Surveillance technology: used and abused
African states have been deploying surveillance capabilities to spy on and intimidate youth movements and activists
Egyptian army officers monitor local and
international TV stations and websites at the
military press office department in Cairo in
June 2012. Egyptians were voting in a run-off
presidential election, pitting an Islamist against
Hosni Mubarak, amid political chaos, highlighted
by uncertainty over the future role of the army.
Photo: AFP PHOTO/STR
On 20 August, 2016, a group of mostly young social media activists gathered at a property in the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, to discuss national political affairs. The political climate was tense in the central African country following brief, intense protests against the continued rule of long-time strongman Pierre Nkurunziza, politically motivated killings, repression of the media and an attempted coup the year before, in May 2015. As the gathering got under way, police swooped in and 46 of the activists, who had organised the meeting via the messaging app WhatsApp, were arrested. Eight of them were kept in jail for a while. “Police accused them of tarnishing the image of Burundi by spreading defamatory information against public authorities,” said a civil society activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. “Before the arrest of those WhatsApp group members, the minister in charge of public security had issued a threatening statement against social media activists,” the activist told Africa in Fact.
“On 17 May, 2016, he said that those using social media tools to spread rumours should not feel safe; that security services have now acquired the capacity to monitor them, to locate them and arrest them.” The Burundian activist said that in the wake of the incident suspicions grew that the regime had acquired sophisticated digital surveillance capabilities to monitor and intercept the communications of citizens. As a result, with the traditional media sector, especially broadcasting, effectively captured or destroyed by the Nkurunziza regime, and with many journalists having fled the country and now operating from exile, a heavy culture of self-censorship enveloped the country, even on social media platforms. Since the youth-led uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring of 2011 that toppled authoritarian regimes across North Africa, indications are that many African governments have sharpened their communications and digital surveillance capabilities, especially seeking to clamp down on political expression on popular social media platforms that are primarily used by the youth.
In September 2019, the Uganda-based Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) Institute released its ‘State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2019’ report, which found: “The continued surveillance of the public, with limited oversight, in addition to the increased surveillance capacity of governments, and the interception of communication, including that of critics and human rights activists, threatens internet freedom. These measures have been coupled with regulatory control of the internet, including now widespread and restrictive measures such as censorship, filtering, blocking, throttling and internet shutdowns evident in several countries.” The report mentions that while most of the repressive surveillance practices uncovered were primarily perpetrated by authoritarian regimes – of which there are apparently 23 among the 55 African governments – even those countries classified as “flawed democracies”, such as South Africa, engaged in highly questionable surveillance activities.
Since 2011, countries such as Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and the list goes on, have “weaponised” the internet and social media platforms through surveillance and repressive computer misuse, social media tax, and cyber security and terrorism laws. This has been especially noticeable following similar youthful outspokenness online like that which preceded and fuelled the Arab Spring. And some states have even gone as far as deploying troll armies and state sponsored disinformation campaigns – what the Oxford Internet Institute calls “organised social media manipulation campaigns” – to counter narratives on social media platforms that are perceived to be anti-government. In its September 2019 report, ‘The Global Disinformation Order’, the institute identified 10 African governments involved in or running “organised social media manipulation campaigns” – specifically, Angola, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe.
The growing spectre of harm and alarm represented by such tactics, and the increasingly pervasive nature of state surveillance practices, along with the very real threat of surveillance overreach and abuse – as well as the ease with which surveillance and hacking technologies can be acquired internationally – have given rise to a global climate of widespread repression before expression. This was flagged as a burgeoning global human rights concern by United Nations special rapporteur David Kaye in June 2019. The UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, in a report submitted before the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), stated: “We live in an age of readily available, easy to abuse and difficult to detect tools of digital surveillance. In his groundbreaking surveillance report in 2013, the previous mandate holder, Frank La Rue, noted that weak regulatory environments had provided fertile ground for arbitrary and unlawful infringements of the rights to privacy and freedom of opinion and expression.”
Many of the examples of abuse and infringements that Kaye was referring to undoubtedly emanated from the African continent, where some of the more repressive and authoritarian, as well as some seemingly democratic, states have been active over the past decade or so in global digital surveillance technology markets and have been caught out engaging in murky and unlawful surveillance activities. One such country is South Africa. “There’s plenty of evidence that South Africa’s security agencies have put resources into monitoring and interfering with democratic formations, particularly during the Zuma administration,” says Murray Hunter, a surveillance researcher who formerly headed the influential Right2Know (R2K) campaign’s state surveillance monitoring project. “This includes civil society groups, student protest movements, dissident unions, and media organisations. “A few years ago, there was also reporting on a leaked SSA [State Security Agency] document that revealed the agency’s official national security estimates, i.e. what it perceives to be the biggest genuine threats to state security,” Hunter explains.
