Never waste a crisis

Africa: agriculture and environment

Climate change will hit Africa hard, but it also offers the continent an opportunity to build resilience and diversify livelihoods

A young man stands among stationary boats at the dried inland Lake Chilwa in Zomba District, eastern Malawi, October, 2018. Lake Chilwa is the second-largest lake in Malawi after Lake Malawi. The dying lake is having an adverse effect on the livelihoods of communities.
Photo: Amos Gumulira / AFP

The changes ahead for Africa’s environment, which form the foundation of the continent’s societies and economies, will be challenging, but bright spots abound. Africa is a continent of contrasting environments absent a singular definition. A mosaic of terrains, the continent weaves together tropical forests, grasslands, savannahs, deserts and mangroves, ice-capped mountains, rivers, lakes and coasts across 55 countries, 1.2 billion people and 30 million square kilometres of land. This enormous landmass contains a quarter of global biodiversity, supports the world’s most prodigious gatherings of large mammals, and its diverse animal, plant and marine ecosystems drive economies and shape societies, cultures and development.

Human actions have played a central role in changing the African environment and its landscape over a long and complex history. African indigenous knowledge and practices include shared cropping systems and zai rain-fed irrigation methods that have mitigated droughts and famine for centuries. Yet, much of the more recent environmental history of Africa is dominated not by stories of Africans managing a challenging environment in harmony with ecosystems, but rather of foreign-driven exploitation of its people and resources, including minerals, fossil fuels, farm and forest produce for export.

Africa today is no less dependent on its environment than in the past. This is especially true in rural areas. Approximately 57% of Africa’s population, or 740 million people, live in rural areas. Agriculture is the continent’s biggest employer, supporting the livelihoods of 51% of the population. The majority of the population working in agriculture is engaged in smallholder agriculture that is undertaken in harsh environmental conditions with limited and highly variable natural rainfall. The high dependence on agriculture and the environment has significant and far-reaching consequences, not just for the 740 million rural people of Africa, but for the continent as a whole.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports that nearly a quarter of the population, or 224 million people, in sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished, with 31% experiencing food insecurity. Food shortages and malnutrition result in stunted growth and permanent damage that has long-term impacts. On a continental level, Africa is not feeding itself. According to the African Development Bank, net food imports to Africa are costing on average $35-$42 billion per year and are predicted to reach $110 billion by 2025. As stated by Akinwumi Adesina, the bank’s president, in 2017, “Africa’s annual food import bill weakens African economies, decimates its agriculture and exports jobs from the continent.” This food bill does not represent investment – these are sunk costs.

The consequence of this heavy reliance on challenging and unpredictable environmental conditions by such a large proportion of the population is a significant downward pressure on human and economic development. With two thirds of every country’s human capital beholden to the environment, and more specifically unpredictable rainfall to provide livelihoods, the opportunities for entry into skilled employment such as teaching, business, the health profession and trading are curtailed.
Climate change is making these challenges worse. The facts and figures on global climate change are startling. Prior to 1800, the global level of atmospheric CO2 was 280 parts per million (ppm).

Data drawn from ice cores show that CO2 varied within a relatively narrow range, roughly between 180 and 280 ppm, over the past 800,000 years – never moving above 300 ppm. Currently, CO2 is above 416 ppm. Over this same 800,000 years, methane has never been higher than 750 parts per billion (ppb), but now this gas, which is 22 times more powerful than CO2, is 1,873 ppb. The unprecedented speed and scale of these greenhouse gas emissions brings us into a new era of uncertainty with regards to their impact on the environment and our planet. According to the UN, Africa is the continent that will be hardest hit by climate change.

The key word, however, when attempting to understand climate change in Africa, is uncertainty. One of the challenges in predicting the impact of climate change on the continent is the extremely complex, yet poorly understood, large-scale weather systems that interact across the landscape. While rainfall patterns have been exceptionally difficult to predict, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that temperatures have risen by about 0.5°C over most of the African continent during the past 50-100 years. While this increase in temperature may seem insignificant, it is accelerating and will have a widespread impact on agriculture.

Many staple crops such as wheat, maize, millet and sorghum are especially susceptible to changes in temperature. Scientists predict that by 2050 the agricultural production of millet and sorghum in West Africa will potentially decrease by 13% in Burkina Faso, 25.9% in Mali and 44.7% in Senegal. Even if a quarter of these decreases in production are actualised, they will amplify shocks and stresses in those countries that today face food insecurity that will have an impact on up to five million people, according to the World Food Programme. Higher temperatures will also likely cause desert areas to encroach further south, also limiting agricultural options.

This may have unexpected consequences on migration and food insecurity, forcing people into conflict and causing an increase in bush meat consumption that may encourage new zoonotic diseases to emerge. Climate change will further impact biodiversity. An assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services for Africa, published by the independent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), estimates that by 2100 climate change could have caused the loss of over half of Africa’s bird and mammal species and a significant loss of plant species.

That will have a substantial impact on livelihoods, water and food supply and reduce people’s resilience to shocks and stresses because these ecosystems are the foundation of healthy societies and economies. Another area of clear impact occurring along coasts due to rising sea levels and warming. Sea levels have risen between 13-20 cm over the past 100   years and this is accelerating. Rising sea levels are caused by warming seas that expand as they increase in temperature and melting land-based ice flows into the ocean. Africa has just over 30,000 km of coastline that is undergoing increasing population growth and urbanisation.

