A Seat at the Table: African Leadership in a Post-Covid-19 World

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African governments are fed up with the state of the world. Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, African leaders have given voice to long-standing grievances about the region’s status in global affairs and the treatment of its citizens in China—and, more recently, the treatment of Black people in the United States. With more than 200,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, an impending continental recession, and international anti-racism protests, African governments are reassessing their roles in the international system. In the coming months, African leaders will almost certainly demand a bigger say on global issues in multilateral forums and more equitable ties with existing partners as well as step up as standard-bearers for multilateralism in an increasingly fragmented world. If the United States wants to repair and revive its links to the region in this new reality, it will need to rethink its approach to developing and sustaining its partnerships.

The Clapback

African leaders and civil society are chastising their important trading and security partners for real and perceived slights during the Covid-19 pandemic and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. While far from unprecedented, African admonishments of foreign partners have rarely been as forceful, sustained, or public. These rebukes are setting the stage for a recalibration of Africa’s ties with China, the United States, and other foreign governments.

  • African leadership is pushing back against China. Nigerian and Ghanaian officials have dressed down Chinese diplomats for the racist treatment of Africans in Guangzhou. Oby Ezekwesili, a former World Bank vice president and cabinet minister in Nigeria, blasted China for mismanaging the outbreak and demanded Beijing pay “damages and liability compensation.” In mid-May, the African Group backed a EU-drafted resolution calling for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

  • African leaders slammed President Donald Trump for negative tweets about the World Health Organization director-general (and former Ethiopian government minister) Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as well as a U.S. decision to freeze personal protective equipment (PPE) shipments There also is an uproar over the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minnesota, prompting Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-Addo to tweet that “it cannot be right that in the 21st century the U.S., this great bastion of democracy, continues to grapple with the problem of systemic racism.”

 With Friends Like These

In response to Covid-19, the region’s governments are tapping into public frustration about the virus’s foreign origins, the shallowness of the international response, and overbearing public health guidance from countries that are failing to curb their own outbreaks. African officials probably are becoming more confrontational because they fear a failure to push back (and deflect attention from the current crisis) will heighten domestic public anger in the wake of the disease’s mounting death toll and economic devastation.

  • Ghanaian finance minister Ken Ofori-Atta, in an op-ed for the Financial Times in April, questioned the “unbalanced nature of the global architecture” and said his country has the “strange and eerie feeling of apocalypse”; he also called on China to “come on stronger” regarding debt relief at virtual event at the Center for Global Development. Ofori-Atta cut the country’s growth rate forecast to the lowest in 37 years due to the pandemic; the continent will enter a recession for the first time in more than two decades, according to the World Bank.
  • President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa conceded that the pandemic and resulting lockdown measures have “evoked a lot of anger and opposition” in his country. Many Africans have bristled under Western-style lockdowns, which are viewed as inappropriate in an African context. While overall crime is down, there have been reports of looting at South African retail stores and riots in Kenya, Mozambique, and Sierra Leone. In fact, according to the Armed Conflict Locations and Events Database, there were 567 acts of unrest related to Covid-19 in sub-Saharan Africa between February 19 and May 16.
  • Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta groused that this is a “crisis that was not created on the African continent.” Index cases across the continent have been traced to expatriates or Africans transiting Belgium, China, France, Germany, Italy, India, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, United States, and United Arab Emirates. When the news broke, there was an uptick in xenophobia against Chinese citizens in Kenya and elsewhere. It has since spread to attacks on foreign nationals in Cameroon and Ethiopia and on UN staff in the Central African Republic and South Sudan.
  • Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed insisted that life-and-death supplies, including PPE, testing kits, and ventilators, be fairly distributed, “not hoarded by the rich and few.” The region has received significant cash infusions from external governments and the private sector, but access to medical supplies remains woefully inadequate. The region has tested far less people than other regions. John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) in early June shared that there have been about 1,700 tests per 1 million people, compared to 37,000 tests per 1 million in Italy and 30,000 per 1 million in Britain.


We’re Not Gonna Take It

The region’s governments, consequently, are setting down new markers for their foreign relationships, bluntly saying what they expect and what they will accept from bilateral partners and multilateral institutions. This hard-nosed approach has been most evidenced with regard to economic relief and foreign health proscriptions.

  • Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni didn’t mince words: the region’s “external friends, if they are friends at all, should cancel all the multilateral and bilateral loans,” he said. There is a consensus that the G20’s moratorium on bilateral government debt repayments has been insufficient and that China’s evasive position on debt relief is unacceptable. African governments also are asking a reduction in their commercial debt while preserving their current credit ratings.
  • Ramaphosa, who is also currently chair of the African Union (AU), boasted that “the challenge of this pandemic has shown how Africa is able to work together to solve its own problems.” The region’s leaders have contrasted what they perceive as a mishandling of the pandemic by the United States and Europe with the record of African health ministries and institutions, including the Africa CDC. It has also underpinned public anger when a Chinese state-owned company dispatched doctors to Nigeria—where there is a proud medical professional class—or when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo chided South Africa for accepting Cuban medical support.

Africa’s New Map

This new assertiveness is unlikely to fade. As Ivoirian president Alassane Ouattara concluded, “there’s been a selfishness on the part of industrialized nations for decades.” Former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, for example, denounced what he described as U.S. efforts to ridicule African institutions, in response to a U.S. attempt to probe Akinwumi Adesina, the current African Development Bank president.

While there is little scope to trigger a major overhaul of bilateral relations—in part due to deep structural economic and security ties—the region’s leaders will levy new demands for access to and input on key global debates. They will also seek to deepen their partnerships with countries they judge to be responsive, respectful, and competent.

