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GREAT insights Magazine

The world is changing: The relationship needs changing too

November 2017

Ilunga, J. 2017. The world is changing: The relationship needs changing too. GREAT Insights Magazine, Volume 6, Issue 5. November/December 2017.

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Rapid and significant changes in the global arena are reshaping Africa’s relations with the rest of the world. As emerging global players are expanding their footprint in Africa, European countries cannot rely on their shared history with the continent to guarantee their place under the sun. Far from being an asset, Europe’s colonial past is in fact its greatest liability as its members seem unable to move away from their traditional neo-colonial and patronising attitude towards Africa despite EU leaders’ benevolent rhetoric. In this new era, what Africa needs is to be treated as an equal and valuable partner in practice and not just in rhetoric. As we approach 2020 which marks the end of the Cotonou Agreement, the EU has the opportunity to redefine the foundations of its partnership with Africa, which is essential if it wants to keep a decent share of the fruitful African pie.


Rapid and significant changes in the global arena are reshaping Africa’s relations with the rest of the world. As emerging global players are expanding their footprint in Africa, European countries cannot rely on their shared history with the continent to guarantee their place under the sun. Far from being an asset, Europe’s colonial past is in fact its greatest liability as its members seem unable to move away from their traditional neo-colonial and patronising attitude towards Africa despite EU leaders’ benevolent rhetoric. In this new era, what Africa needs is to be treated as an equal and valuable partner in practice and not just in rhetoric. As we approach 2020 which marks the end of the Cotonou Agreement, the EU has the opportunity to redefine the foundations of its partnership with Africa, which is essential if it wants to keep a decent share of the fruitful African pie.


Adapting to disruptive global forces


The world is rapidly changing and at least three major trends have the potential to reshape Africa’s relations with the rest of the world. The first important trend is the rise of emerging economies as major international players. Over the last few years, countries like China, Russia and India have taken a more prominent role on the international scene. Not only has their voice become much stronger on global issues like climate change, but they have also increased their economic footprint in Africa through trade and investment, threatening the long-standing position of European countries. For instance, in just two decades, China has become Africa’s largest trade partner and Africa-China trade has been growing at about 20 per cent per year since 2000, reaching $188 billion in 2015. This is more than triple that of India, Africa’s second biggest trade partner.

Linked to this first trend is the stronger desire to break away from Western dominance across Africa, especially among its youth. The growing anti-CFA franc movement in Francophone West Africa and the continuous attacks against the International Criminal Court are just a few indicators of the changing attitude of the African population towards the perceived Western dominance and intrusion into African domestic affairs. As today’s youth will be tomorrow’s ruling elite of the continent, building a good relationship with this youth is essential.

Lastly, a stronger commitment towards regional integration is inciting African countries to focus inward for growth and poverty reduction. After the dramatic failures of the rapid liberalisation policies imposed by international partners, the priorities on Africa’s structural transformation agenda are now the deepening of regional integration and the increase of intra-African trade. It can be expected that as African countries are becoming economically stronger and more united, there will be more resistance to trade and cooperation agreements that are being perceived as detrimental to Africa’s integration efforts.


France’s declining position in Africa


France has long been criticised for its neo-colonial attitude towards Africa. The debate around the country’s colonial past resurfaced during the last presidential election. As a young and seemingly progressive president, Macron’s election raised the hope that he would break away from his predecessors’ neo-colonial approach towards Africa. His election rhetoric sounded indeed promising and suggested a desire to loosen France’s grip over its former colonies.

However, after his election, he made a few PR blunders that have cost him his progressive reputation in African circles. Freshly elected, Macron first came under fire last June after being caught casually joking about Comorian migrants’ boats, which are also dubbed the “boats of death” because so many migrants have sunk trying to sail from the Comores island to the French island of Mayotte. Just a month later, he sparked another row when he explained that Africa’s problems were civilisational during a press conference at the G20 summit in Hamburg.

With the creation of the Presidential Council for Africa, Macron is trying to give a younger, and more acceptable face to France-Africa relations. Officially, the role of the council is to advise him on African matters and prepare his trips to the continent, especially by helping him draft key speeches relating to Africa. This is an interesting initiative, however it is highly unlikely that this council will contribute to a fundamental transformation of France’s Africa policy.


