Africa and the West: Revising the Rules of Engagement


March 16, 2014 17:59 EDT

The West needs to let Africa take charge of its own destiny.

Lately, some African countries have signed anti-gay legislations. The consequence has been retribution from the West in the form of withdrawal of aid and vilification in international media.

Other countries outside Africa took similar courses of action but till today receive different responses from the West. There appears to be a double-standard in how the West engages with sub-Saharan Africa.

Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, a year prior to the CIA-assisted coup d’état that overthrew his government, penned the following words:

“The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside. The methods and form of this direction can take various shapes… More often, however, neo-colonialist control is exercised through economic or monetary means… Neo-colonialism is also the worst form of imperialism. For those who practise it, it means power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress… Neo-colonialism, like colonialism, is an attempt to export the social conflicts of the capitalist countries.”

Looking at post-independence Africa, any unbiased student of history can attest to the fact that Nkrumah, whose golden statue graces the Chinese-donated African Union Conference Center in Addis Ababa, was amazingly accurate.

Up until today, African states — though in theory independent have their economic and political policies directed from outside. If they refuse to toe the policy line drawn by the West, development assistance is used to force compliance, with absolute disregard for the democratic institutions of the land and its evolution of democracy.

The Case of Nigeria and Uganda

The Parliament of Nigeria passed the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act in May 2013 and President Goodluck Jonathan signed it on January 7 this year. This was not an arbitrary decision taken by a dictator but instead by the people as reflected through their parliament and executive arms of government. Yet the response from the West was a smear campaign and a barrage of threats.

Needless to say, the West did not succeed in changing Nigeria’s policy. This is because Nigeria is a global powerhouse in its own right and any economic sanctions would result in reciprocation from the most populous nation in Africa.

Uganda and other less-economically robust African countries are not as fortunate, however. When President Yoweri Museveni enforced an anti-gay bill after the Ugandan Parliament had passed it, the West retaliated. The Netherlands stopped €7m aid to Uganda, while Norway withdrew $9m and Denmark chose to withhold about $8m.

Unfortunately, this is the lot for smaller developing nations. In 2013, donors using aid as a punitive tool potentially cost Uganda 0.7% in economic growth. Young mothers and children potentially had to forego health care, food, shelter or security as a result of canceled government programs. How does the restriction of economic means justify these ends?

Equality of All Men?

Some of the greatest words ever penned include: “[All men are] endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

This is part of the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence. The US wrested independence from Great Britain because on a very basic level, they believed that all humans were created equal and, therefore, have a right to be free — free to make their own policies and determine the course of their destiny within the ambits of certain limitations.

How does the West justify these ideals, later enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, while in the same breadth applying discriminatory standards to less-developed nations?

This author once asked an ambassador of a Western nation why the scales were so uneven between the West and Africa. His response was a quote from George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”


The Russian Parliament in 2013, much like Nigeria and Uganda, passed an anti-gay law. Yet no Western power has been bold enough to attempt economic war against the Kremlin as they have against African states.

A similar situation exists in the relationship between the US and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The US Department of State reports that in the UAE: “Both civil law and Sharia criminalize homosexual activity.” The report adds: “Under Sharia the death penalty is the punishment for individuals who engage in consensual homosexual activity.”

This report notwithstanding, no Western power has dared reacting toward the UAE like they have against sub-Saharan African states.

In Saudi Arabia, a young Saudi man was reportedly sentenced to 500 lashes and five years imprisonment by a court in Jeddah for the criminal offence of homosexuality. These actions are wrong and much worse than what transpired in Nigeria or Uganda. Yet no Western country has dared to threaten Riyadh or gone ahead to withdraw aid as has been the case with Uganda. The question is why?

At least in Saudi Arabia’s case, though it is one of the most repressive countries in the Middle East by Western definition, it is also one of Washington’s closest allies. As uncovered by Hugh Eakin: “The US does more trade — overwhelmingly in oil and weapons — with Saudi Arabia than any other country in the Middle East, including Israel, and depends on close Saudi cooperation in its counterterrorism efforts in Yemen.”

In addition to gay rights, another source of major social conflict in these times is abortion. According to Deutsche Welle: “The Spanish government has approved tighter rules on abortion, making it legal only in the case of rape or when the mother faces a serious risk.” This is a reversal of Spain’s stance toward abortion.