  • Beyond Covid-19-specific issues. African governments probably will weigh in on a range of topics in a post-Covid-19 world, not just global health policy and economic assistance. As Professor Harsh Pant of King’s College London told Nikkei Asian Review, “Covid-19 may have brought the middle power moment in international politics,” providing an opening for South Africa and other leading countries in the Global South to step up. African leaders will expect a seat at the table on issues such as climate change, internet governance, and trade. Kenya has made waves on blue economy priorities, and Gabon already has distinguished itself as a leader on climate change and environment issues, calling on world leaders to declare a global climate emergency at the United Nations in 2019. The region’s leaders, moreover, will ramp up pressure to remove sanctions on Sudan and Zimbabwe.
  • Toward multilateralism. Africans almost certainly will renew their commitment to regional integration and multilateralism. While the Covid-19 outbreak postponed the next phase of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), there is a new urgency to remove trade barriers and increase intra-regional trade. Not only do many business leaders and observers regard economic integration as a long overdue remedy to many of the continent’s economic woes, but they argue that it is essential to accelerate continental manufacturing, e-commerce, and digitization to reduce an overreliance on Chinese production and imports. Similarly, this united approach underlined Ramaphosa’s decision to assemble an all-star team―including Donald Kaberuka, Trevor Manuel, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and Tidjane Thiam―to press the G20, the European Union, and other international financial institutions to deliver “concrete support,” including a stimulus package, to assist the region’s fragile economies.
  • Over existing alliances. Africans will likely reevaluate their foreign ties in the wake of Covid-19. While Europe, China, and the United States will endure as key trade and security partners, the region may reconsider how much they want to emulate these countries and accede to their requests. According to forthcoming Afrobarometer polling in 10 African countries, only 33 percent of respondents in 2019-20 saw the United States as a model, whereas 22 percent regard China as a model, a result which matches past surveys. Recently, Nigerian and Kenyan officials have started to loudly question Chinese corruption and presence in their countries. Africans also may become disillusioned with Russia’s renewed courtship of the region following reports that Moscow was unable to respond to requests for help from countries such as Sierra Leone. Finally, the aftermath of the virus may deepen ties and admiration for other East Asian countries, including South Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam; in May, the Nigerian electoral commission chairman said he is eyeing Seoul for best practices to proceed with elections during the pandemic.


Reinvigorating U.S. Leadership 

While African governments are demanding a different relationship with the international community, there are opportunities for the United States to restore its leadership and renew its partnership with African counterparts. Below are five recommendations to support African governments during the pandemic and reestablish strong ties in a post-Covid-19 world.

  • Steer the global response. The U.S. failure to lead the global response to Covid-19 has undercut coordination and precluded opportunities to establish a division of labor between Africa’s external partners. It has also fueled a wasteful geopolitical competition between the United States and China, which has tainted the image of both countries. It is not too late to step up and support (or at least not block) contributions from foreign governments including Cuba, India, South Korea, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and European states. This type of multilateral approach, led by the United States, was a hallmark of the response to Ebola in West Africa in 2014-15.
  • Collaborate on economic relief. The United States should commit itself to working with public and private lenders to address the region’s economic woes. Specifically, U.S. government should pressure China to grant some debt relief—in coordination with other donors. Africa’s external partners consider low-interest loans or something akin to the Brady Bond, where Eurobonds would be swapped for concessional debt. There also is growing pressure for special drawing rights allocations issued by the International Monetary Fund to enable African governments to salvage their economies. While there are advantages and disadvantages to each option, perceptions of a lack of U.S. leadership, and in some cases opposition to solutions, have harmed Washington’s reputation. An indication that the United States is willing to share its concerns openly and explore creative solutions, or make compromises, would be well received at the negotiating table.
  • Tread lightly on Chinese critiques. The United States needs to focus on its support to African partners, restraining its impulse to attack China. African leaders and publics are aware of China’s failings, including its mismanagement of the virus in Wuhan and racism in Guangzhou. When U.S. officials imply that China “set fire to the village” by introducing Covid-19, it does not score points for the United States. Even references to discrimination in Guangzhou are problematic, especially when African leaders see similar acts of racism in the United States. AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, for instance, issued a statement rejecting the “continuing discriminatory practices against Black citizens of the United States of America” following the murder of George Floyd.
  • Talk up the U.S. private sector and foundations. The United States could do more to amplify how U.S. companies and foundations, whose efforts are being underappreciated by African publics, are assisting in the Covid-19 response. A recent study suggests that approximately half of Chinese aid-like donations globally have been provided through corporations rather than government agencies or philanthropic organizations. The U.S. government as well as various U.S. chambers of commerce at least have started to promote private sector donations. The U.S. Embassy in South Africa, for example, is showcasing private sector engagements through the “All-of-America” initiative. Similarly, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) announced that it will invest up to $2 billion to support private sector investment in public health resilience in developing countries with an emphasis on Africa.
  • Applaud and learn from African successes. The United States—at the cabinet or subcabinet level—should do more to hail African responses to the pandemic as many have for responses by New Zealand and South Korea. Many of the region’s leaders have listened to health professionals, communicated effectively and frequently with their publics, and drawn on best practices from the campaigns against Ebola, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis. Senegal, for example, is developing $1 Covid-19 testing kit, and Mauritius seemingly has tamed its Covid-19 outbreak. There is an opportunity to champion Africa’s response as well as embrace lessons learned from the region’s experiences in managing infectious diseases. This open approach, which privileges dialogue and mutual respect, has the potential to take the sting out of past insults and derogatory U.S. rhetoric about the continent.

Judd Devermont is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Judd Devermont