The West’s miscalculation in Africa
Africa, Europe’s southern neighbor, is increasingly in the limelight. On one hand, Western politics fails to foster cooperation and growth in African countries. On the other, the media often depict Africa in a negative way. This lack of political engagement is most often due to a lack of knowledge – frequently bordering on ignorance – and public opinion is affected as a result. News reports show shortcomings rather than opportunities and success.
Recently, much has been written about both Vice President Kamala Harris touring the continent and Uganda introducing an anti-LGBTQ law.
Africa is undeniably a continent with a bright future. Most of its land, with the exception of deserts and the Sahel region, has fertile soil suitable for agriculture and forestry. It is abundant in natural resources and is experiencing a demographic boom. This growing population has social and economic significance for Africans and their future. A growing demography enhances the economy, and children also provide social security. (In fact, the primary threat to social security in the West is the lack of young people.)
Foreign powers competing for influence
Africa occupies a vital strategic position between the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic. The continent has become one of the theaters for the power play between an expansionist China, a more assertive Russia, and to a lesser extent, the traditional European powers and the United States. Other countries, such as Turkey, are also successfully increasing their footprint on the African continent.
Both the U.S. and Europe attempt to nudge African governance toward specific values, making their support conditional on certain issues.
Unfortunately, the traditional European colonial powers have either abandoned Africa or continue to treat it in a paternalistic way. Both the U.S. and Europe attempt to nudge African governance toward specific values, making their support conditional on certain issues. While some of these are advisable, others fail to take into account African culture, self-perception and tradition. This has led Africans to perceive certain actions as neocolonialism. While some of these accusations might be aimed at triggering guilt and garnering more support, some are also justified. African countries demand the right to choose their own path.
China has been funding infrastructure projects that provide African countries with real benefits, while refraining from criticizing issues related to governance and values. Beijing’s objectives are clear. It offers tangible support, although it is not uncontested locally. In exchange, China gets to expand its political and economic influence, enhancing its geostrategic and geoeconomic position.
Russia primarily focuses on providing military support, either to ruling regimes or successful opposition groups. At first glance, its objectives are similar to China’s. However, there is another angle. Moscow is significantly involved in the Sahel zone. This region, directly south of the Sahara, faces not only civil wars, coups and terrorist attacks but also overpopulation and drought.
The Kremlin might have an interest in fostering unrest in these resource-rich zones. Europe’s supply lines of these minerals, including uranium, could be disrupted and redirected to Russia or through Russian channels. Armed conflicts would also intensify the pressure on people to migrate to Europe, causing destabilization there.
Misguided Western initiatives
Top American politicians, such as Vice President Harris, regularly tour Africa. Last year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken also visited several African countries. On these trips, both American and European leaders prioritize democracy, inclusion, human rights and governance. While these are crucial issues, it is essential to acknowledge that Africans need to develop these aspects themselves in a manner compatible with their living conditions and values. Otherwise, there may be strong and unintended counterreactions.
The LGBTQ issue is a prime example of an initiative that backfires. Advocating for LGBTQ freedom has been a forefront concern, especially during Ms. Harris’s tour of the region. Meanwhile, Uganda recently enacted a law banning homosexuality and transsexuality, introducing severe punishments. Similar laws already exist in several other countries, prompting strong protests from the Western world, including from former President Obama.
This clumsy approach to promoting Western values will not help the West secure Africa as an ally.
It is not accurate to assume that African cultures are inherently pro- or anti-LGBTQ; often, it simply is not an issue. However, many African leaders and citizens are highly sensitive to Western attempts to impose measures that limit birth rates. Biologically, homosexuality does limit birth rates. Consequently, this pressure creates a backlash. It can be expected that the more Westerners promote LGBTQ rights in these countries, the harsher the resistance will be. These Western policy initiatives are not making life easier for LGBTQ individuals in Africa, to the contrary.
In addition to the value issue, this clumsy approach to promoting Western values will not help the West secure Africa as an ally. The proposed advantages are not substantial enough. Instead of conditional financial support, it would be more helpful to ease trade barriers – especially European ones – for African countries. Adopting more pragmatic policies and discontinuing lecturing would not only improve governance in Africa but also strengthen the West’s position in the global power competition.