“As this report shows, the state was frankly and seriously anticipating an Arab-spring style uprising in the lead up to the 2014 elections. In other words, the state had reframed what many would consider to be legitimate and unrelated social protest as a potential existential threat.” South African civil society and the media have exposed such practices over the years and even taken the state to court. In September 2019, the investigative journalism initiative, the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, supported by R2K and others, won a high court judgment that effectively scrapped the primary law enabling communications surveillance and interception, the notorious Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (RICA) of 2002. With SSA expected to appeal the high court decision, and the South African Police Service (SAPS) already having lodged an appeal, it’s unclear how the case will eventually end. But the decision reverberated around the world and has emboldened international calls for reform of state surveillance practices globally.
One country in particular need of reform is Zimbabwe, just north of South Africa, which has a long history of repression of legitimate dissent and political expression. While invasive state surveillance was already an uncomfortable fact of life for political activists and journalists up until then, since 2016 the situation has become much worse, according to political activist Henry Munangatire. He was one of the core organisers and strategists of the July 2016 #thisflag pro-democracy protest movement – run primarily via various social media platforms on mobile phones – spearheaded by young Zimbabwean pastor Evan Mawarire, who attracted a large youth following and international attention, as well as state harassment, intimidation and repression. Munangatire said that at the height of the #thisflag movement, which called on people to stay home in protest at the state of the country, state security operatives used the state’s communications surveillance capabilities to hunt down and imprison youth movement leaders, many of whom managed to evade capture and had to be smuggled out of the country.
“All of a sudden you had young people using this hashtag to talk about their economic and social situations, which at that point were a result of 36 years of corruption and mismanagement of the country by Zanu-PF,” he says. “The success of this movement culminated in building social media activism and on-the- ground activism, which, of course, led to the creation of other hashtags, such as #Mugabemustgo, which were created online and led to civil disobedience and people expressing discontent at the system. “So it was at that point that the Zanu-PF government realised it didn’t know what to do with the internet and they started crafting a cyber security Bill. And that Bill basically sought to criminalise the use of social media in politics and social activism, even if it is peaceful activism,” Munangatire says. He added that while the cyber security Bill had moved onto the back-burner since the 2017 military coup that removed long-time Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe from office, it has since been revived by the Mnangagwa regime, which has pushed for its urgent enactment into law.
The Zimbabwe Cyber Crime, Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill was approved by the Mnangagwa cabinet at the beginning of October 2019 and has been sent to parliament for enactment into law. The Bill has already attracted criticism for its provisions that enable a clampdown on social media. The 34-year-old Munangatire said he lives under constant and invasive state surveillance and has been arrested twice for his political activities over the years. His experiences are unfortunately not isolated ones on the African continent. The warning signs for Africa are clear and everywhere, as articulated in the CIPESA ‘State of Internet Freedom in Africa 2019’ report: “While digital authoritarianism has been in existence for decades, it is clear that its use by authoritarian regimes to surveil, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations is a tool of state control over their rights. If left unchecked, democracy and internet freedom will continue to regress.”
However, according to Hunter, the situation was not all doom and gloom. “While pervasive surveillance may be a fact, we should not assume that it’s an inevitable fact,” he says. “As societies, we need to raise the political and social cost of security-statist thinking. That means helping raise public awareness of the issues and the threats and the costs of surveillance. We can march for privacy, and vote for privacy, and debate and discuss for privacy, and pay for privacy and donate for privacy and design for privacy and litigate for privacy and legislate for privacy – and we should.”
Cyber crime: It’s a war
Cyber crime knows no boundaries and the perpetrators are constantly improving their capabilities
According to Ivory Coast’s police department in charge of cyber crime (PLCC) nearly 100 internet criminals were arrested in the country in
2018. The country is known for its Web scammers. Photo: ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP
Cyber crime cost Africa an estimated $3.5 billion in 2017 alone, according to pan-African IT business advisory company Serianu, but most countries don’t have the right legislation to defend themselves from – let alone prosecute – this new form of crime. The brutal war in Yemen provides a timely example of how what might appear to be a traditional regional conflict of the type far too common in Africa and the Middle East is also one being fought in a uniquely modern way using cyber warfare and drone attacks. The conflict between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition backed by the United States, United Kingdom and France is brutally old fashioned, fought with guns, mortars and tanks, killing about 91,600 people since 2015 and displacing more than two million others, according to recent reports by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) and the United Nations. But in two ways it is a very modern war; two Houthi drone strikes in September 2019 on Saudi oil facilities threatened 10% of the world’s supply, while cyber warfare is also a key part of this conflict.