These urban areas will be susceptible to more flooding due to storm surges. But warming sea levels are also impacting the environment in other, unpredictable ways. The devastating locust swarms currently destroying crops and livelihoods across East Africa may be linked to climate change. The warming Indian Ocean has contributed to 2019 being one of the wettest October-December rainy seasons in five decades. This drove eight cyclones across the region in 2019 – the most since records began – and enabled desert locusts to leapfrog into East Africa where they have now laid eggs and are hatching in their trillions.

David Hughes of the UN’s FAO, told the BBC in May that they “threaten the food of 23 million people. It is the number one food security issue in East Africa at the moment.” Climate change is not the only factor leading to this uncertain future, however. Many scientists posit that we have now entered the Anthropocene, a new geological age in which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. The African environment, for example, has suffered significantly from human-led degradation that has accelerated over the past century. This includes the over-exploitation of wildlife and fisheries and natural habitat loss, especially from agricultural expansion.

The Anthropocene is characterised by an increasingly interconnected and accelerating world. These characteristics have significant implications for how we understand risks. The current Covid-19 pandemic is an example of how a zoonotic disease that emerged from wildlife to humans in a city in China is having an enormous and rapid negative impact on people and economies in Africa and around the globe. When we combine the interconnected and rapidly changing nature of the Anthropocene with the uncertain impacts of climate change in the context of Africa, the future looks challenging.

African leaders are not to blame for the impacts of climate change against which they must build resilience. Africa has 17% of the world’s population, but has only contributed 4% to global carbon emissions, and much of this has been to supply export products for higher-income countries. But regardless of where the blame for climate change lies, the reality is that the global public and private sectors have a shared responsibility to address the interconnected and uncertain risks it poses.

Domestically, African governments and the private sector need to recognise the impact of climate change and champion green growth that works with nature to build resilience and supports people, especially rural populations, to adapt through improved early warning systems, agricultural investment and diversified livelihood options. The current Covid-19 pandemic and its economic implications provide an opportunity to employ the old adage of “never waste a crisis”. As Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda stated: “We are not making a choice between environment and prosperity; but we are rather looking at how we combine both.”

This is the opportunity to invest in recovery solutions, such as job programmes that directly invest in natural capital like nature-based tourism, that will help the continent to come back stronger. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates, for example, that 3.6 million people in Africa are employed in the nature-based tourism industry, which was worth $29 billion in 2018. These programmes can also build the capacity of local communities and drive forward opportunities for women and youth.
Navigating this uncertain future will also require an improved understanding of environmental and human interactions through investing in science and education.

For Africa to thrive amidst the shocks and stresses that lie ahead, it will need leadership and cooperation from governments, the private sector and people that builds resilience to upcoming challenges by supporting growth and development that protects and works with the environment. As South African climate activist Ndivile Mokoena said: “Climate change is largely viewed as an environmental issue. However, it encompasses everything: it is a developmental issue, it is a human rights issue, it is a social issue.”

Nathanial (Nate) Matthews is a political and environmental scientist and Director of Programmes at the Global Resilience Partnership. He holds a PhD in geography, has published two books and authored over 55 scientific publications and reports. He has 16 years’ experience in international development across 30 countries. Twitter: @Nate_Matthews_

Telling the story from both sides

Peace journalism: West Africa

Conflict-sensitive journalism must ensure inclusive and impartial coverage, with the media fulfilling a role as “appeasers”

A Malian journalist takes part in a march in Bamako in memory of radio journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon from Radio France Internationale who were in killed in Kidal after being kidnapped, 2013 Photo: STR / AFP

The media today have a considerable influence in society. They shape the values of individuals, and therefore have a significant, though indirect, impact on all society. The role that “hate media” played in the Rwandan massacre has become a textbook case of the harmful role the media can play in the emergence or exacerbation of conflicts. Similarly, the media played a role in exacerbating violence in Côte d’Ivoire in 2002 and during the post-electoral crisis of 2010. The partial and partisan treatment of information, disinformation and propaganda in situations as delicate as conflicts and political crises contribute greatly to poisoning the social climate and radicalising viewpoints. The media are not neutral vectors of information; in some situations they may be responsible for the difference between peace and war. As Bernard Dagenais (1993: 57) pointed out, “in times of crisis, the media are full actors”. Or as Douglas Kellner (1990) put it, the “enslavement of the media” to established powers fuels democratic crisis, exacerbates conflicts and, by extension, a disrespect for human rights.

The majority of researchers who have examined the role of the media in time of crisis conclude that the media, although omnipotent, are doing a poor job: they have no historical insight, they discard any in-depth analysis of the challenges of crisis, they speak on behalf of the authorities and put more emphasis on the results than the causes of conflicts. However, this radical position is qualified by the reflection that the media can also be used for the better. The media are “double-edged tools”, to use the expression of Canadian journalist Ross Howard. If political crisis is a cyclical element in some West African countries, and if the media are the agents of social communication through which a crisis becomes public, then the media, peace and human rights relationship becomes a key factor in the fight for democracy. Crisis situations (real or anticipated) provide privileged moments to study the interdependence of media institutions with the societies in which they operate. In an era marked by globalisation and technological progress, the role of the media and information professionals in peace-building processes has become central, especially in covering political conflicts.

