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Africa Post-Mandela and Beyond

Winter / Spring 2014 Tête À Tête

Africa Post-Mandela and Beyond

Ngaire WoodsJust a very small taste of GB‘s Winter 2014 issue. Subscribe online today

GB: What is the state of Africa, post-Mandela?

NW: I would come at this differently. Everyone will always remember Nelson Mandela for ushering in a new South Africa, and for ushering in a model of alternating, democratically elected presidents. Those are two extraordinary feats. Again, it is simply extraordinary that he ushered in a majority government for South Africa – a government that flourished – and then agreed to step down and permit others to be elected president. Of course, the decade after Mandela stepped down from the presidency was very difficult for South Africa. In basic areas of public service – in education, in health care, in poverty reduction – the country and its leadership class have a long way to go. The rest of Africa has outpaced South Africa. In particular, high growth has started to emerge in East and West Africa – not least because of the discoveries of oil and gas. There has also been growth outside of the natural resource sectors, given the dramatic arrival of China across the whole of the African continent. China’s presence has created more policy space – that is, greater policy choice – for African governments.

GB: Has there been a spiritual change in African attitudes and governance in the aftermath of the death of Mandela?

NW: There was a wonderful demonstration effect in Mandela’s period in power – about how to use political power, how to bring a government together, and then how to step down and permit others to be elected to power. The more successful leaders in Africa are finding this last part extraordinarily difficult. Look at Museveni, or Mugabe, or Kagame: each of these presidents has transitioned his country from a very difficult period. Each became president at an extraordinarily difficult time in his country’s history – when his country was in ruins – and ruled extremely well for a period of time. However, each of these countries is suffering from what may be considered a royal court – that is, a system that has grown around the president, starting with family members, friends and close associates. In such cases, people eventually become more and more afraid of losing power and the privileges associated with power. As a result, these presidents are locked into a tight logic. They once lived so brilliantly, and now they are doing damage to their own legacy.

Still, I think that the optimism about Africa over the last decade has come first and foremost from the said economic growth on the continent.

GB: Does the persistence of conflict in Africa – in Centrafrique, Mali, Democratic Republic of the Congo – spoil this general optimism, or are these all different theatres with different dynamics and narratives?

NW: I would certainly not presume any general persistence of conflict in Africa. These are all very different problems. The West African countries – Mali, Niger and others – have suffered directly from the fallout or spillover from the changing government in Libya, which led to highly armed groups marauding southward, creating conflict and exacerbating local cleavages.

Those who see Africa as persistently plagued by conflict ignore the fact that, on every continent, there are specific conjunctures that lead to conflict. There is no culture or civilization in the world that is simply prone to conflict. There are huge parts of Africa that live in peace for long periods of time.

GB: What has been the net effect of the large Chinese presence on African governance?

NW: There is still much alarm in Western reactions to China’s relationships across the continent. It is worth taking a measured, evidence-based approach to China’s presence. Naturally, one way of seeing things is through the lens of diminished Western influence – for instance, for Canada or the UK to fret about its aid agencies no longer getting meetings with an African minister of finance because he is too busy meeting with the Chinese. This approach has been overly presumptuous about the notion that Western efforts in Africa have always been aimed at, and conduced to, better governance. Clearly, every external actor in Africa is pursuing a specific agenda – whether we speak of a foundation pursuing the eradication of malaria, a development aid donor projecting a country’s influence and advancing specific aid goals, or indeed the Chinese government pursuing long-term access to resources, including through money invested into infrastructure in order to make that access feasible. On the African side of these transactions, it is preferable to have as many suitors as possible – that is, to have as many options as possible. This means that if an African government wishes to build, say, a power generation plant or roads, it can weigh up partnerships with the African Development Bank or China or the World Bank or DFID or USAID or the Canadians.

GB: Has Chinese activity in Africa been for the good, in the net, for the continent?

NW: I do not deal in sweeping generalizations. You really need to go country by country, because Chinese involvement and success differs according to the theatre. However, I would offer, in general terms, that there is a difference of perspective in respect of China’s involvement in Africa. The West seems to feel that it is losing influence to the Chinese. Some African governments, for their part, feel that the Chinese have too much influence on the continent. Granted, this is still a minority view among African states. Most African governments and communities seem to be enjoying the roads and schools and economic benefits that the Chinese relationship has brought to date. There are some obvious exceptions in this regard – like Zambia, where alongside the big Chinese investments came many Chinese traders, which led to conflict because they were pushing local traders out of business.

GB: Do you have a view about solutions to Africa’s current conflicts, from Centrafrique to South Sudan?

NW: These conflicts are complicated when the context is one in which natural resources increase in value and geographically split a country, and also when you have a political system in which the winner gets all the spoils. Do I believe that the continent is on a trajectory toward peace and prosperity? Yes. What is happening across the continent is quite remarkable. Consider, by way of comparison with a conflict that is closer to home, the Irish conflict. There was nothing to beat 20 percent growth as a way to take people into a peace treaty (see the In Situ article by John de Chastelain in GB’s inaugural issue in 2009). Once the Northern Irish factions realized that Ireland proper was on a 20 percent growth trajectory, the peace negotiations became almost inevitable. Of course, now that growth is collapsing, there are fragilities that could re-emerge.

GB: If Israel grows by a clip of 10 percent a year, does that necessarily lead to peace with its neighbours?

