialism: Why does the continent's struggle for self-sufficiency remain so difficult?

28 Oct, 2023 12:04 / Updated 8 months ago

By Denis Degterev, a Leading Researcher at the Institute for African Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, and a Professor of the Department of International Relations at the Higher School of Economics. He specializes in development cooperation and Africa, and has written extensively on the Global South. He spent several years working in West Africa.

Regional organizations are trying to overcome the legacy of their dependence on the West

Over the past three years, the political events in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Niger have attracted international attention and raised the issue of external influence in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Africa seems to stand on the brink of historical changes as its countries –  both on their own and together– attempt to gain real, not formal, independence and take control over the continent into their own hands. Books published in 2022 and 2023 show that Western scholars have been watching this situation closely, since the West is in no way ready to lose its influence over Africa.

“African agency” is one of the most popular modern concepts. It is regularly discussed at conferences related to Africa, as well as in papers and books. Agency is an intangible and multifaceted concept, but one that is crucial for Africa. Moreover, its importance will only increase over the coming years with the expansion of Africa's role in world politics. But what does this mean?

Essentially, we’re talking about the sovereignty of African nations and regional organizations, one that would allow African governments to make sovereign decisions independently from non-regional players and to successfully implement them. Theoretical, “superficial” sovereignty no longer deceives anyone, and there is increased social demand in Africa for empirical – in other words, real – sovereignty. 

Agency needs self-sufficiency

ECOWAS, which was established in 1975, bears many of the 'birth pangs' characteristic of other regional groupings of the Global South and the non-Western world. Take, for example, the issue of extremely low share of intraregional trade: ECOWAS member states account for less than 10% of each other's trade, and less than 5% of the international trade of the group’s leading economy, Nigeria. Does this mean that a single regional market is being formed merely for the convenience of external actors?

Most ECOWAS member-countries supply commodities to foreign markets and import finished goods in large quantities because of the poorly-developed local processing industry. Even Nigeria, which is one of the world's largest oil producers, does not have sufficient refinery capacity in order to process its own oil and is forced to import gasoline. This is despite the fact that Nigeria is one of the African countries where the issues of import substitution and industrial development have moved far beyond “good intentions” – many practical steps have been taken to achieve this end. 

To be fair, low indicators of internal trade are typical for most non-Western regional groupings. Internal trade in such organizations rarely exceeds 20%, and tops 50% only within the framework of ASEAN +5 (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) as a result of China’s participation. Of course, a large share of domestic trade passes through informal trade channels, but these can hardly ensure the functioning of high-tech industries or modern technological clusters. 

In order to form self-sufficient entities in the world economy (the “critical mass” of a nation is not sufficient in this regard) and to effectively develop industrial cooperation, it is necessary to surpass narrow national interests. Currently, only the demographics of Nigeria (with its population of 217 million as of 2022), and perhaps Ghana (with 32.5 million) and Côte d'Ivoire (27.8 million) allow us to discuss a potential domestic market. 

Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana (in 1960-1966) and a brilliant visionary, understood this quite well. In the early 1960s, as part of the Casablanca Group and alongside the leaders of Algeria, Guinea, Egypt, Mali, and Morocco he urged to immediately create the Union of African States. However, the President of Tanzania (in 1964-1985) Julius Nyerere, who represented the more moderate Monrovia Group, campaigned for gradual integration that would start at the level of regional associations. 

As a result, by the time Africa gained formal independence  – or “flag independence” as Nkrumah called it – the continent was caught up in a powerful disintegration process. 

Nyerere eventually admitted that Nkrumah was right. In 1997, he said, “Once you multiply national anthems, national flags and national passports, seats of the United Nations, and individuals entitled to a 21-gun salute, not to speak of a host of ministers, prime ministers and envoys, you would have a whole army of powerful people with vested interests in keeping Africa balkanized.”

An old song, sung in a new way

The interaction between the divided African countries and the world’s largest consolidated geopolitical actor – the European Union, which had absorbed the historical colonial experience of its member-countries –  is clearly asymmetric. Africa’s relations with the EU have moved from the “preferential” format of the Lomé Convention and the Cotonou Agreement to the “equitable” Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) of the post-Cotonou era.

Under the Lomé Conventions, African countries were primarily guaranteed that their mineral and agricultural raw materials would be sold on the European market. The transition to EPA tied the national economies to the EU economy in an even closer way, and encouraged the transition to “European standards” not only in the field of economics, but also in socio-political development. In recent years, the trade turnover between ECOWAS and the EU has continued to grow, and surged from 48 billion to 80 billion euros between 2020 and 2022.

At this point, the “African agency” issue comes up once again. Formally, since 2017 (the Fifth EU-Africa Summit), political dialogue has been conducted in an European Union-African Union format. However, the real interaction takes place mostly at the regional level, and sometimes even at the country level (which is obviously asymmetrical).

Initially, the European Union started EPA negotiations with regional groupings in Africa (including ECOWAS), treating them as single entities. However, it soon became clear that the regional powers which were traditionally set on sovereign development (Nigeria in West Africa, and Tanzania in East Africa), did not want to sign agreements on an unequal footing. Then, utilizing a so-called twin-track approach, the EU proceeded to hold individual negotiations (“divide et impera”) with the countries that favored the agreements. Now, could anyone imagine holding separate trade negotiations with individual EU countries?! That’s it.