From this point of view, peace journalism or conflict-sensitive journalism is a prerequisite for world stability. But what does the expression “peace journalism” or “conflict sensitive journalism” mean? Peace journalism was launched in the 1970s by the Norwegian political scientist Johan Galtung. It gained wider interest and support from professional journalists in developed and developing countries in the 1990s, as well as attracting civil society activists, and academic researchers interested in dealing with conflicts and crises in the media. It offers a set of plans, evaluation criteria and practical options to media professionals that can be used to develop critical analysis of war journalism, all derived from, or at least attentive to, proposals on conflict, violence and peace. The aim of peace journalism is to place events relating to conflicts in a broad and fair context, that does not cater to partisan, political and economic interests. It seeks the causes of conflicts and solutions in each camp; it gives the floor to all parties involved; it focuses on the conflict rather than the opposing parties; it is cognisant that its coverage of conflict can have repercussions; and it aims to establish a moderate discourse focused on non-violence.

Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick, in their book Journalisme de paix. Qu’est-ce que c’est ? Et comment l’exercer? (Peace Journalism. What is it? And how to exercise it?), distinguish between journalism of peace and journalism of war. They maintain that the daily practices of war journalism incite, favour, and stir up social conflicts. On the other hand, peace journalism organises its skills around the preservation or consolidation of peace. In a 2010 book, Reports on Conflicts: New Directions in Peace Journalism, Jake Lynch and Johan Galtung present case studies of media coverage in Korea, Yugoslavia and during the Gulf War. These case studies laid the groundwork for a peace journalism that is applicable to many conflicts. Its fundamental principle is that media and information professionals need to underline the common points between parties to the conflict, rather than focusing exclusively on the differences. That is, tell the story from all sides. But this approach also raises questions about whether it is possible to implement it in accordance with the professional rules which govern the practice of journalism.

In the processing of news, should peace journalism be objective and impartial? Defenders of peace journalism argue that journalists cannot be neutral if their goal is to build social stability and promote peace. From this point of view, objectivity is compromised by the desire to ensure a social stability. Peace journalism, they claim, is prone to “punch” when it criticises, while omitting controversial facts or difficult issues in conflict. “The media can be an ‘instrument’ of conflict resolution when the information they present is reliable, respect human rights, and represent various viewpoints,” argues Ross Howard, whose two books, An operational Framework for Media and Peace (2002) and Conflict-Sensitive Journalism ( 2003), have been influential. Peace journalism can advocate for accountability and expose embezzlement. It can help members of society to make informed choices, which is the forerunner of democratic governance, he argues. From this perspective, “peace journalism” can have the following positive functions:

• Constitute a means of communication between the protagonists;

• Correct the misperceptions of personalities and lead experts to explain themselves clearly;

• Show a more human aspect of the other;

• Highlight the human dimension of the conflict by associating names and voices with it and providing personal accounts;

• Provide an outlet for listeners, readers, viewers but also the protagonists. Get them to consider the problem in a different way or give them the opportunity to learn from solutions found elsewhere;

• Generate solutions. Peace building includes all activities that help overcome organised violence and maintain peace.

The general aim of peace building through peace journalism is therefore to prevent the eruption of violence in conflict, or to transform armed conflict or crisis in the long term into peaceful and constructive forms of dispute resolution. Peace building, through journalism that promotes peace, could appear in three structuring phases of crisis or conflict situations:

1. Prevention to avoid the escalation of violence before the crisis or the conflict;

2. Conflict management or restoration of peace to put an end to violence and lead to a peace treaty (the media and journalists are mediators and moderators);

3. The consolidation of peace to stabilise it after conflict or war.

Media that participate in war discourse play a considerable role in spreading hawkish attitudes, and thereby help to underwrite a public view that is favourable to war. In this mode, media produce symbolic warrior identities that engage members of the public as actors engaged in war. An enemy is presented as a collective threat, a collective identity to be destroyed. This can be the case with respect to bearers of the same nationality, as is the case in civil wars. During the 1990-1991 Gulf War, US and British war-supporting media accentuated the delegitimisation of the Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein. Following the 9/11 attacks in the US, some politicians presented hostilities against Al-Qaeda as legitimate, with their attacks seen as a declaration of war. Media were an integral part of the war apparatus, with the aim of legitimising the American intervention in Iraq. So, a belligerent state was instituted as an actor legitimately wielding violence, and the adversary is demonised. The case of Radio Television Libre de Milles Collines (RTLM) in Rwanda is a much-quoted example of “hate media”.

This private radio station helped to create a climate of terror among the population that culminated in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. RTLM served to legitimise the massacres of Tutsi and Hutu opponents, directly incited the massacres and provided practical information to the perpetrators of the genocide to facilitate the killings. According to Marie- Soleil Frère, hate propaganda reinvents history, manipulates facts, and uses victimisation, dehumanisation and animalisation of the Other. Contrary to such a stance, peace journalism does not hold a hawkish discourse, not in designating an enemy to kill, or in legitimising conflicts, but in acting upstream to avoid a risk system often resulting from the combination of four factors highlighted by Philippe Hugon (2006; 35):

• Structural: linked to underdevelopment, characterised by the vulnerability and exposure to risk of populations with low resilience due to insufficient availability, market failures, absence of rights and capacities or dysfunctions in the allocation of resources;

• Cyclical, exogenous and endogenous shocks: linked to sudden and unexpected events leading to a strong disturbance of the system and to an unregulated propagation;

• At an institutional and political level: characterised by absences or shortcomings in prevention (monitoring cells, alert systems) and regulation, by instrumentalisation (unemployed young people, religious, politics, or ethnicity);

• Informational: the paroxysmal crisis always responds to a lack of information and to propaganda carried by the political powers and the media.

