“African ownership”: an African critique

by | Jan 21, 2009

Last year, I wrote a couple of posts (here and here) warning of a rift between African countries and the West over how to administer peace and justice on the continent. That was coming out into the open over Darfur and Zimbabwe, forcing Western liberals to balance a commitment to “African ownership” with their desire to stay involved in African affairs. Now, a trenchant critique of “African solutions to African problems” rhetoric comes from Tsoeu Petlane, a South African scholar:

As we enter a New Year, we have to acknowledge that the “African solutions for African problems” approach has had some glaringly painful failures. The continuing crises in Somalia, in Zimbabwe, in Darfur and in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the surrounding Great Lakes region all demonstrate the weaknesses of the way “African solutions” have been implemented in 2008.  These weaknesses must be addressed in 2009. The year ahead should be one of rethinking how Africa deals with problems in a manner that is effective and restores the continent’s image and initiative.

Petlane anatomizes the problem thus:

There are three key reasons for failure: an almost unquestioning adherence to protecting state sovereignty, dependency on forces outside the continent and lack of leadership. Together, these stifle innovation, limit the effectiveness of proposed solutions and alienate potential allies.

First, the continent’s endorsement of the leaders of collapsed or collapsing states such as Zimbabwe, Somalia and the DRC, far from promoting sovereignty, negates it.

Sovereignty resides in the people, who only delegate it to leaders. In a situation in which the expression of this sovereignty is denied the people, such as in Zimbabwe; where those entrusted with it are unable to exercise it practically, such as in the DRC; or where the institutions supporting it are in question, such as in Somalia, protecting a government makes no sense – it allows a regime to maintain a veneer of statehood only on the basis of recognition by others. Thinking beyond this paradigm is urgently needed.

Second, while African leaders appear united in calling for indigenous solutions, few have demonstrated a conceptual or practical commitment to the notion. Their initiatives and solutions have depended on Africa’s “partnership” with the nebulous “international community”. A major component of this “community” comprises the very same former colonists who, we claim, have (i) “created” Africa’s problems by colonising them, (ii) “interfered” in Africa’s internal affairs, (iii) shaped the international system to serve their own interests (in trade, economy and international relations), (iv) dictated values of good governance and economic performance that are “foreign” to Africans, and (v) “abandoned/marginalised” Africa by withdrawing aid and political support after the Cold War.

This kind of dependency – developing solutions on the basis of actions of others, and blaming them when things don’t work – points to our lack of good leadership.

I reproduce this without comment. I don’t think that an English guy sitting in Brooklyn has much to add, although it would obviously be good to know how our African readers respond to this argument. But it’s worth noting that the issues involved are playing out in a way that may turn bloody in the eastern Congo, where the Congolese army and Rwanda are launching joint operations against militias associated with the 1994 Rwandan genocide – and keeping the UN and Western aid workers away:

The UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Monuc) said its peacekeepers and aid workers had been blocked by Congolese troops at checkpoints north of Goma. Monuc military spokesman Lt Col Jean Paul Dietrich told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme they had protested to the Congolese authorities.

“We’ve just tried to negotiate since yesterday that our force should have the [access] guarantee,” he said.

“Not only for us, the Monuc force, but as well all humanitarian [agencies] desperately need to get to those IDPs [internally displaced persons] in those areas. “And so far it seems that the blockade cannot be lifted and we deplore that and we cannot accept that. We will continue to keep up pressure.”

AFP news agency reported that a convoy of Indian UN peacekeepers and a Red Cross vehicle had been turned away. The Congolese authorities have said the operation to flush out the FLDR would last between 10 and 15 days, but Lt Col Dietrich said this would be a “very challenging task” in such a short timeframe.

Of course, this is all justifiable in terms of the Congo’s sovereign right to use force (or allow other people to use force) on its own territory, but what happens if photos start to leak out of anti-militia ops turning nasty?

Afterthought: it would be easier for the West to negotiate with the Congolese and Rwandans if the Europeans hadn’t rejected UN requests to deploy to the Eastern Congo late last year – I’ve published my own pretty trenchant critique of that decision, and its long-term implications for European engagement in Africa, here. The only Western government that could call this bloody business of is, of course, Mr. Obama’s. But if Rwanda refused overtures from DC, what then?


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