Within ECOWAS, the Trojan horses of the collective West are the “showcases of peripheral capitalism”: Ghana and the Côte d'Ivoire (stepping stone provisional EPAs came into force in 2016), and Kenya in the East African Community (EAC). Although the agreements with West Africa and the EAC are still being finalized and ratified, Africa’s three most conventional countries have long been “enjoying the benefits of civilization.” 

This is reminiscent of the capture of Africa by Europeans at the end of the 19th century, when some African nations were still trying to fight the colonizers while others had already integrated into the system. Now, however, we are talking about the collective trade neocolonialism of the 21st century.

France is leaving… or not really 

The “Afrique Occidentale Française” (French West Africa) colonial empire (1895-1958) hasn't existed for a long time, and the former French colonies have gained formal independence. However, France’s monolithic presence, as represented by the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) has not “dissolved” into ECOWAS.

Eight of the 15 ECOWAS member-countries have joined this new version of French West Africa, although that accounts for only 22% of the group's GDP. This directly hinders further integration, including on financial and economic levels. Moreover, the artificially-maintained linguistic identity (Francophones vs. Anglophones) still prevails over regional solidarity (West Africans). Once again, we see the 'divide et impera' principle in action!

As a part of the collective West headed by the United States and as a sub-imperial power, France has preserved its traditional influence in Africa. It has retained structural power tools such as military interventions (both unilateral and in the format of EU and even UN operations), the CFA franc, the Organization for the Harmonization of Business Law in Africa (OHADA), the International Organization of the Francophonie, and the French media. The set of “unequal” treaties between France and African countries (over 200 documents) was imposed on Africa in the first years of its independence, in 1960-1963. It included agreements on defense and the right of residence, cooperation agreements in the fields of foreign trade, economics, finance, technical assistance, and culture, as well as agreements in the fields of justice, transport and telecommunications.

In some cases, the transition from colonial tools implying direct control to the same kind of neocolonial tools was clearly superficial. For example, in 1945, the “CFA” franc abbreviation stood for “Colonies Françaises d'Afrique” (French colonies of Africa); from 1958 to the early 1960s, it stood for “Communauté Française d'Afrique” (Franco–African Community), and since 1960s, it means “Communauté Financière Africaine” (African Financial Community). Indeed, why change the name if it’s been used since colonial times? Convenient, isn’t it?

On January 20, 1961, the Malian government officially demanded that France evacuate four French military bases which remained stationed in Mali despite the cancellation of mutual defense agreements. By September 1961, the French withdrew from Mali. However, they regained some of their influence during the presidency of Modibo Keita, a trend that continued under Moussa Traoré (e.g., in 1984, Mali readopted the CFA franc) as well as later, in the 1990s. 

Yet Clio, the muse of history, is quite ironic. Sixty years later, in February 2022, the government of Mali again demanded that the French withdraw from their military bases, and this was carried out on August 15, 2022. In 2023, the governments of Burkina Faso and Niger also demanded the withdrawal of French troops. Pushing French troops out of the Sahel region actualizes the “Greater Sahel” concept of the French which includes also Cape Verde, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Chad. These are the countries where France hopes to “temporarily” relocate its military and diplomatic forces in anticipation of new “counter-revolutions” in the Sahel. In other words, is France once again saying goodbye, but not going anywhere?

Another side of history

More and more countries are building cooperation with non-Western partners. China is already the largest trading partner for over 130 states. The nations of the Global South welcome so-called “non-Western regionalism.” This implies rejecting a one-sided focus on the EU while strengthening their partnership with non-Western regional organizations and increasing the independence of these organizations, including ECOWAS.

The Covid-19 pandemic, the Ukrainian conflict, and the growing global competition between the United States and China have all led to so-called “decoupling” – or the formation of closed techno-economic blocs. In Western countries, it is mostly tied to the technology sector, although the concept is gaining momentum among international organizations and in the field of values. The new Cold War is gradually coming into its own.

In Africa, the first step is security decoupling, which prompts the countries to choose their priority security partners. Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger have already made their choice, preferring strategic alternatives to France.

ECOWAS is currently going through interesting times. It has imposed sanctions on four countries (Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, and Niger) that broke away from French neocolonialism and chose to rely on non-Western partners. Russian international lawyers Yao Nikez Adu and Alexander Mezyaev demonstrate how, under the influence of France, ECOWAS leadership sometimes acts in a way that exceeds its authority. Incidentally, Alexander Mezyaev defended Slobodan Milosevic, Ratko Mladic, and Radovan Karadzic in the International Criminal Court (ICC), and is quite familiar with the specifics of the collective West’s “justice” system. 

So far, only four out of the 15 ECOWAS member-countries have joined the “wrong side.” The turning point is still far away, but perhaps ECOWAS may be the first regional grouping of the Global South to regain control over its organization. Increasing the agency of Nigerian diplomacy will play a key role on this way. An important sign of such changes is the Nigerian Senate’s refusal of a military intervention in Niger in August 2023. After all, resilient, self-sufficient regional integration groupings in Africa are key to the formation of a multipolar world.