Rebels also took control of Yemen’s internet service provider (ISP), Yemen Net, when they took over the capital, Sana’a, in 2015 – opening up “another front”, Allan Liska, a threat intelligence analyst at internet technology company RecordedFuture, said in an interview with Cyberscoop, an online media outlet for technology decision makers. But cyber war is not just part of an active conflict like Yemen; it is growing in Africa, too. “Cyber crime today knows no borders, and its technical capabilities are improving fast,” says Riaan Badenhorst, general manager at IT security consultants Kaspersky Africa. Moreover, cybercrime in Africa is increasing at an “exponential rate”, says Nozipho Mngomezulu, a specialist telecoms and internet partner at Johannesburg law firm Webber Wentzel. Quoting Serianu’s 2017 cyber security report, Mngomezulu says that in Africa cyber attacks hit Nigeria the hardest, with losses of $649 million, followed by Kenya with $210 million and Tanzania with $99 million.
Meanwhile, during that time, more than 95% of public and private organisations across the continent spent less than $1,500 a year on cyber-security measures, with SMEs in particular failing to invest. Mngomezulu noted that the Institute for Security Studies had found that South Africa was the target of 13,842 cyber attacks every day. “Cyber criminals currently see Africa as a safe haven, where they can conduct their operations without the fear of being held accountable,” she told Africa in Fact. “Cyber criminals view Africans as easy targets that can be easily manipulated. And most African countries are yet to catch up with the rest of the world insofar as cyber security is concerned.” Several African countries have also effectively shut down their own internet during times of crisis – including Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Chad – making it possible for repressive regimes to keep citizens from protesting, literally by cutting off their means to communicate. Social media such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, which are key channels for spreading information, are the most frequent targets.
In the past year WhatsApp, the messaging service owned by Facebook with over a billion users, has been “turned off” in several countries. Social media are also the most important avenues for the spread of disinformation. In September 2019 Google’s security team revealed that Apple phones had been hacked, apparently by the Chinese, to spy on the oppressed Muslim Uyghur population in that country. Not long afterwards, WhatsApp sued Israeli security firm NSO Group for attacks on about 100 users, mostly human rights activists, lawyers and journalists. Yemen has also seen a spike in malicious software, known as malware, although it is unclear whether cyber criminals intend them for espionage or criminal purposes. But “the intent for criminals to take advantage of people in a war zone, as well as nation states to do espionage … is there,” said Winnona DeSombre, a threat intelligence researcher at RecordedFuture in an interview with Cyberscoop.
One fearsome form of cyber crime with clear criminal intent is ransomware, in which hackers take control of computer systems and demand a payment to return control to their owners. In August 2019, Johannesburg’s city power utility was hacked with ransomware, while the city of Johannesburg itself was hit in October. The 2017 WannaCry ransomware attacks, which targeted several African countries, including South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, Egypt, Mozambique, Tanzania, Niger, Morocco and Tunisia, are thought to have hit 200,000 computers in 150 countries, and the total damage was estimated at between hundreds of millions and billions of dollars. A 2016 African Union Commission and Symantec report analysing cyber-security trends and governments’ response to them, found 34 out of the continent’s 55 countries lacked specific legal provisions to combat cyber crime, says Mngomezulu, citing also “weak infrastructure security, a lack of skilled human capital and a lack of awareness of the sector’s dynamics”.
“There is little sense of a cohesive strategy to fend off cyber attacks, little knowledge sharing, and certainly no cyber-defence capacity as part of national defences,” says Arthur Goldstuck, the managing director of South African-based researchers World Wide Worx. Meanwhile, the threat of ransomware remains as powerful as ever, while it also evolves in sophistication, says Badenhorst. Attacks on urban infrastructure, such as the recent ones on Johannesburg, are often worryingly successful, he added. They have a far-reaching impact on essential systems and processes and affect local businesses and citizens as well as the municipal or government authority itself. Kaspersky’s detection data shows that larger organisations, such as city authorities and enterprises, are the fastest growing target. The company monitored 194,803 ransomware attacks in South Africa alone in 2018. That was a 64% increase over 2017, according to the company. Meanwhile, attacks on the employees of large organisations surged 17.9% in the 12 months to May 2019.