During wartime, the media, from a “peace journalism” perspective, ensure minimal expression in public space of the expression of symbolic identities and political representations. They ensure the sustainability of the commitments that underpin us, to the extent that, in wartime, the expression of identities is stronger because war is a time of exacerbation of political cleavages and symbolic identities. The media construct, in a way, the symbolic permanence of the institutional fact, at a time when political institutions and sociability are in crisis and, in a way, in a waking state. Communication, whether through the media or through institutional actors, consists during the war of pursuing the representation of the country and the state and, thus, in perpetuating the situation of political and social secularity which allows inhabitants of a country, even in a state of suspension of the institutional relations, to recognise themselves in their common identity and to recognise powers and institutions. The media ensure a permanent confrontation between the realities of the war. Doing so, they allow the symbolic appropriation of the war by members of the public, and, consequently, the confrontation of their effective practices of sociability with the events which threaten their collective identity.

In this sense, the media ensure the symbolic presence of war in public space, they prevent the state, the country, the game of identities, from foreclosing war, or to be foreclosed from it, by obliging us, by its presence in the media, to take a position in relation to it and to institute our political identities in relation to the war. Finally, the media build the memory of the war as it unfolds: they have a function of recording events, both for the memories of those who experience them, and who, thus, will keep their memory after they are finished, and for those who do not know them, but who will be the depositories of this memory in the political conscience of their identity. What emerges from these positions is that conflict-sensitive journalism must ensure inclusive and impartial coverage of information. In this way, the media and journalists do not appear only as mere informants or observers of the crisis or conflict situation, but also and above all as “appeasers”. This role of appeaser is all the more remarkable since the latter must not lean towards one or the other of the parties of the conflict, but must contribute to bringing calm by reporting facts without comment.

In Mali, Radio Daande Douentza has made a large contribution to the transformation of a conflict between breeders and farmers in the Timbuktu region. Conflict-sensitive journalism was illustrated through journalistic production on three levels. Initially, the station reported incidents between breeders and cultivators to allow the regional administration to react quickly; then it allowed farmers to announce on the radio when they had finished harvesting. The herdsmen who listened to the radio thus knew when they could cross the fields without damaging them, and therefore in complete safety. Finally, a series of programmes was repeatedly broadcast reminding breeders and farmers of the collaboration that had always existed between the two groups. Here, media served as a link between conflictual parties. In addition, they were able to make the link between the community and the central government or with other actors. By creating a dynamic of exchange, the media facilitated interactions between the different actors. The post-crisis period is always a period of transition. Discourses and communication strategies can be used to prepare for the post-war period, by fair representations of the actors, thus organising, on the symbolic level, a real implementation of political power and institutions.

The media represent an international public space: they stage a kind of diplomatic activity which can help to organise the powers and political actors of the post-war period. By reporting on the negotiations and the preparation of peace, they reveal the reformulation of the political identities restructured during the conflict and provide the instruments which allow the assessment of the balance of powers born during the war. This was the logic behind the Talking Drum Studio radio programme Leh wi mec salone (Let’s build Sierra Leone) founded in 2000. Hosted by veterans from opposing factions, it was initially intended to encourage combatants to return to civilian life. In addition, the peace media approach can also articulate an internal public space dominated by local actors and political identities. By doing so, they help to mediate these elements with institutional strategies and practices in international public space. In other words, in this phase the media represent internal political identities to the external world, which includes other countries, mediators of the international community, and actors of stakeholder organisations. This approach is sometimes said to constitute a kind of appeasement, and it can be precarious. Specifically, it means implementing a journalistic practice capable of reconciling the parties involved in the conflict or crisis.

The main objective is to contribute to the (re) construction of thoughts, visions and hearts that have been suppressed, or hidden. Peace journalism aims to have a positive impact on conflicts and to contribute to their prevention, or resolution. It can be a difficult concept to delimit. Mainly, the challenge is to identify the necessary skills and the criteria of a journalistic practice encouraging peace. In Galtung’s terms, these criteria can be understood as the opposite of journalistic work that encourages violence against those who promote peace. The major challenge for journalism in the West African zone is to advocate, through professional practices, a real model of information processing that corresponds to that of peace media and “peace journalism” while guaranteeing the independence of the media in times of crisis or in conflict zones. By contributing to sensitive information processing in conflict situations, the media can begin to provide solutions to the challenges of peace.

Silencing the guns

Africa: fragile gains

There’s been some progress towards ending wars on the continent, but 2020 was never a realistic goal for ending all conflicts

A Kenyan police officer of the African Union’s
peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM) takes part in a night patrol on a street in Mogadishu in September 2019. Photo: TINA SMOLE / AFP

Seven years ago, in 2013, African leaders solemnly vowed “not to bequeath the burden of conflicts to the next generation of Africans”. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the founding of the continent’s premier political body, the Organisation of African Unity, the predecessor of today’s African Union (AU). As part of a broader development plan extending to the hundredth anniversary, the AU set a goal of ending all African wars by 2020. That campaign, known as Silencing the Guns, is now reaching its deadline. It has registered some accomplishments in that short time. During 2019 alone, the AU helped negotiate new peace accords among warring parties in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR).

Then in August, AU and Ethiopian mediators persuaded Sudan’s generals to form a transitional government with leaders of the popular uprising that had ousted longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir four months earlier, at least momentarily averting the likelihood of greater bloodshed. The gains remain fragile, however. And across the continent, Africans continue to die in large numbers. According to Uppsala University’s Conflict Data Programme, some 15,000 people were killed in violent confrontations in Africa in 2018, the last year for which figures are available. The bulk of those casualties were in five countries: with Nigeria at the top, followed by Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the CAR and Mali. Although 2018’s total was notably down from a peak of more than 24,000 deaths in 2014, it was still only slightly below the figure for the year Silencing the Guns began.

