A dialogue of the deaf?

The European Union (EU) and Africa continue to engage in a dialogue of the deaf, in which both parties are seemingly unresponsive to what the other has to say. A 'Normative Europe' narrative in which the EU is the global guardian of norms and values, exporting them in its external relations, puts the EU-Africa relationship on an uneven keel. Meanwhile media bias and an Africa which engages with the EU in several different configurations means the dialogue of the deaf may well continue.

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    The basis of any healthy relationship is communication, yet the European Union (EU) and Africa continue to engage in a dialogue of the deaf – in which both parties are seemingly unresponsive to what the other has to say. Whilst the EU spends its vast resources attempting to shape norms and values in Africa, it has a paternalistic approach to the relationship, speaking at Africa rather than with Africa, and communicating, at times, for the sake of global agenda setting and positioning rather than having a credible exchange. The EU-Africa relationship is problematic by definition as Africa is interacting with the European Union in a myriad of different configurations, not only as an institutional whole – the African Union (AU)- but also at the regional and country level. This creates space for a muddled conversation, one that lacks clear and consistent entry points for communication. Outside the strict limits of institutional communication, there is also the cancerous media bias towards Africa from mainstream outlets, which are largely housed in the West and occupy the laptops, mobile phones and TV screens of a large part of the world. The reduction of the entire continent due to the issues of death, despair, war and disease is reproduced and reinforced by many Western media.

    Normative Power Europe

    Normative power is a specific form of power – power over opinion or ideological power. According to academics Schiepers & Sicurelli, it enables its possessor to shape global concepts of ‘normal’ while simultaneously “depicting other actors as inferior, thereby disempowering them rhetorically”. The term ‘Normative Power Europe’ was coined by Ian Manners. He suggests that the EU not only acts to change norms in the international system but that it also should act to extend its norms in the international system. This political backdrop muddies the discourse between the two continents, creating and supporting a context within which the EU is viewed as the global norm and value watchdog, whilst Africa is seen as the laggard, not obeying its master’s orders. The conditionality attached to aid funding, albeit rarely implemented, under the controversial Article 97 of the Cotonou Agreement, is an indication of such an approach. This context almost becomes a matter of fact. EurActiv, an online news outlet, recently ran a story with the headline ‘EU capacity to promote values in developing world declining’, pointing to this “Normative Europe” undertone, whilst a recent Friends of Europe analysis about ‘The perceptions of the EU and China in Africa’ starts its opening paragraph with “In Africa, the European Union is perceived both as the home of former colonial masters and as the greatest promoter of free trade and liberal democracy”. These examples suggest the “Normative Power Europe” narrative is alive and kicking. Thus, the contextual discourse tends to frame the EU-Africa relationship in charitable terms, not too dissimilar from the “civilising mission” narrative used during the colonial period. Normative Power Europe has a role to play in reinforcing European normativity in EU-Africa relations. This narrative informs and shapes global decisions on African interests and clouds the judgement of those in positions of power and influence. A recent statement pointing to a “civilisation” problem in Africa and French President Emmanuel Macron’s reference to Comorians as goods not people, reflects accurately the audacity of Normative Power Europe. What President Macron says matters, because he is and will continue to shape the European tone, especially when it comes to its relations with Africa.

    One should also be particularly mindful of the fact that in Africa the norms and values differ significantly. For example, across different African cultures there are similarities in the way close kinship relations are valued. According to Gabriel E. Idang, Senior Lecturer at the University of Uyo in Nigeria “The synergetic nature of the society that allows people to build houses and work on farms together is directly opposite to the Western individualistic model”.

    Look who’s talking

    Africa is interacting with Europe in a myriad of different configurations, not only as an institutional whole – as the African Union (AU), but also at the regional level. The main legal framework for Africa’s interaction with Europe is the Cotonou Agreement, an agreement that also includes the Caribbean and Pacific countries and that is, to a large extent, a European invention. On top of this, there are the African Regional Economic Communities (RECs) which are already a spaghetti bowl of overlapping organisations – only six countries retain exclusive membership of one REC, plus the African Union itself only recognises eight of the existing fourteen. Then, there are the country level interactions between the EU and certain countries. South Africa for example is the only country on the continent that has a strategic partnership with the EU, along with the European Parliamentary Delegation. These complex layers of interactions are a fertile breeding ground for confusion and miscommunication, but beyond that, it also makes creating an African narrative towards the EU extremely difficult.This is why the African Union has called for all interactions between the EU and Africa to happen at the AU institutional level. Thankfully, the 2017 Summit has been renamed into the AU-EU Summit addressing some of these concerns, however it remains to be seen whether this will be implemented in practice.

    The EU is responsible for the bulk of communications activity on the relationship, specifically 51.8% more. After conducting a search of key terms of both the AU and EU websites, I found that the African Union mentions ‘support’ in its communications materials referring to Europe 35% of the time, while the EU uses it 73% of the time. Whereas a search of the term “partnership” in communications materials, in those same websites, showed that the EU uses it 43% of the time and the African Union 47% of the time. This indicates the mismatch in narratives. The African Union is framing its communication in reference to Europe mainly in terms of a “partnership” whereas the EU sees itself more in a supportive role.