In places like Malta and Andorra, abortion is illegal on all grounds. It is also very restricted in Poland. Yet neither the European Union (EU), nor the US is cracking down on any of these countries for stifling freedom by vilifying or threatening them with economic sanctions. If any sub-Saharan African state that once permitted abortion reverses its stance by restricting it — as with Spain — it would surely attract retribution.

The double-standards of the West are a bit embarrassing. The US, Belgium, France and others have a history of forcefully replacing legitimate African governments with despots, all the while preaching democracy. This was especially prevalent during the Cold War period.

In addition to orchestrating the overthrow of former Ghanaian President Nkrumah — one of the leaders behind the formation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) — the US- and Belgium-orchestrated assassination of the first legally elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Patrice Lumumba, remains one of their most despicable moves.

Lumumba was ultimately replaced with Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled and impoverished the DRC for over three decades. Ghana’s case was similar and likewise Liberia’s where Charles Taylor, the CIA operative, became president for six years — destabilizing his nation and the surrounding region.

With such a track record, is it any wonder why Africa sees China as a viable alternate development partner? At least with China, what you see is what you get; plus Beijing does not meddle in domestic policies in Africa.

The Bigger Issue

Some may want to reduce the issue under discussion to social conflicts like gay rights or abortion — social problems of which there is much contention in society. But the core issue here is much bigger. Nkrumah hit the nail on the head: it is neocolonialism. He cited the export of social conflicts by capitalist countries. Consider this, Nigeria and most sub-Saharan African countries have historically never had any intense social friction regarding gay rights or abortion. Even today, many nations in the region do not have such conflicts. These conflicts are not the basic issue for African states.

The basic issue rests with the right of nations to self governance and the freedom to evolve in that governance. It is about the West hiding under the cloak of promoting democratic ideals to selectively strip weak states of this right while conferring it upon strategic partners.

This social control from the West in Africa’s economics and politics is the bigger issue being discussed here. The West must allow fledging African democracies and their democratic institutions to evolve without petty interferences.

How would the US feel if, for instance, China or Japan, the world’s largest foreign holders of US debt, started using finance to control American policies without regard for Congress, Senate or the White House — forcing compliance with policies more reflective of Chinese or Japanese norms, values and customs rather than North America’s? The American Revolution is proof the US sees such a state of affairs as tyranny.

Enough is Enough

In a global village, leader-nations have emerged primarily in the Western hemisphere and, as part of their leadership role, they are expected to secure the rights of all nations — more so the weakest and poorest from whom they in part derive their just powers via arrangements like the United Nations.

But when these governments choose to be tyrannical in controlling weaker states adversely, then it is the right of the states to alter or abolish the inordinate control, and to institute new leadership that permit liberty and true multilateral discourse predicated on respect and true equality.

African states are willing to be part of an international community that respects them as equals and allows them the right to govern themselves without control from outside. However, what they should no longer be willing to tolerate is being told how to run their countries.

Part of growing up is being allowed greater autonomy and responsibility. After around 50 years since independence, African states should be given space to take charge of their own destinies and make their own decisions. They should be allowed to decide for themselves which lessons they consider beneficial from the West and which ones they consider not so beneficial.

Changing Times

Our world is changing. Africa is no longer as dependent on Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) as it was a few decades ago. According to the World Bank, remittances in 2013 to the developing world were more than three times the size of official development assistance. The 2013 Africa Progress Report shows that private flows from Africans in the Diaspora back to the continent have overtaken Foreign Direct Investments and ODA.

Moreover, Africa has been undergoing a decade-long economic expansion. A number of the world’s fastest growing economies are now found in the continent. Africa need not be bullied by aid withdrawals any longer.

That notwithstanding, African nations are not islands. They need the rest of the global family as much as the global family needs them. Africa needs aid but the nature of development assistance needed is changing. Africa needs technical assistance to help add value to its raw materials instead of exporting them.

The rules of engagement between Africa and the West need serious revision. The times of having absolute disregard for what African nations want while manipulating their national policies from outside to the detriment of Africans, are fast coming to a close as seen with Nigeria and Uganda. It behooves the West to recognize this and to desist from neocolonial control methods.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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