“As human beings we cannot accept such levels of violence,” AU commissioner for peace and security Smail Chergui told a reporter for the London magazine New African in February 2019. However, sceptics, accustomed to the organisation’s history of unmet targets, never expected very much. The limited results have less to do with excessive ambition than with the sheer difficulty of quickly resolving such complex conflicts. The tight deadline was intended to spur African leaders to concentrate their energies more than they might have otherwise. Everyone agrees that ending war is essential for Africa’s future. “We cannot have sustainable development without sustaining peace,” Amina Mohammed, the UN deputy secretary-general, who is from Nigeria, observed at a March 2019 African regional conference in Morocco.

She promptly added: “neither can we build a secure future for everyone without addressing the root causes of our conflicts and vulnerabilities.” The old Organisation of African Unity (OAU) only occasionally engaged in peacekeeping, hindered by its prohibition against African interference in the internal affairs of member states. By the early 1990s, as more conflicts erupted, that notion began to change. The principle of noninterference became less categorical in the face of massive human rights violations and population displacements that threatened regional security. The OAU set up new mechanisms to quickly field mediation and observer missions. Initially, however, the most active African-led peacekeeping came from regional organisations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) or East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development, sometimes as precursors to better-financed UN operations.

With the transformation of the OAU into the AU in 2002, security issues acquired an even higher priority. The AU’s Constitutive Act explicitly gave it authority to “intervene in cases of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity”, thereby replacing the principle of non-interference with one of “non-indifference”. Still, it took some time before African leaders assumed greater responsibility to act on their own, rather than leaving the task to the UN or other foreign entities. The AU has mounted peacekeeping missions in Darfur, Burundi, Somalia and several other countries. It is also in the process of establishing an African standby force capable of rapid interventions. The Silencing the Guns campaign builds on those efforts. It explicitly links security with the wider range of AU concerns.

Eliminating the root causes of conflict in African societies, notes the 2013 declaration, will require effort on a number of levels: improved governance, better entrenched democratic and human rights norms and stronger anti-corruption measures. Economic and social disparities fuel tensions and discontent, especially among marginalised ethnic groups, youth and women, and they need to be addressed. Making progress in all these areas, moreover, cannot rest on the shoulders of African leaders alone. A detailed “Master Roadmap” to ending conflicts adopted in 2017 specifies tasks to be carried out by the AU, regional organisations, governments, international partners, civil society groups, and local communities. Like the UN and other organisations, the AU emphasises the need to increase women’s involvement in peace efforts, often citing the role of women activists in helping end Liberia’s civil war.

But the record so far is disappointing, for the AU as well as its partners. In Mali, for example, the highest body overseeing the implementation of a 2015 peace agreement is composed entirely of men. Women did better in Sudan. After the AU suspended Sudan’s membership in June 2019 to pressure the junta into negotiating seriously with protest leaders, women had limited involvement in the talks. But when the resulting transitional government was announced, four women figured among the 18 cabinet members, including the new foreign minister, Asmaa Mohammed Abdullah. Levinia Addae-Mensah, deputy executive director of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding, says that there has been only a “marginal increase” in women’s roles in African peace efforts. And while a few women may now be in prominent positions, their absence on the ground is most serious.

Pointing to the need to narrow the gap between national decision makers and local communities, she told, “that is why we want the voices of women to be heard in … community dialogues”. The AU originally sent peacekeepers to Darfur, Sudan in 2004 at a time of widespread killings by pro-government militias. In 2007, when the UN authorised its own intervention, the AU troops were merged into the UN-AU Mission in Darfur, the first such hybrid undertaking. There is still no peace agreement between Khartoum and the Darfur rebels, but the violence has declined considerably. Also in 2007, the AU established a Somalia peacekeeping mission to support the government in Mogadishu. Despite the presence of nearly 20,000 AU troops there, parts of the country remain outside government control and insurgents continue to attack Somali and AU positions, including in the capital.

The AU’s peace toolkit is varied, however, and includes a spectrum of initiatives, from conflict prevention to post-conflict stabilisation. Mediation, which requires no troops, arms or expensive logistical support, is an important one. In March 2019, a peace accord between various rebel groups and the government of the CAR was on the verge of collapsing, as its seven predecessors had. The AU hastily brokered a new round of talks that brought more rebel leaders into the deal. According to Mankeur Ndiaye, head of the UN’s CAR peacekeeping mission, the competing rebel factions still sometimes fight each other, but “there are no more direct confrontations between the government and the armed groups”. In 2019, the AU sent election monitoring missions to Madagascar and the DRC, with the aim of averting renewed partisan bloodshed.

While the election in the DRC featured major irregularities, both contests yielded political reconciliation rather than violence. The AU is also working to control the proliferation of illicit guns. An AU funded report by the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva research group, estimates there were more than 50 million small arms and light weapons in Africa in 2017. Only one fifth were held by official military or police forces. The rest were in the hands of non-state armed groups, private security businesses and individuals. Such weapons have fuelled fighting by organised factions, but they have also aggravated community disputes and enabled all sorts of criminal activity. Small arms, notes Kwesi Aning, a director of the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana, are “Africa’s weapons of mass destruction”. Reducing illegal imports or cross-border smuggling is difficult.

Small arms experts argue that the demand for guns must be reduced, whether through the disarmament of organised military factions or by better ensuring the safety of local communities, which often acquire arms for self-defence against marauding rebels, predatory soldiers or bandits. Consolidating peace after conflicts formally end is essential for preventing a reversion to warfare. But funding is often scarce for community recovery efforts, the reintegration of ex-combatants and numerous other pressing tasks. One of the greatest handicaps, notes the AU’s Master Roadmap, is “inadequate resources” for financing peace operations. The AU has struggled to ensure funding from its own members. Until recently, only about two thirds of assessed contributions were collected, with more than half of all members in default.

