Africa: A United Africa Can Address Climate, Covid and Conflict - Ukraine Shows Why It Matters

More than 80 percent of Africa's trade is with countries outside the continent, perpetuating dependence and reducing regional economic growth.
14 June 2022
guest column

Accra — Africa should be under no illusion about Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine. It is the equivalent of France deciding it would like to have Algeria back or Portugal seeking to recover Mozambique and Angola or Britain aspiring to rule once more from the Cape to Cairo.

If anyone has good reason to be appalled by Putin's revanchist designs to raise the Russian empire from the ash heap of history, it is the people of Africa, who for so long have been on the receiving end of the kind of enslavement Putin is attempting to impose upon Ukraine.

African countries who failed to condemn Putin's war on Ukraine should rethink.

Africa's 17 abstentions on the United Nations vote condemning Putin's Anschluss were not even justified in realpolitik terms. Putin's Russia has nothing to offer Africa except guns, mercenaries and conflict to sustain demand for them. The Putin regime presides over a murderously corrupt rentier state, whose mineral wealth is siphoned off by an oligarchy, while what should be a vibrant Russian economy stagnates for everyone else.

It is remarkable that the GDP of a country that encompasses eleven time zones and a population of 144 million should be smaller than Italy's. Other than petroleum products and weapons, Putin's Russia invents or manufactures almost nothing the rest of the world wants to buy. Is it any wonder that the country's brightest and best are fleeing? For one thing, they would prefer not to find themselves poisoned or in Putin's gulag for committing thought crimes.

Now, thanks to Putin and his dreams of restoring a mythical past, the lives of millions of Africans, already reeling from the Covid pandemic, are likely to be made even harder as his wicked war causes energy prices to soar and shuts down one of the world's most important granaries.

In International Monetary Fund-speak, "sub Saharan African countries find themselves facing another severe and exogenous shock." As the chair of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat plaintively put it, Africa is a "collateral victim."

Africa must – and can – reduce its dependence on external powers.

Africa is not responsible for turning the earth's atmosphere into a hothouse. Africa did not culture the virus that has sent millions to an early grave over the past two years. Africa – as Kenya's representative forcefully noted in the United Nations Security Council debate on Putin's invasion, has scrupulously respected its own borders, even though they are arbitrarily drawn artifacts of occupying powers. And yet, Africa keeps paying the price of others' greed and folly.

Demographics tell us that this will, in the end, be Africa's century. Come 2050, Africa will be home to more than half the world's people in their prime working years. Nigeria alone will be more populous than the United States. But if demographics truly are to be Africa's destiny, then the continent's leaders need to lead with shared purpose.

Market day in Budadiri in eastern Uganda. Africa's informal sector accounts for around 80 percent of livelihoods, but the African Free Trade Area could create conditions for large-scale job creation and economic growth across the continent.

With Covid, climate change and Putin's war; with the American body politic gnawing at its own entrails; and with the Chinese Communist Party turning increasingly expansionist, the world appears to be headed to an historic inflection point, at which we will have to decide to do things differently, as we did at the end of the previous great inflection point, World War II. Whether it will take a similar cataclysm before we undertake the needed course correction is the frighteningly open question today.

Africa had no say in designing the post-WWII global architecture. One obvious result: a region that now represents over 16 percent of the world's population has no permanent seat, let alone veto, on the UN Security Council. That has to change.

To free itself and meet its peoples' needs, Africans must act collectively.

For change to happen, Africa must act  - and be seen to act - as a combined group,  rather than as a collection of mostly small, weak, easily divisible statelets. That is one reason it is so important that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) be fully implemented.

Developed within the African Union over the past decade to be a largely barrier-free market for regional trade, the 2018 agreement has been ratified by the majority of African countries. The more the AfCFTA vision is realized, the more self-sufficient African economies will become in terms of food and energy and the less they will be vulnerable to exogenous shocks or reliant on the 'kindness' of self-interested strangers.

Africa, of course, is hugely diverse and complicated, but if African nations and their leaders could genuinely collaborate within the continent, their interests would be served much more effectively.

Speaking and acting as one, African leaders would not have to pretend there is a moral equivalence between Putin's regime and the targets of his imperialist ambitions. As one, they might also have some influence, were they to demand that China choose between Putin and Africa.

Rosa Whitaker, President of The Whitaker Group, served as Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa under the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. She was the first person to hold the newly created post. Among her many honors, she was awarded special recognition by the Africa-America Institute for promoting U.S. Africa trade.

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