Building innovation bridges between Europe and Africa
The recent cracks in some EU-Africa governmental relations seem more than a flash in the pan. Rather, they may point to deeper chasms caused by long-term political failure and a view in Africa that the EU’s international competitors might offer better prospects.
Last week’s diplomatic fracas in Mali, which saw the expulsion of the French ambassador to Bamako, is a case in point. The extreme diplomatic measure follows an unusually aggressive comment by Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, that Mali’s current leadership is; “Illegitimate” and “out of control”. It was reminiscent of the American “suicide by cop” phenomenon, where the culprit begs his adversaries to bring him down. That it was the local ambassador and not Le Drian himself who had to pay the price reflects the well-known English epithet; “sous chefs must roll”.
Le Drian’s comments reflect France’s frustration at its exclusion by transitional authorities in Bamako following the 2020 overthrow of President Keita. Unlike other former colonial powers, France is taking a hands-on approach with its former colonies . Led by a President Macron now in pre-election mode, France had spent a lot in Mali and Keita to consolidate its 21st influence of the century in Africa.
By 2020, however, it had become clear that France’s long-term investment, especially in troops and equipment, had failed. France had come to the end of the road, even if it still did not seem to recognize it. Mali’s seemingly never-ending battle against insurgents and bandits continued apace, recent legislative elections were a mess, the opposition leader had been kidnapped and President Keita seemed increasingly incapable to many of his fellow citizens. The Malians had it and are more than fed up with the permanent insecurity.
The 2020 coup replaced an ailing and seemingly ineffectual president who would die soon after. The undemocratic nature of the new interim regime naturally drew the ire of African and international officials, and the coup leader, Colonel Goïta, has since been named interim president. Malians have new hope, and some concrete signs, that he is serious and can improve security.
The French armies are well equipped and competent. But in Mali, they were constrained by strict rules of engagement and fear of deadly disasters that made it harder to justify deployment to Africa in the run-up to the French election. There is always an inherent risk in the deployment of sophisticated military equipment capable of enormous destruction and this sometimes manifests itself in human error. The effects can be politically undermining and French forces certainly suffered. This likely explains, at least in part, why President Goïta has now turned to others for help instead.
Military contractors work in places governments prefer not to, often training and supporting poorly trained local forces. In generally very unstructured environments, there can be setbacks and questions about how things are going. Contractors are nevertheless often, indeed, allowed to be tougher than the official forces of nation states.
Wagner, the military contractor that would now replace French forces in Mali, does not appear to be playing by the same rules as French forces. They will likely use much less air power and take a harder line on the ground with the people who are making Malians’ lives hell. If they have setbacks along the way, they are unlikely to be worse than killing a dozen and a half innocent people at a wedding, as French forces did last year. The political judgment on the balance between risk and reward of this new strategy will however belong to President Goïta, and no longer to President Macron.
Losing face this way is bad enough for France. Worse, however, is the fact that events elsewhere, such as in Guinea where French-sponsored President Alpha Condé was ousted in a coup in 2021, seems to be seriously reducing France’s influence in its former African colonies. Perhaps that is why France are now playing the men, Goita and Wagner, rather than the ball – the endemic insecurity Malians want to see kicking into the nets of the insurgents.
Wagner is certainly controversial in the West and serious questions have been raised there about the company’s methods, but working in the Central African Republic (CAR) alongside elite Rwandan troops, the company has so far defeated the rebels. and took control of the countryside. President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, a mathematician and former rector of the University of Bangui, says he was able to take advantage of the improved security to start developing services for his citizens. He credits CAR’s improvement to his help from Russia, Rwanda and, obliquely, Wagner.
Mali naturally wants a share of this action. Perhaps Wagner can deliver where French forces have failed, like in the CAR? Nothing is guaranteed, of course, and the risk is considerable. But for Malian leaders, it would seem ridiculous not to try this new tactic.
Beyond the loss of security activities in Africa, however, Western states like France have much bigger problems in Africa; in particular that international initiatives such as the COP have often degenerated into wellness exercises. There, Western states and NGOs are demanding that Africans hinder their own economic development by not exploiting mineral resources, while stimulating economic recovery at home by subsidizing their own fossil fuel extraction. This apparent hypocrisy is now drawing the ire of some serious Western campaign groups and publications.
The West’s ambivalent attitude towards African mining is part of the longer context of African states encouraged throughout the year by international institutions such as the World Bank and the Monetary Fund (IMF) to develop their economies under rules-based systems. and democratic governance in the image of the West. But this “Washington Consensus” which set the general framework turns out to be fatally flawed.
In the late 1980s, US President Reagan and British Prime Minister Thatcher emphasized rules-based markets regulated by strong institutions; So far, so good. But to engender this, massive infrastructure development was needed if Africa was to have its own industrial and commercial revolution.
Western investment for it simply never happened, leaving terrible conditions for real economic development. These include far too little infrastructure, which in turn has led to prohibitive transport and logistics costs, little cross-border planning and much more.
Blaming bad governance, as many often do in the West, is not enough to explain Africa’s failure to modernize. Support from institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is expert and well-intentioned in principle, but is part of the larger context of Western governments using Africa not as an investment destination but as a recipient of the charity. That, and as a way to rhetorically address the environmental concerns of their domestic audiences while avoiding an economic hit at home.
Meanwhile, during the same period, China took a very different path to modernity via state planning in conjunction with private investment. And an investment that respects the sovereign choices of other states, what’s more. It is now of course a huge investor in Africa, as the West backs away. But they may have nothing to do from now on. Nature abhors a vacuum, including competition.
Many of today’s African leaders remember the support they received earlier in their careers from the then Soviet Union and other Eastern European states. Rosalie Matondo, for example, was trained at the National Academy of Sciences of Bulgaria. She then led the reforestation program for the heavily forested Republic of Congo and is now Minister of Forest Economy there. There are many more like her. The 2019 Russia-Africa Summit began to harness this historic connectivity and paved the way for a number of trade deals. At the next summit in November 2022, consolidation seems to be on the agenda.
African states may be entering a phase where new international partners can help them make a serious fist of doing two things they have been unable to accomplish to date. First, improve internal security in a way not seen since Tony Blair’s 2000 intervention in Sierra Leone and Rwanda’s intervention itself a few years earlier. Second, to exploit natural resources for the benefit of the people of each nation-state. Africa certainly has both human and mineral resources. Africans are therefore watching outliers like CAR and Mali closely to see if they could be the harbinger of something good for the whole continent.