In 2017, the AU started assessing a 0.2% levy on all imports into African countries to support the group’s various activities. It is also exploring other, more innovative ways to raise funds. Regional African organisations face similar problems. Despite meagre resources, the Sahel Group of Five (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) launched a joint anti-terrorist military force, but after several years have yet to mount significant ground operations against jihadist groups active there. But a September 2019 summit meeting of the broader ECOWAS decided to commit $1 billion over four years to combating jihadism in the Sahel, in principle tapping the greater resources of Nigeria and other states in the region. More international support will also be essential, including from the UN, which currently has seven peacekeeping missions in Africa.

The UN, however, faces resource difficulties of its own, especially with major US cutbacks to its funding contributions. In July 2019 the AU Executive Council proclaimed that its theme for 2020 would be “Silencing the Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa’s Development”, inviting African leaders to take stock of what has been achieved so far. But by tacitly dropping the 2020 deadline, the body suggested that the process will be ongoing. Whatever new mechanisms or timetables Africans develop, reducing mass bloodshed will remain a vital goal for the continent’s future.

Ernest Harsch is a journalist and academic who has focused on African political and development issues since the 1970s. He has published several books, most recently Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest and Revolution (London: Zed Books, 2017), and is a research scholar at the Institute of African Studies at Columbia University in New York.

Altered states

Africa: the age of revolutions

A broader view of history reveals Africans to have been decisive actors in shaping global changes, both inside and outside the continent

Anonymous painting of the Lisbon waterfront, late 16th century, known as Chafariz d’ei Rey in the Alfama District. Photo: CREATIVE COMMONS

One big difficulty historians of Africa face is the need to articulate historical changes in African experience through language accessible to a wide audience. Communicating widely means using concepts which are generally understood – yet these are usually Eurocentric, and not ideas which relate specifically to African historical experiences. Specialists have debunked the tired old western myth of African history as static. However, little of this has yet filtered into the mainstream. A good example is the so-called “age of revolutions”, the phrase coined by the historian Eric Hobsbawm to describe the decades between the American revolution in the 1770s and the Paris commune of 1848. Though the idea is Eurocentric in conception, Hobsbawm did recognise that this era also saw immense political upheavals in Africa. However, few historians have followed his lead.

African actors and societies were deeply connected to the Age of Revolutions. The way to approach Eurocentric concepts such as this may be not to discard them, but rather to expand their application to the world far beyond Europe, thus globalising historical concepts that are often used very narrowly. Connections between Africa and the world have been longstanding and usually grounded in reciprocal relationships. Indeed, they were already deep-rooted during the Age of Revolutions; by the late 18th century, many parts of Africa had had global links for centuries. East Africa was initially the best connected. As early as 150 BC, Chinese sources suggest the arrival of ambassadors from what is now Ethiopia. The Chinese connection to eastern Africa was significant. Chinese porcelain and grave goods have been found in Kilwa (Tanzania) and Madagascar from around 1,000 AD, brought by the dhow trade.

Dhows, and then camels, also brought traders from Basra in Iraq to do business in the Saharan region of the Fezzan, a desert region in what is now south-western Libya, in the 13th and 14th centuries. Meanwhile, West Africa did not take long to catch up. The mai (king) of Borno in north-eastern Nigeria first performed the haj to Mecca in the 11th century, and was followed by his successors, most famously by Mansa Musa of the Mali empire in the 1320s. An annual caravan of pilgrims would travel from Mali to Mecca during the 14th century. In the 15th and 16th century, Jolof ambassadors from Senegambia lived in Portugal, alongside those from the kingdom of Benin in southern Nigeria. Looking north, meantime, annual caravans of pilgrims would leave Timbuktu for Mecca well into the 18th century. Thus, by the eve of the American Revolution (1775-83), societies across Africa were globally connected.

Many African rulers had diplomatic envoys placed abroad. From the 16th century, Kongo, in northern Angola, often sent envoys to the Vatican. Dahomey – now the republic of Benin – sent frequent envoys to Brazil and Portugal from 1750 onwards. Borno, an independent Muslim kingdom that existed from the 8th century until the late 19th century, had regular diplomatic ties with the Ottomans in what is now Turkey. African rulers and people both shaped and were influenced by the rising tide of revolutionary movements that spread across the world from the 1770s onwards. Though the American revolution is much more famous, a movement of equal significance crystallised in Arabia during the 1770s. This was the Salafi Islamic reform movement, led by Muhammad ibn Abd al- Wahhāb, which would ultimately lead to the uniting of much of Arabia under the Ibn Saud family. The movement began in the 1740s, bringing in increasing numbers of followers.

