Africa and the New Cold War: Africa’s development depends on regional ownership of its security

Africa and the New Cold War: Africa’s development depends on regional ownership of its security
  • PublishedJune 8, 2022

Africa must reduce foreign involvement in its security and development. Only a unified continental approach will achieve the economies of scale necessary for the continent to advance, writes Hippolyte Fofack.

The devastating consequences of the Ukraine crisis continue to highlight the need to urgently deliver the African Union’s flagship project of “Silencing the Guns by 2020” in a region where conflicts and their fallout, while under-reported in the international media, have been wide-ranging, severe, and increasing in intensity and cost. More than 20,000 Africans were killed in violent conflicts in 2020, an almost tenfold increase from a decade ago. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where several millions have been killed in violent conflicts over the past decades, more than 2400 were victims of war in 2020 alone.

Unable to stem the increasing rate of high-intensity conflicts and conflict-related deaths in Africa, the continent’s leaders extended the deadline for peace by another decade, shifting the goal posts towards “Silencing the Guns by 2030.” However, meeting this new deadline remains a challenge unless the region vigorously adopts a continental approach to security promotion that strengthens ownership of both national security and development agenda for lasting peace and prosperity.  

The securitisation of development—the subordination of growth and development objectives to security priorities—has failed to deliver security and has only ever undermined development. Outsourcing domestic security has failed to bring peace and instead enabled foreign powers to meddle in domestic insurgencies and prolong conflicts. These undermine regional integration and economic development, as is apparent today in Libya and Mali, which have been theatres of war for more than a decade.

The rise of transnational terrorist networks and the new cold war

Recently, the dramatic increase in high-intensity conflicts and conflict-related deaths in the region has coincided with the expansion of transnational terrorist networks, which have been sustained by a glut of itinerant foreign fighters and the proliferation of foreign military bases amid geopolitical realignments and rising tensions. Even though the Ukraine crisis has reinvigorated the East-West tensions that defined the latter half of the previous century, new geopolitical alliances are emerging shaped by the triangulation that dominated the first Cold War.

That geopolitical realignment has been in full swing in Africa where proxy wars are raging—including in Ethiopia, which hosts the African Union’s headquarters—as competing powers vie for control of natural resources and strategic trade routes. The butting of heads between superpowers has set the world on the path towards a new cold war, and Africa has again emerged as an arena in which to exercise their rivalries.

Across all continents, Africa now has the largest number of foreign countries carrying out military operations on its soil—no fewer than 13, of which most have several military bases spread throughout the region. Per the most recent official estimates, Africa is home to at least 47 foreign outposts, with the U.S. controlling the largest share, followed by former colonial power France. Both China and Japan elected to establish their first overseas military bases since the second world war in Djibouti, which happens to be the only country in the world to host both American and Chinese outposts.

Repercussions for Africa of the first cold war

The scars of the first cold war—which claimed millions of African lives and undermined both regional integration and economic development, with conflicts reducing economic growth in affected countries by about 2.5 percent on average—are still fresh, and the region cannot possibly afford to fall prey to a second.

In addition to immeasurable human and economic costs, including the destruction of economic and physical infrastructure required for productivity growth and export diversification, the political fragmentation that arose as countries aligned themselves with one of the two superpower blocs was a major ramification of the first cold war. That fragmentation sustained market segmentation, hardening colonial borders and undermining cross-border trade and regional integration. A second cold war, on the heels of the proliferation of foreign military bases and the outsourcing of national security, would likewise undermine efforts to defragment African economies and accelerate the process of structural transformation to realise the potential of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), which has been touted as a game changer.

Taking a regional approach to security promotion and governance

Africa must reduce foreign involvement in the advancement of its security and development objectives. This can start with conflict prevention and a shift towards a regional approach to national security that maximises the economic and security gains associated with the political economies of scale. But to achieve these goals, policymakers must first commit to addressing internal drivers of conflicts. These are commonly linked to governance deficits, entrenched horizontal inequality and weak institutions, factors that frequently herald foreign interference.

In addition to reducing foreign involvement, African leaders must prioritise a region-wide approach to security promotion. Such a move would raise the geopolitical bargaining power of the region to shift the continental security frontier and lower the associated costs borne by individual countries, eventually accelerating economic growth and setting the region on the path of fiscal and debt sustainability by facilitating the optimal allocation of scarce resources.

To achieve meaningful progress towards these regional goals, policymakers should fast-track the implementation of the African Governance Architecture to strengthen good governance and consolidate democracy. Related and equally vital for enhanced security is the building up of strong, responsive, and accountable institutions to foster inclusive growth and political participation. Additionally, establishing as soon as possible various monitoring and accountability mechanisms for the illegal supply of small arms to non-state actors will go a long way towards stifling the growth of transnational terrorist networks.

Broadening support for the African Peace and Security Architecture, which outlines a comprehensive strategy for conflict prevention and management, will smooth the transition towards a continental approach that strengthens ownership of Africa’s peace and security promotion agenda and its alignment with the region’s economic development strategy. While governance reforms will address internal drivers of conflict and enhance conflict prevention, the continental approach to security promotion will tackle both internal and external drivers, with positive spillovers for democratic governance and institutional stability. This will snap the spiral of interaction between these forces, while also significantly lowering the costs of national security promotion.

Successfully defragmenting Africa and enhancing regional security must include the economic integration agenda

Beyond speaking with one voice on African and global security issues, a continental approach will afford regional policymakers opportunities to draw on the benefits of increasing political economies of scale. While these steps will strengthen African voices on global security issues, they will also complement progress made in the trade and economic development sphere under the AfCFTA.

Just as the establishment of military bases under bilateral agreements with individual African governments has failed to bring peace and security, bilateral agreements intended to promote trade and economic development have likewise failed to deliver. Instead, such agreements have weakened Africa’s bargaining power in international negotiations and constrained the growth of African trade which remained dismally low, even by developing country standard.

Defragmenting Africa to capitalise on its tremendous economies of scale will significantly boost both extra- and intra-African trade and growth. Likewise, adopting a continental approach to security promotion could prove transformative in terms of national security promotion, global power projection and cost-effectiveness. By elevating the security promotion agenda to the continental level, Africa will strengthen its security-development nexus, lower both the costs borne by individual countries and political risks to sustain the growth of patient capital in support of structural transformation and diversification of exports.

The political economies of scale associated with this unified approach to security promotion complements the trade economies of scale arising with the AfCFTA and will maximise overall returns in terms of national security and economic development. Together, these economies of scale will strengthen ownership of both development and the regional security agenda to silence the guns by 2030 (if not sooner), setting Africa on the path towards lasting peace and prosperity.

This feature was first published on Project Syndicate. A longer and more comprehensive version of this article was also published in a report by the Brooking Institute

Written By
Hippolyte Fofack

Hippolyte Fofack is Chief Economist and Director of Research at the African Export-Import Bank.

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