    We should also consider that the EU has vast communication resources to draw from. Not only does it have different communications departments for each of its three main institutions, the European Commission alone has a dedicated Directorate-General for Communication with approximately 300 staff members and in 2016 it reportedly put out a bid for a two-year contract worth 130 million for corporate communication events. In comparison, the AU Commission’s third strategic plan (2014-2017) allocates 13.8 million ($4.5 million) to communicating and engaging with the Member States/stakeholders in defining and implementing the African agenda. The EU also benefits from the weight and credibility of world-leading PR and communications firms housed in their capitals. The African Union has a centralised communications unit. Furthermore, in bilateral relations it is the task of the individual African countries to report on and communicate the activities taking place between themselves and the EU. This is why delivering on the improvement of Africa’s global representation and voice is going to be key to counter this imbalance and to ensure that Africa speaks with one voice on the global stage.

    Importing African narratives

    The propensity for the African ruling class to select PR and communications agencies from and based in Western capitals like Washington, London and Paris to reshape their image abroad, carries the risk of African narratives being controlled and shaped by those outside the continent and those with less vested interests in its long-term prosperity. For example, stirring up racial tension in South Africa is a remote problem for a London-based firm. It is not that Western firms per se cannot and should not represent African governments or brands; rather it is up to those African governments and brands to choose those with a vested interest in the long-term development of the country or region, rather than mere short-term profits. Let me give you another example. It would be good to choose agencies that have senior staff on the ground, as opposed to flying talent in and out of Europe or America for the duration of the project. It is crucial to be present in local markets and it is even more important in Africa because of its fragmentation, with thousands of languages and cultures. It is vital having people who speak the mother-tongue and know how to navigate the cultures and political processes.

    Using the diaspora within these PR and communications agencies can also be a way of bridging the communication gap between Africa and the West – the AU itself has created a sixth African region for the diaspora to increase the participation of actors located outside of the continent. The African ruling class needs to take advantage of its own assets when shaping the narratives for global consumption instead of relying excessively on western constructed narratives.

    Media bias

    Binyavanga Wainaina points to the inferiority narrative, reflective of Normative Europe in action, when Europeans (and Americans) talk about Africa in his seminal essay, ‘How to write about Africa’. The reality is that the mainstream media landscape, which is largely Western (read European), develops and perpetuates caricatures of African countries and their people.

    The lack of nuance between the “Dark Continent” and the “Africa Rising’” narrative means the elaborate, diverse and textured nature of this 55-country continent housing over 1.2 billion people, is often lost in a monolithic shorthand. There is much less content occupying the vast space between the Savannah’s and Safari landscapes of places like Kenya, Tanzania or South Africa and on the other side the poverty, corruption, disease and war which is lazily assigned to ‘Africa’ as if it were a country. M. Neelika Jayawardane points to this superiority of European values in the context of photojournalism. In a recent Al Jazeera article titled, ‘The problem with photojournalism and Africa’ she explains that “unless international news agencies based in North America and Europe such as the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse pick your work, you are a nobody.” Africa’s truths and stories are therefore a subject to the European, or more widely Western, credibility check before being deemed acceptable for consumption.

    What to do?

    An answer to the seemingly obligatory prescription that Europe is the gatekeeper of values, specifically in its relations with Africa, according to Ueli Staeger, PhD candidate at the Graduate Institute Geneva, is pan-African decolonisation.

    In the media context this would mean an increasingly networked media, one which is “co-creating and collaborating with the audience on news, so their voices are becoming part of the story, and the journalist is no longer some sort of patrician commentator.” according to Anja Kröll, Head of International News at the Salzburger Nachrichten. This could play a part in the development of the continent. Political decisions are preceded by public discussions, which largely play out in the mainstream media. Decisions can therefore be better made when based on “values of rationality, impartiality, intellectual honesty and equality among participants.” Many mainstream (European) media outlets have expanded and continue to expand their African offerings, from the likes of France 24, TV5 Monde Afrique, BBC, most notably with the launch of BBC Pidgin and the launch of Africanews by Euronews; but the real need is for Africa to find its own unified mouthpiece – its own Al Jazeera that speaks to truth, context and most of all delivers news stories by Africans, for the consumption of Africans because for too long, as Professor Eric Aseka, VC at the International Leadership University puts it, “African media, has failed to aggressively market an African identity and authenticity to challenge the one imposed by the West.” An African Al Jazeera becomes increasingly possible when investments in molding an African narrative come to fruition, not least because of communication investments by key institutions, like the AU, but also its financial independence, which will unlock the continent’s ability to shape its own policy remit and conversations, not only with the EU but the entire world.

    About the author
    Uzo Madu is the founder of ‘What’s in it for Africa’, an online platform dedicated to EU-Africa current affairs.

    Read the full magazine issue

    Africa-Europe relations: Time to reboot – Volume 6, Issue 5 (November/December 2017)
    'To rebuild mutual trust, both Europe and Africa will have to design new and more effective types of partnerships and shake off past habits and practices.'
    16 November 2017
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