By the 1770s, its influence was very strong and new leaders and followers joined all the time, including West Africans. Constant trading and migration to and from northern Africa had long influenced the growth of Islamic communities in West Africa. However, West African Muslims were Sufis, and now their journeys as pilgrims to Arabia brought about a reorientation of Sufi tenets along the lines of the Salafiya movement. In the 1790s, a movement of Islamic reform began in north-western Nigeria, led by a preacher called Uthman dan Fodio. This saw the establishment of the Sokoto caliphate, which dominated politics in the northern half of Nigeria throughout the 19th century. Gradually, an Age of Revolutions spread through West Africa as increasing numbers of people converted to Islam. This was a way of escaping enslavement; Muslims could not be enslaved by Islamic armies. It was also a way of escaping the control of warrior aristocracies practising African religions, who were often deeply embroiled in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

This African Age of Revolution was therefore driven by the desire to overthrow an outdated aristocracy – just as the European Age of Revolution. It expressed the aspirations of a growing underclass keen to grasp the opportunities offered by expanding trade, and its desire to escape the influence of the slave traders. Just as there were reciprocal exchanges linking eastern and central Africa with the Mediterranean and Arabia, so were there linking West Africa with the Americas. Dahomey’s diplomatic links with Brazil were grounded in shared trading interests and, increasingly, the flow of Africans back and forth across the Atlantic. By the late 18th century, slaves from Dahomey who had managed to earn enough money to buy their freedom in Brazil began to return to their homeland in West Africa, bringing altered forms of religious practice, music and culinary life. Products from Dahomey such as cloth and kola nuts could be bought in the markets of Salvador da Bahia in north-eastern Brazil.

Many of the Fon people who returned to Dahomey acted as agents and traders in the growing trans-Atlantic trade, which had opened new markets for consumers on both sides of the Atlantic by 1800. Traditionally, historians have seen the connections between Africa and the world in this era as grounded exclusively in the Atlantic and Saharan slave trades. Of course, these were significant. Yet if they are placed in a much deeper context, a much fuller picture of the continent’s history emerges. The growth of diplomatic links, the rise of consumer and trading classes, and also the frustration which these classes experienced at the excesses and corruption of their aristocracies, all led to a wide ranging revolutionary movement, which took hold of much of central and western Africa from 1800 onwards. Thus, Africa was experiencing its own age of revolutions just as the bourgeois revolutions against the European aristocracy were taking hold in Europe and America. The impact of these interconnections grew year by year.

By 1823, military expansion by the Sokoto caliphate founded by Uthman dan Fodio led to the fall of the Yoruba empire of Oyo in southern Nigeria. Slaves rushed to convert to Islam and then attacked the property of their former masters, seeing the new movement as an opportunity to reverse decades of inequality. This in turn precipitated huge changes in Dahomey, which was a tributary to Oyo. West Africa’s revolutionary era was just as much a matter of overturning an old, reactionary elite as was Europe’s. Africa’s 18th century is still often understood as characterised by the violence of the slave trade and a growing inequality in economic exchanges with the wider world. However, a deeper look at the continent’s history shows African actors taking decisive roles in driving forward the revolutionary changes which have come to characterise this period of history as a whole. A broader view of history thus shows Africa and Africans as decisive actors in shaping global changes both inside and outside the continent.

Toby Green is a historian at King’s College London. He is the author of A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution (2019). He has organised events in collaboration with institutions in Angola, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Gambia.

A long and winding road

China: the special relationship

Economic and political ties between Africa and China have led to infrastructural development on a monumental scale but their roots go back millennia

A statue of 15th century Chinese diplomat, admiral and explorer Zheng He. Photo: AFP

No one knows exactly how long ago the friendship between China and Africa began but contact and trade between the two can be traced as far back as 202 BC. This relationship deepened in the 14th century during the expedition of Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan scholar and explorer, to parts of Asia. The China-Africa connection was furthered in the same century by the travels of Sa’id of Mogadishu, a scholar who is said to have been the first African to study Mandarin. Besides being a pioneer in the translation of Mandarin to native African languages, Sa’id is credited with playing a role in establishing Somali merchants as leaders in the trade between Asia and Africa. In the 15th century, during the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He, a Chinese diplomat, admiral and explorer, is reputed to have made voyages to the Horn of Africa, passing Ajuran, a Somali empire that commanded the Indian Ocean trade.

Scholars now believe that during his final voyages Zheng followed the coast down to the Mozambique channel, between Madagascar and Mozambique. But while these medieval voyages might have established a strong foundation for relations between the two, it is China’s rapid economic growth in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, creating unprecedent demands for resources such as oil and other raw materials, that has undoubtedly underpinned the modern economic, political, and social ties between China and Africa. As Kenyatta University senior economics lecturer Emmanuel Manyasa notes, at no time has the friendship between China and Africa “been more pronounced” than in the 21st century. Kampala-based historian Peter Chemaswet argues that connections were first cemented in the late 1950s, when China signed the first bilateral trade pact with a number of African countries, namely Sudan, Guinea, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria.

More trade agreements were signed in late 1963, early 1964 with at least 10 recently independent African countries, when China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, toured the continent. African signatories included Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Ghana, Mali, Guinea, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. The premier’s Ghana leg of his tour was regarded as a particular landmark because the country’s leader, President Kwame Nkrumah, was seen at the time as a champion of a united Africa. “The premier’s tour of Ghana was a strategic move that opened doors for China to warm its co-operation with African countries. It is in Ghana that the China- Africa relationship was actually born,” says Joel Savage, a Ghanaian journalist and author based in Brussels. Zhou’s prime objective in Africa was to elevate China’s profile on the continent, and in a speech in Mogadishu at the end of his trip the premier said China would support revolutionary struggles throughout Africa and fiercely oppose foreign interventions.

The outcome of Zhou’s visit was evident in 1971 when 26 African countries voted in the United Nations with 50 others to recognise the People’s Republic as the only legitimate China representative at the UN, replacing Taiwan, which had held the seat since 1949. The foundation of the current relationship between China and Africa was laid with the Beijing Declaration in October 2000 and the announcement of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) at a conference attended by at least 80 ministers from China and 44 other countries, as well as representatives from 17 international and regional organisations. Chinese President Jiang Zemin, Premier Zhu Rongji and Vice-President Hu Jintao were all present at the conference. “This is when the serious work that we see today between China and Africa began,” says Hongxiang Huang, the director of China House, a Nairobi-based research think tank he founded in 2014. Since then, China’s relationship with Africa has grown exponentially.

