In speaking of the Shifts in Global Power Relations and its implications for Africa, I intend to make three distinct yet interconnected arguments in this lecture. The first is to underscore the importance of history in shaping our understanding of the shifting global dynamics that we are witnessing. The second seeks to interrogate the pace, process, trajectory, context and implications of the changes in the global power relations and the third explores the centrality of Africa in the re-shaping of the world and the criticality of Africa becoming a co-rule maker in the emerging new world order.
Our world is today dotted by many theatres of war and conflicts. Two of such conflicts readily come to mind: Russia and Ukraine which has been on for the past one year; and lately, the human catastrophe currently playing out in the Middle East, and arguably the bloodiest, in the seeming intractable conflict between Israel and Palestine. Closer home in Africa, we have the multi-faceted conflicts in the Sahel, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Congo and a few other places. One major imperative of all these conflicts is the need to pay closer attention to some of the traditional assumptions that underpin our international system and the global order as we know it.
Beyond the internecine conflicts are also the other common challenges that confront us all such as the crisis of climate change and the scourge of pandemics which have significantly impacted our world in the past few years and presented new issues for global governance systems both as causes and consequences of new and existential problems.
Growing inequality, not only along the north and south axis of the globe, but within regions and nations; major demographic shifts, the interconnected problem of irregular migration and refugees across international borders, as well as declining trust in governments and inter- governmental institutions. While none of these problems is totally new, the sheer scale, and the complexities are not what we are familiar with, and this is why our established global governance systems that have functioned relatively well in the past, now appear ineffective and inadequate.
The world in transition
Today, we are living witnesses to changes in global order, including a radical redistribution of economic power, that presages the end of the post-1945 multilateral system and its replacement by a new world order characterised by competing centres of power and influence. Indeed, it is the process of the gradual decomposition of the post-1945 multilateral system and the Pax Americana that underpinned it that is at the heart of the turbulence that we now witness. This moment in world history is probably best captured by the 1930 statement by the famous Italian political philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, about a different era that was similarly characterised by multiple problems that were playing out in and around his native Italy.
He said: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that old is dying and the new cannot (as yet) be born; in this interregnum a great deal of morbid symptoms appear.” It is a statement that was subsequently popularised as to assume the status of a global cliche.
Periods of transition from one global order to another tend to occur gradually, sometimes even imperceptibly for a period. However, the forces of change that undergird the transition progress inexorably until the shift that they bring about bursts into the open. The transitional periods, characterised by the triple dynamics of decomposition, recomposition, and redistribution of power, tend to be marked by turbulence, instability, and even violence.
At the height of the global hegemony of Great Britain and its enforced Pax Britannica, the capacity of the state to rule the waves on account, inter alia, of its industrial prowess and superior naval power, placed it in a position to enforce its will and demand compliance. However, even Pax Britannica did not go unchallenged by the European rivals such as France and later Germany, but also from emerging new centres of power such as the United States which, though previously a colony of the United Kingdom, was rapidly coming to its own and assuming an important role as a pole of global economic growth and political influence. Although the decline of Pax Britannica began long before the onset of the First World War, that war, as well as the Second World War that inevitably followed it, marked its symbolic and substantive end. And it was a violent end that claimed millions of lives. In the inter-war years, the world experienced massive convulsions that included the Great Depression and the economic and social dislocations that came with it. The air in Europe was filled with revolutionary fervour even as anti-colonial/ national liberation movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America gathered momentum. The ill-fated League of Nations, an intergovernmental child of extremely difficult circumstances that was overwhelmed from birth by the many crises that were playing out, and which was further incapacitated by the rising tide of fascism in Europe, also finally collapsed.
Pax Britannica was replaced by Pax Americana, with the United States emerging formally as the single most powerful economic and political force in the world. The global economic dominance of the United States was largely projected by its transnational corporations and the pre-eminent position that the U.S. dollar came to assume in international finance, commerce, and investment. Combined with the massive military capability that it had built up, and its ability to deploy power on a global scale, it is not surprising that the United States took a lead role in the making of the new global multilateral system that was built at the end of the Second World War, and at the heart of which lies the United Nations family of organisations, including the Bretton Woods twins, the World Bank and the IMF.