“Phishing and malware continue to be relentless threats, leveraged by cyber criminals,” warns IBM’s Sheldon Hand, business unit leader at IBM Security, told Africa in Fact. Organisations must understand the need to educate employees about attempts to trick log-in details and other information out of them. “Unpatched vulnerabilities will continue to be exploited by attackers,” Hand adds, pointing to the need to continually update business cyber-security measures. Most African countries are “one ransomware attack away” from waking up to the need for defensive capabilities against these attacks, says Goldstuck. “The most commonly used tactic is to pray that nothing happens. However, prayer does not have a great track record in cyber security.” Meanwhile, the threat landscape is changing rapidly, with new cyber threats emerging every year. “Many organisations across all industries face unmanageable levels of threat, the risk of exposure, and an ever-growing attack surface,” says IBM’s Hand.
Retailers, particularly those with a growing online presence, continue to be vulnerable, while the finance and insurance industries are the most targeted, he says. Transportation services – including airline, bus, rail, and water forms of transport – are an increasingly attractive target for malicious actors, Hands points out, because of the industry’s reliance on information technology to facilitate operations, its ubiquitous need for integration of third party vendors, and its vast supply chain. All around Africa, at a continental level, “the lack of political urgency in enacting adequate cyber-security legislation is particularly worrying,” says Mngomezulu. Given the increasing sophistication of cyber crime and cyber warfare, and the general lack of sophistication around these problems in government and business circles, as well as among individuals, we all should be worried.
Heritage: the long shadows of past and present
Commemorating heritage in Africa is no longer the exclusive province of governments
People dressed in traditional
costume welcome guests to the opening ceremony and inauguration of the new museum of black civilisations in Dakar, Senegal, on 6 December, 2018. Photo: SEYLLOU / AFP
There was an interesting exchange between Thabo Mbeki and Constand Viljoen in the late 1990s. The former was an aristocrat of an African liberation movement who would become South Africa’s president, and the latter was the chief of the country’s apartheid-era defence force, a soldier’s soldier and politician. Both had a keen sense of the manner in which the past echoes into the present. Responding to a rancorous debate on white settlement in the country, Viljoen objected that his forebears had come to South Africa “because we wanted to be free burghers, not to colonise”. Mbeki responded: “Phew! We have a long way to go. There is a different understanding of the history of the country, a different understanding of the realities of the country.” That sentiment is still relevant to South Africa’s politics, and possibly even more acutely now two decades after this conversation took place.
And while South Africa may at times be a somewhat hyperbolic example, it is far from a unique one. For in Africa the past looms large over the present – probably more than anywhere else on earth. Heritage is the memorialisation and veneration of that past, and of the culture that has grown up within it. It is a society’s memories, its rituals, its artefacts, statues and architecture, its sense of history. For many, it justifies their claim on belonging to a society. Africa’s history is perhaps unique for the degree to which it has been mediated through external lenses, often denying the role of Africans as originators of their stories. “There was a refusal to see Africans as the creators of original cultures, which flowered and survived over the centuries in patterns of their own making,” wrote Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, former director general of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, in the General History of Africa in 1993. Indeed, the colonial experience not only intruded into memory, but commandeered much of its tangible heritage.
A report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron found that “over 90% of the material cultural legacy of sub-Saharan Africa remains preserved and housed outside of the African continent”. Among these were the magnificent Benin bronzes, seized in 1897 when Benin City was sacked and torched by a British expeditionary force. Some of these were auctioned to defray the costs of the invasion. A treasure of African art – and an inspiration for the modernist movement – they reside for the most part in museums outside Africa. The colonial powers liked to leave memorials of their presence in Africa. In southern Africa, this meant memorials of a heritage that celebrated the European offshoot societies that remained. They were part of the African story, but for African nationalists celebrating this has represented an uncomfortable reminder of past subjugation. Post-liberation, there was a powerful impulse to remove these tokens of memory. “We want to wipe the slate clean and present our image of independent Zimbabwe without these vestiges of colonialism,” said former president Robert Mugabe in 1984, four years after the country’s independence.
By that time, Zimbabwe had replaced Rhodesia, the colonial capital Salisbury had become Harare, and street names that had once proudly declaimed a connection to British empire were replaced with ones saluting African nationalism. Zimbabwe was but one example. Colonial Gold Coast became independent Ghana in 1957 – the new name harking backing to an eponymous medieval empire. Most recently, Swaziland was renamed eSwatini, in 2018. Africa’s past intrudes directly into its present-day and speaks to the brand of politics that holds sway in many countries, says Steven Gruzd of the South African Institute of International Affairs. “History is ever present in African politics,” he said in an interview with Africa in Fact. “Some parties are decades, or [even] a century old, and [they] hark back to what they see as glorious, heroic histories. In states where liberation wars were fought, such as in southern Africa, this past is frequently evoked and glorified.” This is the politics that both Mugabe and Mbeki, in different ways, represented.