NW: I am not an expert on that region, but I think that it is arguable that, after the Oslo Peace Accords – the last time that there was any deal on the table in which there was sincere belief among the parties – what destroyed the prospects for peace suggested by the accords was a collapse in GDP across the occupied territories. In other words, there is no part of the world where people will vote to continue or precipitate a collapse in their welfare and economic well-being.

GB: What are Europe’s obligations today in and toward Africa? What is China’s sense of its obligations in and toward Africa?

NW: There is a generational issue in China that is little understood. Recall that China, even at its poorest, had an ideological view of Africa that held that the Chinese had to do their share – that many Africans, regardless of how poor the Chinese were at the time, were even poorer. Even in its poorest years, therefore, China was giving aid to Africa.

The Chinese get very annoyed when they are called a new donor to Africa. They rightly point out that the Tanzam Railway – not a great success, but a huge effort by China to help build infrastructure in Africa – was built between 1970 and 1975. The railway went from Dar es Salaam to Zambia’s central province. And so the Chinese do not at all consider themselves to be new donors or players in Africa. They say that they have been there a long time.

As for Europe’s relations with Africa, they clearly need to modernize in order to really work. Europe’s colonial legacy with the continent has led it to want to deal country by country in Africa – indeed, much as the rest of the world does. However, as the African continent grows, it will be in increasing need of proper regional infrastructure and trade and investment agreements that permit intra-regional production and trade and investments. Africa needs more regionalism and more regional interdependence – to link the land-locked countries with ports, and to distribute the fruits of natural resource wealth across a far greater number of people.

GB: How will the Ukraine situation play out in coming months and years?

NW: Ukraine is not my patch. But let me speak to Europe more broadly, post-financial crisis. The real challenge for Europe post-financial crisis is youth unemployment – particularly in the south. Youth unemployment risks writing off an entire generation of Europeans. Youth unemployment in southern European countries is right up at 30-plus percent. We know from the data that if people are unemployed for the first decade after they leave school, then they are very likely to be unemployable thereafter. This is what is happening to a third of Europe’s working population today. What is the way out of this crisis? The obvious solution would be a currency devaluation for countries suffering massive unemployment in order to restore some competitiveness and create jobs. But these countries are locked into the Eurozone, and so they cannot pursue devaluation as their instrument of adjustment. Instead, they are doing the most costly possible thing – that is, hoping that the pressure of so many unemployed people will gradually change the labour market. The hope is that slow, long-term change in the labour market will help improve the competitiveness of these countries. That is plainly the most costly path forward.

GB: Is there a structural or logical contradiction between Europe working on internal challenges like youth unemployment and its ability to project either a hard influence or soft influence outside of its borders – in Ukraine, Turkey, the broader Middle East or other parts of the world?

NW: The most powerful influence that the EU has exerted externally has been on the countries on its immediate borders – that is, those that have wanted to apply to join. On those countries, the carrot of EU membership was an extraordinary incentive to strengthen and improve governance, to create rule-of-law systems, and to implement political and economic reforms. Since the financial crisis, however, many people are really questioning what they want their relationship with the EU to be. And the EU, far from being in a phase of perfecting the European model, is struggling to hold itself together. We are obviously seeing the rise of right-wing movements and groups across most countries in Europe. These movements and groups are opposed to the EU project. They are anti-immigration, and are pulling the mainstream debate away from the post-war consensus about European unity.

This seems particularly true on the peripheries of the EU. Look at Hungary and Poland, for instance. The cosy consensus about the EU and the benign effect of countries on its borders wanting to join is today gone. Meantime, the financial repair project in Europe is still not consolidated, which means that there are very fragile banks at the core of Europe. And the countries of the south face a huge debt overhang because of the way in which the financial crisis was managed. The prospects for European growth therefore look very sombre (see the Tête à Tête interview with Martin Wolf in GB’s Fall 2012 issue). Add to this the youth unemployment that we discussed and you see that the challenges facing European governments are great indeed – first and foremost internally, let alone externally.

GB: Does the UK have a special vocation in Europe in helping it solve some of these problems?

NW: Notwithstanding the loud debate in London – particularly within the Conservative party – Britain’s position in respect of the EU is usually pragmatic. Britain has benefited enormously from being seen as the English-speaking capital of Europe, and indeed as the only English-speaking capital of Europe. For Chinese investors, for Arab investors, for American investors, for Russian investors, there are clear attractions: schools, property, an English-speaking environment for families. These are advantages from which Britain profits only insofar as it remains part of the EU.

There is, of course, a strong sense today that it was a good thing for the UK not to join the Eurozone. Still, I cannot see Britain exiting from the EU when I look at the economic interests that it has within and in relation to the EU. These interests pertain not just to trade in and with the EU, but also, as mentioned, to Britain’s capacity to attract investment from other parts of the world.

GB: How do you see the Scottish question playing out?

NW: I do not know. I do not study Scottish politics enough to make a call. My hunch, however, is that the devolution project of the 1997 Labour Party was one that permitted Scotland to enjoy a fair degree of autonomy while profiting from being part of the UK. I suspect that the upcoming referendum is for this particular British government to lose, as long as London’s campaign does not play into the hands of the Scottish nationalists.


Ngaire Woods is the inaugural Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government and Professor of Global Economic Governance at the University of Oxford.

(Photograph: Courtesy of Ngaire Woods)

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