The Council for Africa against the Françafrique Goliath


Without questioning the individual qualities of the council members, it is pretty clear that they do not have the power to counterbalance the influential French institutions and figures who are the cornerstones of the Françafrique system that has been accused of being the source of poverty and political instability in former French colonies.

The economic arm of Françafrique takes the form of post-colonial agreements through which France has cheap and easy access to the natural resources that it needs for its industries. This has been a very lucrative business for France and its largest companies still hold a quasi-monopoly over strategic sectors of Francophone African economies, including electricity, telecommunications, infrastructure, airports and harbours. For instance, Bolloré, which is the region’s largest logistics group by turnover, is active in more than 40 African countries. It operates 17 ports in Africa, including those of Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire, Douala in Cameroon, Libreville Owendo in Gabon and Pointe-Noire in Congo.

Beyond the economic aspect, there is also a cultural resistance in the French population to move away from its traditional policy in Africa. Addressing the wounds of the past is the prerequisite to developing a more equal and trusting relationship between France and its African partners. However, French national identity is intrinsically linked to the country’s colonial past, which is seen as a source of national pride and glory. And any criticism of France’s colonial legacy is seen as an unpatriotic attack against the country’s historic achievements, even if the French empire derived its power from the exploitation of people across the globe. The necessary transformation of the French public opinion is clearly outside the boundaries of the mandate of the council.


The colonial undertone of EU development policy


The EU’s development policy finds its origins in the legacy of the French imperial rule in Africa. It is therefore unsurprising that, in spite of an apparent evolution, there remains a strong colonial undertone in the successive cooperation and trade agreements between the EU and African countries.

Signed in 2002, the Cotonou Agreement is the EU’s most comprehensive development cooperation partnership with any region in the world. Its core objectives are poverty and the gradual integration of African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries into the world economy. While in theory the agreement is based on the principle of equal partnership, the relationship between the EU and developing countries continues to be deeply unequal with African countries being placed in a subordinate position.

This inequality appears most strongly in the application of political conditionality and the negotiation process of the European Partnership Agreements (EPAs). The Agreement stresses that both partners must promote democracy, human rights, rule of law and good governance. However, in case of violation of one of these essential elements, only the EU has the power to control ACP countries by restricting trade or aid.

Furthermore, the EU did not hesitate to use its superior position to force ACP countries into the EPAs. Several African countries, supported by local civil society groups, openly opposed the EPAs because they contain detrimental policies for their local markets and industries. However, to speed up the process, the EU threatened to not only withdraw foreign aid, but also end the preferential access to European markets for existing export products from reluctant states. Therefore, even though the EU likes to brand itself as a value-driven institution that promotes peace, security, democracy, and human rights around the world, in practice it tends to behave like an authoritarian bully when trying to secure its economic interests in Africa.


A new approach for a new era


In this new era and given the recent global dynamics, European countries should stop with their patronising development discourse and outdated trade and partnership models. Ultimately, Africa’s transformation will come from internal policy clarity. The most pressing challenge for African countries today is thus to clearly define the type of development they want based on their own vision and priority for the future.

Politically, African states do not need external incentives to promote democracy, human rights and good governance. They already know that these universal values are essential. What they need is to be able to internally decide how these universal values can be applied to their own reality. Economically, they do not need help to integrate the world economy. What they need is to stay away from skewed international trade agreements that keep them dependent on raw materials export. Their priority should be deepening regional integration and boosting intra-African trade before opening domestic markets to the pressure of more developed competitors.

Treating Africa as an equal and valuable partner and respecting its policy space are the only way forward for countries that want to preserve their relations with the continent in the future. A mutually beneficial partnership might seem scary for countries which have benefited from such an unfair and unequal relationship for so long. However, in the long run, this is the best option for everyone. After all, an economically strong and politically stable Africa is not only good for Africa. It is good for the world. Not only will it solve security and migration threats, which are the main concerns of European countries at the moment, but it will also give other regions a credible trade partner with an ever-growing consumer market.


About the author

Jessica Ilunga is an External affairs consultant currently working for the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Photo: Dar es Salaam Port, Tanzania. Credit: Rob Beechey/World Bank via Flickr.


Economic Transformation and TradeEuropean external affairsAfrica-EU Relations

External authors

Jessica Ilunga