Society could and would be remade along the lines of a new narrative. A revisioned heritage would underwrite a new moral order. Yet, in practice, the concept of “heritage” is troubled and ambiguous. Whatever the dreams of nationalist politicians, the impact of the colonial era has proved virtually impossible to expunge. Most African states owe their borders to their colonial experiences, and they conduct much of their business in English, French and Portuguese. Governance systems draw heavily on this connection, too. The physical remnants of colonialism linger. Some potentially portable signifiers of that history have demonstrated a remarkable tenacity. Architecture predating independence, which was often meant to convey dominance and permanence, remains visible in many African cityscapes. Despite Zimbabwe’s determination to reinvent itself, and its later turn to outright racial nationalism, a statue of the Scots explorer and missionary Dr David Livingstone remains prominently in place at the Victoria Falls (now known, too, as Mosioa- Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders”).
“What is clear is that Zimbabwe has a conflicted relationship with its colonial past and relics,” the Zimbabwean journalist Farai Mudzingwa comments, speaking for much of the continent. Elsewhere, reminders of the colonial past have slipped by ignored, or have been commandeered to provide energy for the tourist trade. Ironically, when Zimbabwe suggested removing the statue of Dr Livingstone, neighbouring Zambia asked to take possession of it, seeing it as a tourist drawcard. Tours of Kenya cash in on its colonial past as showcased in movies such as Out of Africa. In Nigeria, the city of Lokoja, a colonial-era state capital, tries to do likewise, attracting magazine headlines such as “Lokoja: Colonial Town, Rich History”. Excising the past may not be as simple as the liberationist narrative would have it. In a society such as South Africa vocal constituencies have championed retaining the country’s colonial heritage. These have involved both court challenges and physical stand-offs.
An Afrikaans singer, Sunette Bridges, chained herself to the Kruger memorial in Church Square in Pretoria (or Tshwane) in 2015 after calls for its removal. Cultural activists saw the call not just as a threat to physical artefacts but to the legitimacy of a cultural minority’s presence. Some heritage is difficult to pigeonhole. Large numbers of Africans fought in colonial armies in the second world war. They were subject people forced into supporting colonial overlords, certainly; yet theirs was also a contribution to a moral conflict against unspeakable evil. Numerous video clips celebrating this now circulate on social media. In collaboration with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Nigeria has recently repurposed preexisting monuments by incorporating them into a new memorial in Abuja. The memorial records the names of Nigerians killed in both world wars and is surmounted by a pair of bronze sculptures depicting a Hausa rifleman and an Igbo porter made in the 1930s by the British artist James Alexander Stevenson.
Dealing with Africa’s colonial heritage is challenging. Memorialising what has transpired in the generations since independence may prove even more so. Stevenson’s depiction of Nigeria’s multi-ethnic contribution to the first world war might uncannily have presaged its later politics. Nigeria’s nascent nationhood was nearly destroyed in the brutal war that accompanied the attempted secession of the Republic of Biafra in the 1960s. It was a trauma from which the country has never entirely recovered. For decades, it was official policy to downplay the conflict in the interests of a new Nigerianism, with the result that there are few public memorials to it; even displays about the conflict at the country’s National War Museum are controversial. This is a Whiggish interpretation of history – that is, an interpretation of history in the service of the present, says Nigerian museum curator Iheanyichukwu Onwuegbucha in a recent paper, “The National War Museum Umuahia: Representation of the Biafra War History”.
The fact the Biafran war occurred, and the continuing silence about it, can be seen as expressions of ongoing ethnopolitics. For people with memories of Biafra, the official narrative indicates that the Nigerian state has never attempted an appropriate historical reckoning of its own conduct. Rwanda’s 1994 genocide is powerfully remembered in monuments and social rituals, and – perhaps more importantly – in the country’s political culture. But there, remembering, rather than forgetting, is just as much a two-edged sword. Resisting “genocide ideology” has become a catch-all justification for measures that hurt civil liberties and restrict political opposition. Even without traumas such as these, an unsettled post-colonial past challenges the present. Post-colonial African states embodied aspirations for development and nation building.
Some of them have produced near-messianic figures to deliver on these goals – resulting in profound frustration when these all too often proved to be a disappointment. Post-colonial monuments rise and fall according to political fashion, says Martin Plaut of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. Perhaps the most glaring example of this accompanied the deposition of Ghana’s founding father, Kwame Nkrumah. An outsized figure in his time, a sculpture of the former leader stood prominently before the presidential mansion, but the statue was decapitated after Nkrumah was ousted in 1966. Even more symbolically, parts of the statue have been preserved separately, perhaps in memory both of the former leader and of the coup that toppled him. Another example is the African Union’s controversial erection of a stature of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie at its Addis Ababa headquarters.