In 2006, at a FOCAC summit in Beijing attended by 35 African countries, the then president, Hu Jintao, rolled out $5 billion concessionary loans to Africa. The president also, as one of the “eight measures” for Sino-African relations, announced the creation of the China-Africa Development Fund to stimulate his country’s investment in Africa with $1 billion of initial funding. In 2009, the year China became Africa’s biggest trading partner, surpassing the US, a FOCAC ministerial conference in Egypt further defined China-Africa relations. At the conference an action plan to deepen cooperation was announced, including a $10 billion low-cost loan, double the amount committed in 2006. An additional $1 billion special loan for small- and medium-sized African enterprises was also established. At the same time, Premier Wen Jiabao announced a debt write-off for poor African nations, the construction of 100 new energy projects and a gradual lowering of custom duties on 95% of products from African countries with which China had diplomatic ties.

Crucially, China said it would ensure that Africa attained a stable food supply and it would provide the continent with modern medical equipment to fight malaria. Trade between China and Africa has expanded at an average annual rate of 20%, from $13 billion in 2001 to $188 billion in 2015. Figures from China’s General Administration of Customs show that in 2018, the country’s total import and export volume with Africa was $204.19 billion. During that period, China’s exports to Africa were $104.91 billion, up by 10.8%, and China’s imports from Africa were $99.28 billion, translating to a 30.8% increase. However, some analysts and observers – and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – have cautioned that China’s economic slowdown and the sharp drop in commodity prices presents a risk for resource-dependent sub-Saharan African countries. The IMF, for example, has advised countries to look at diversifying their economies and reducing their reliance on natural resource exports.

On the other hand, China’s demand for consumer-related resources such as agricultural raw materials and food products has increased, and this focus on agriculture is likely to intensify China- Africa trade. To date, China has acquired 252,901 hectares of land for agriculture in Africa. According to the China Africa Research Initiative, a research programme dedicated to understanding the political and economic aspects of China-Africa relations, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, China has also established 14 agricultural centres across Africa, “taking an increasingly hands-on role in its work and investment related to African agriculture, leasing and developing land”. China is also synonymous with large scale infrastructural investment in Africa, historically epitomised by the construction of the 1,710 km Tanzania-Zambia railway, which was completed in 1976. “China finances one in five projects; it also engages in the construction of one in three mega projects,” observes Luke Mulunda, a finance journalist who runs business today. in Kenya.

Transport, shipping, ports, energy, power, real estate – encompassing industrial, commercial and residential real estate – are some of the key infrastructural works in which China has invested in Africa. A Deloitte report by Hannah Edinger and Jean-Pierre Labuschagne published in March this year noted that to date China has participated in over 200 infrastructure projects in Africa. They said Chinese enterprises have completed and are building projects that “are designed to help add to or upgrade about 30,000 km of highways, 2,000 km of railways, 85 million tonnes per year of port throughput capacity, more than nine million tonnes per day of clean water treatment capacity, some 20,000 MW of power generation capacity, and more than 30,000 km of transmission and transformation lines”. The China-Africa friendship has also seen an expansion in aid. Currently, China is one of the largest country donors to Africa. However, critics argue that some support has been extended to Africa disguised as aid when in reality it is in the form of loans.

Analysts also point out that some African countries, happy to take advantage of China’s “ready-to-assist” policy – and willing to overlook questionable labour and environmental practices by Chinese business operations in Africa – have ended up choking themselves with loans. “The secrecy that shrouds Chinese operations, and corruption in many African countries, is what has perpetuated this time-after-time interchangeable use of aid and debt,” says Manyasa. According to The Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organisation based in Washington DC, China’s loan issuance to Africa has tripled since 2012. New debt issuance by Chinese institutions to African countries has gone up substantially in the past five years, rising to some $5 billion to $6 billion of new loan issuances each year in the 2013–15 period. McKinsey & Company say that in 2015, these loans accounted for about a third of new sub-Saharan African government debt. Most of the loans have been linked to infrastructure projects, such as China EXIM Bank’s $3.6 billion loan to finance the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya.

Ongoing Chinese investment in African infrastructure is in line with its Belt and Road initiative (BRI) announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013. This hugely ambitious transcontinental project aims to revive the ancient Silk Road for the 21st century, improving interconnectivity between Asia, Europe and Africa to increase trade and development along economic corridors – and enhance Chinese influence along the way. Unsurprisingly, therefore, that when China announced a new $60 billion African development fund at FOCAC 2018 in Beijing it was made clear the money would be channelled to projects, including ports, telecommunications, bridges and roads, aligned to the BRI. The John Hopkins China Africa Initiative says in a recent report that “from 2000 to 2017, the Chinese government, banks and contractors extended $143 billion in loans to African countries and their state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

Importantly, the report notes, however, that while some government loans qualify as “official development aid”, others are “export credits, supplier credits or commercial, not concessional in nature”. It is in this context that analysts caution that it is up to African governments to ensure that these funds are put to productive use to have the desired impact on their economies. Otherwise, as financial journalist Luke Mulunda says, African countries may find themselves in a serious debt trap, jeopardising their development.

Eddy Odour is an economist and a statistician with more than 15 years’ experience in data analysis. He runs an independent research firm in Nairobi, Kenya, that consults on trade, regional integration and infrastructure.