African leaders no longer feel the need to hide their true opinions behind banal statements at global events. Moky Makura describes how they are now speaking out and not mincing their words.
“If you are not at the table, you are probably on the menu” – it’s a great quote that used to perfectly describe Africa’s relationship with the global North. But the world is very definitely shifting and there is a growing body of evidence that Africans are beginning to influence what’s being eaten and who gets to sit at the table.
The evidence is in the bearing, attitude and language of African leaders as they speak out on global platforms. They are challenging the old perceptions and sending a clear message that their country, and this continent are no longer the poor relative with no place at the table.
Africa may not be at the head, but looking at our leaders, they are definitely not at the tail and they are choosing high-profile global platforms to deliver the message.
To paraphrase Maya Angelou’s poem Phenomenal Woman, it’s “in the reach of their arms, the span of their stance, the stride of their step, the weight of their words, the fire in their eyes…”
President Macky Sall of Senegal, the current chairman of the African Union epitomised this fresh, bold attitude when he took to the podium at the United Nations General Assembly in September to address the gathering of world leaders about this new world order.
In a confident speech that cut to the point he said: “It is time to overcome the reticence and deconstruct the narratives that persist in confining Africa to the margins of decision-making circles.”
Like Charles Dickens’ character, the orphan Oliver Twist in the novel of the same name, he went further and dared to ask for more. He reiterated the persistent demand for the continent to be given a permanent seat (or two) on the Security Council, “so that Africa can, finally be represented where decisions that affect 1.4 billion Africans are being taken.”
A UN Security Council meeting at the start of the Ukraine Russia conflict provided Kenya’s UN Ambassador, Martin Kimani, with the opportunity to show that Africa didn’t just have a point of view but also the audacity of agency to declare it.
He highlighted the dangers of empire-building and the hypocrisy of Western leaders. In a didactic speech designed to show an Africa of independent thinkers, he reminded the room of the continent’s colonial past, connecting the dots with Russia’s current ambitions with Ukraine. “Our borders were not of our own drawing,” he said. “They were drawn in the distant colonial metropoles of London, Paris, and Lisbon, with no regard for the ancient nations that they cleaved apart.”
Kimani made it clear that Africa’s collective decision to take the noble path rather than fight the injustices of colonialism was deliberate. “We chose to follow the rules of the Organisation of African Unity and the United Nations charter, not because our borders satisfied us, but because we wanted something greater, forged in peace.” This was a masterclass in how to diplomatically let your audience know that the student is now becoming the master.
A similar learning moment was delivered by President Paul Kagame at a press conference at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Rwanda in June. He chose to share Rwanda’s historical context and the West’s complicity in the region’s troubled history to ensure that its impact is not forgotten. He ended by famously admonishing the BBC journalist who questioned Rwanda’s values: “As far as values are concerned, we don’t need any lessons from BBC or from anyone.” It was clear that the master was speaking.
At November’s much-anticipated UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt (COP27), Kenya’s President William Ruto told the world that the old stereotypes and perceptions about Africa perpetuated by climate change narratives need to change. “We in Africa and in Kenya are more than just climate victims … I wish to persuade you that our strengths by far surpass our weaknesses and that our potential to make substantial positive global contributions overwhelmingly exceeds our need for assistance.”
It reminded me of the viral moment in 2017 when Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo during a joint press conference in Accra told French President Emmanuel Macron: “We can no longer continue to make policy for ourselves – in our country, in our region, in our continent – on the basis of whatever support that the Western world or France or the European Union can give us. It has not worked, and it will not work.”
These few examples do not infer a movement, but they do mark the beginning of a trend. The articulation of Africa’s growing importance and agency on global platforms by our leaders is critical, because “the moment you are unafraid of the crowd, you are no longer a sheep, you become a lion.” And that’s how our leaders are showing up in the world.
Hear them roar!