“Emperor Haile Selassie is an example of how leaders have gone in and out of fashion,” says Plaut. “The movements they led wax and wane — and with them go the reputations of those who led them.” Haile Selassie’s statue is recognition of his role as a champion of African freedom against colonial intervention, Plaut adds. Yet the emperor is also remembered as the last representative of a feudal order, and for his personal aloofness. A report by Human Rights Watch in 1991 described the “official indifference” to famine during his reign, for example. Across the continent, the reputations of some of Africa’s post-colonial icons – such as Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia or Julius Nyerere in Tanzania – have come under critical scrutiny. The University of Ghana removed a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, another towering personality of the anti-colonial movement, citing the “racist attitudes” he expressed in his younger days.
Rather astoundingly, the reputation of Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic (CAR) – and self-proclaimed emperor of the short-lived Central African Empire – has enjoyed something of a recovery. He was long remembered as a man of sinister brutality and farcical pomp, but some today see his rule as a time of progress and development that his successors have failed to match. In 2010, then CAR President François Bozizé issued a decree formally “rehabilitating” him. In Kenya, the country’s political elite once decried the memory of the Mau Mau uprising as “hooliganism”. This has been reassessed and at least partially accepted as an honourable part of the struggle for independence. A museum has now been established to relay this narrative. In recent years, the importance of preserving Africa’s heritage has gained growing recognition. The opening in 2018 of the enormous, multi-storey Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar was emblematic of this.
Intended as a record of Africa and its offshoot societies, its design and facilities are impressive and its ideological messaging fitting. Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, was an exponent of Negritude, a philosophical movement celebrating blackness and Africanism. Hopes have been expressed that the museum will play a role in securing the repatriation of items carted off during the colonial era. Yet this may not be Africa’s most difficult challenge. African societies will need to navigate the meaning of the continent’s heritage for the present. A good starting point is to acknowledge the obvious: heritage is not intrinsically a force for unity, since it remembers factious and divided pasts. “All history is the story of conflict, humiliation and division,” says Plaut. “As one historian put it, imperialism is the natural order of human history.”
Conflicting claims about the past are an intrinsic part of a plural society, and as such they are not altogether negative. Commemorating heritage is also no longer the exclusive province of governments. Africans are today experimenting successfully with alternative models of commemoration, such as localised community museums or online memorials. New layers are inexorably being added to the continent’s memories. The ambiguity of Africa’s heritage must be acknowledged. And in this sense, Thabo Mbeki was profoundly mistaken. A common understanding of the past is not possible. The challenge for South Africa – and the continent as a whole – is not to find a single set of memories and understanding, but to accept their multiplicity.
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.
African leadership: the golden age
The continent’s current crop of leaders is more acquiescent than their post-colonial predecessors in dealing with external attempts at unwarranted interference
Former Nigerian military leader Yakubu Gowon had a telling exchange with US President Richard Nixon in 1971. Invited for a state visit, Gowon, according to a recently declassified American diplomatic cable, said he was too busy administering his country. The army general promised Nixon he would consider a possible future visit – but never did. Gowon never visited the US during his nine-year tenure and is the only Nigerian leader not to have done so. When, shortly after his election in 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari flew out to meet President Barack Obama even before he had named a cabinet, the Nigerian media did not miss the opportunity to draw a contrast. The Lagos-based newspaper Premium Times lamented the country’s foregone “golden era” of diplomacy. It supported this position with another revelation from declassified US cables.
This time the revelations concerned how, in an effort to protect farmers, Nigeria’s President Shehu Shagari resisted President Jimmy Carter’s bid to sell American rice in Nigeria. The idea of an African leader rebuffing a superpower in defence of his compatriots excites advocates of truly independent African leadership. If nothing else, it is strikingly at variance with the more acquiescent mood of the continent’s current leaders, who these days may require a US or EU visit to validate their mandates. At a time of a renewed scramble for Africa, such diplomatic encounters have triggered questions about Africa’s continued ability to check unwarranted external influence. More importantly, they have led some to ask whether Africa’s era of people-oriented leadership ended shortly after the colonial period. Both questions arise in the context of celebrated leadership figures such as Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Amilcar Cabral, Nelson Mandela, and Thomas Sankara.
“African leadership has changed over the years,” says John Magbadelo, lead director at the Abuja-based Centre for African and Asian Studies. “African leaders [who] emerged from the independence struggles through which they wrenched power from colonial administrations were different in several respects from their military and civilian successors.” In 1969, Africa had just three leaders whose power was based on multiparty elections; by 2018 that number had grown to 43. Within the same period, the number of those who gained power in single-party systems fell from 11 to zero. The number of leaders who came to power through coups d’état also dropped from eight to zero, according to the Brookings Institution’s African Leadership Transitions Tracker. Despite apparent democratic advances, the continent remains beset by leadership problems, mirrored by conflicts, corruption and woeful performance on all key economic and life indicators.
Former lead member of the African Union High-
Level Advisory Group Mehari Maru
Africa’s foreign policy has also become less assertive. Acknowledging the leadership problem, the organisers of the $5 million annual Mo Ibrahim Prize – the continent’s most prestigious award for former heads of state – said they had found no worthy recipient for six years between 2007 and 2017. Many analysts argue that Africa’s leadership problem has lingered for decades, since the pre- and earlier post-independence era, which they see as the continent’s golden age of people-oriented leadership. That period saw leaders confront colonialists, win independence and lead their fledgling nations to early political and economic progress. “The current [generation of] democratic African leaders are spineless because the situation in much of the continent has gone from bad to worse over the years,” Magbadelo told Africa in Fact. “African youths are braving the Mediterranean Sea [each year] in a futile search for greener pastures in Europe because they cannot see any hope for survival in their countries.”
So, how much has African leadership changed over the decades, and how were past leaders able to do better, while warding off unwarranted external influence? Historically, Africa’s leadership problem almost certainly predates the colonial era. In a 2016 paper, “Traditional Leadership and Corruption in Pre-Colonial Africa: How the Past Affects the Present”, Benson Igboin describes corruption during a time when African kings reigned with unlimited powers, and were regarded as God’s representatives. The lack of accountability allowed bad governance to fester, and chiefs were seldom called to account for their stewardship of their kingdoms’ resources. In recent history, the first factor that enabled a more assertive leadership was political. Mehari Maru, a scholar on African governance and former lead member of the African Union High-Level Advisory Group, traces three political phases since the independence era.
These are: the pan-African solidarity era, during which leaders mainly mobilised for the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggle; the confusion and division era, when the cold war between the US and USSR led to ideological struggle between supporters of the west and the east; and the period of intervention and integration. The first era, which produced heavyweights like Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya) and Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), was also the most people-oriented. Many leaders in this category asserted the foreign policies of their newly liberated countries in defence of their people. According to Maru, the next era, signposted by the cold war, saw the rise of undemocratic political groups, dictatorial governance styles and bloody political changes through military coups.
It produced dictators such as Muammar Gaddafi, Mengistu Haile Mariam, Houari Boumédienne, Said Barre and Mobutu Sese Seko, who were feared at home and also proved tough for the western world and the eastern bloc. “In a sense, the courage that the military rulers projected onto the global stage was a defence mechanism to assuage their feelings of guilt for displacing democratically elected administrations,” Magbadelo told Africa in Fact. That “courage” faded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the US becoming the world leader. The third leadership era was born under US pressure for political and economic reforms in Africa, which resulted in the rise of civilian leaders. Africa also ceased to be a proxy for either the West or the East, but that neutrality cost Africa its influence. There were signs of deference to the US for the role it had played in the implementation of governance reforms in Africa.
Moreover, most African countries came under structural adjustment programmes facilitated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – western-inspired institutions that shaped the global economy in the second half of the 20th century. “Africa lost its voice,” says Emmanuel Akyeampong, professor of history at Harvard University’s Centre for African Studies. “With only one game in town, African political parties no longer fought over ideology or foreign policy, but over who could better implement structural adjustment and be more loyal to the United States.” It was Africa’s initial lack of relationship with these economic institutions that was the second factor – besides politics – that enabled independence-era leaders to be more assertive and people-centred. The Bretton Woods Institutions – including what would later become the World Trade Organization – were all new organisations in the 1950s and 1960s.
This allowed African leaders, in the first two decades of independence, more autonomy in defining their paths of economic development and governance, according to Akyeampong. But everything changed after 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today’s African leaders are not necessarily weaker than their post-independence predecessors, says Yolanda Spies, a senior research fellow of African diplomacy and foreign policy at the University of Johannesburg. The open defiance of western powers in particular shown by some past leaders was not always an indication of their diplomatic strength, because the cold war afforded many of them opportunities to double-deal with both east and west. Even so, the US cables also show that some African leaders snubbed the imperialist west because they were loyal to the opposite side of the ideological divide.
Another factor in perceptions of these former leaders, Spies argues, was the limited media scrutiny that existed in those decades. This may also have been an advantage, since very little was known about leaders’ public and private lives. “We live in an era of unprecedented media scrutiny. If we had had the kind of 24/7 scrutiny of leaders then, as we have now, we would not romanticise them as much,” Spies told Africa in Fact. Yet, while the political and economic contexts of each of the leadership eras may differ, Akyeampong argues that few leaders in modern Africa have the integrity of their predecessors. To put it another way, if a country’s corruption index reflects the integrity level of its leaders, the results today are not impressive. On average, half of the 20 countries in the world with the highest perceived levels of corruption in the past decade are in Africa, according to Transparency International. “Integrity has become a rare quality in African politics today,” Akyeampong says.
“The first generation of African leaders was patriotic: shaped in the crucible of colonial rule, they wanted better for their new nation states.” Akyeampong recalls a 2018 visit to the widow of Ahmed Sékou Touré, Guinea’s first head of state from 1958 to 1984: she was living in the only home she and her husband ever had in the capital, Conakry. It was also the house where Nkrumah, Ghana’s first head of state, had lived after he was deposed in 1966, until his death in 1972. Touré was notable for leading Guinea to vote “no” in a continent-wide 1958 referendum on whether former French colonies should join the new Francophone community that was being proposed at the time. He demanded outright independence. “The leaders of the first generation were of a different ilk,” says Akyeampong. Former US President John F Kennedy rejected the “socialist” and “communist” labels that were commonly attached to African leaders like Touré, he adds.
“He decided that they were ‘patriotic nationalists’, and what the United States needed to do was to assist them with economic development, [because] these leaders valued the prosperity of their countries over ideology.” With new powers like China challenging the US for dominance in Africa, there are still bright spots of good leadership on the continent, notes Spies. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame continues to be a reference point, as is Botswana’s former president, Ian Khama. Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, helped to end the 20-year war with his country’s neighbour, Eritrea, shortly after taking office, and recently helped to end the standoff between Sudanese security forces and pro-democracy protesters. Meanwhile, more African countries are becoming democratic, and the number of opposition wins is growing and more incumbents are conceding defeat. “That is leadership,” Spies says.
“We saw very little of that in Africa until very recently. It sends a powerful diplomatic message – that leaders value their people, and that they value their institutions.” But more needs to be done with regard to Africa’s foreign policy, says Maru. Kagame is making some effort to assert African autonomy, but his stance is not usual among contemporary African leaders. Perhaps this is because there are considerable challenges in developing a coherent continental approach to foreign relations. In Maru’s view, what is needed is “a pan-African level leadership that could withstand unwarranted interferences from external forces, including the US, China, Russia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.” But there are considerable challenges in developing a coherent continental approach to foreign relations. The African Union (AU), formed in 1999 with the goal of forging a common front in global affairs while pushing for Africa’s development, has yet to provide such a coherent approach.
First, the AU has no clear foreign policy guiding its dealings with other continents and big countries – unlike the US, China and the EU, which have policies on Africa. Its structure is also seen as too centralised and weak to support effective policy implementation internally to Africa, let alone as regards foreign policy. The regional histories of north, Francophone and Anglophone Africa bring with them different ties with different parts of the world. Also, Africa’s underwhelming economic position, despite its vast natural resources, continues to make it vulnerable in external negotiations. Then there is the complex problem of how ties – in some cases, cultural and religious – between AU member nations and foreign countries sometimes hinder efforts at achieving joint decisions. A recent example is Sudan where military rulers relying on support from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, held onto power despite the AU’s warnings and its suspension of the north-east African country.
After the removal of long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir on 11 April this year, the AU initially demanded the restoration of civilian rule within 15 days. Sudan’s military leaders later received a 60-day extension, thanks to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who, as the AU’s current president, rallied a few leaders to support the effort. The AU finally suspended Sudan after 3 June, when the security forces killed scores of protesters and wounded many more. Sisi reportedly tried to block the decision. Sudan has for years relied on its Arab allies for support, especially since losing most of its oil revenues to newly independent South Sudan in 2011. This year, amid the political turmoil, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in half a billion dollars in aid and promised another $2.5 billion, handing a critical lifeline to the country’s military rulers. Africa requires partnerships, not subservience, to succeed, says Magbadelo.
Ultimately, its development will depend on quality leadership and on Africans. “Africa’s vision to attain development does not need the concurrence of any superpower, but the determination of its leadership to implement policies that would institutionalise structures that harmonise and utilise the creativity and productivity of African people for the overall development of the continent,” he says.
Lead director at the Abuja-based Centre for African and Asian Studies John Magbadelo.