Indeed, Pax Americana as a concept and practice may have embodied the pre-eminent position of the United States in global affairs after the Second World War. However, it was subject to contestation from the outset by Russia, which stood opposite the United States and its allies in the West, in terms of political ideology and strategic interests. Russia, having paid a heavy price in lives lost during the Second World War, was determined to consolidate its Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) under a revolutionary socialist banner. In the Cold War that ensued and which eventually came to frame global politics until the 1990s, Russia bolstered its military arsenal to become a credible rival and competitor to the United States in the deployment of massively destructive military capability.
The politics of deterrence such as it played out effectively meant that no overt effort was made by either of the two biggest nuclear powers to interfere in the spheres of influence that they had carved out for themselves and sought to control.
Not really the end of history
The USSR, with Russia at its core, may have successfully matched the United States in the military-political-ideological fields. However, it struggled economically, and in the face of serious internal pressure and contradictory ambitions of its members, the union had to succumb to an eventual collapse. Not a few commentators, including, for a time at least, the well-known Francis Fukuyama, were quick to adopt a triumphalist ‘end-of-history’ narrative, which projected the United States, either on its own or with its Western allies, as the last “man” standing in an ideological battle that had lasted for about half a century.
Capitalism, they said, had triumphed over socialism/Marxism/communism, and liberal democracy had won over the “authoritarian” system of democratic centralism that the Soviets had practised. It was such a terminal moment in history, after which there would be no further challenge to capitalism and liberal democracy as economic and political ideologies. In the words of Fukuyama, it was the end of history. But was it?
Fukuyama himself was to later admit that his proclamation of the end of history in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR and its Warsaw Pact and COMECON was, to state it politely, a little premature. For out of the rubble of the old USSR, the Russian Federation reconstituted itself as an independent power which also claimed and retained the massive nuclear arsenal of the old Soviet Union. It may have been somewhat weakened by the collapse of the Union, but it was not entirely out. And it was only a matter of time, and the accession of Vladimir Putin to power, for a resurgent Russia to reposition itself as a major force and power broker in its own right, complete with an upgraded arsenal of conventional and non-conventional forces. The conventional components of that arsenal are presently being put to test by the US-led NATO in the war that is ongoing in Ukraine.
The unipolar moment which the United States may have enjoyed as the sole remaining superpower still standing now seem destined to be short lived. Indeed, any conception of a unipolar world order under the untrammelled hegemony of America, which looked so inevitable at the turn of the millennium, now appears improbable. Even as Russia embarked on a path of rapid military-political resurgence, China has led a pack of countries such as India, Turkey, Brazil, and a host of other middle powers to challenge the economic dominance of the United States.
The resurgence of China as an economic, if not a political power bloc, has been especially rapid and comprehensive that the relegation of the United States economy to a second place, appeared to have happened without any major resistance.
Beyond being the factory of the world, China today holds the biggest foreign exchange reserves. It has expanded its international trade, investment, and foreign aid profiles. It has also enhanced its competitiveness in science, technology, and innovation, while growing its soft power – particularly through the Belt and Road Initiative. Perhaps, most significantly China has also been carrying out a single-minded modernisation and expansion of its military capability. The massive financial resources at its disposal has enabled it to invest in reinforcing its defensive and offensive capabilities on a scale which has already placed it among the topmost military powers in the world. Many Western analysts now think that it is only a matter of time before China becomes a Blue-Water naval power. Yet, coming closely behind are other actors, mostly Middle Powers, who are also asserting their global geopolitical interests more autonomously and aggressively, thereby contributing to the much more diffuse nature of power and influence in the present situation. A good example is what we are witnessing with BRICS nations.
Towards a Multi-polar world
Scholars seeking to characterise the current international balance of power among nations talk about the emergence of a multipolar global order with multiple competing centres co-existing, albeit uneasily. I suggest that multipolarity itself speaks to a global reordering in which the old is dying simultaneously as the new is struggling to be born. It is a tense and delicate transitional moment in human history that is packed with doubts and fears. As old certitudes are dissolved, and new pecking orders emerge, existing global governance institutions find themselves struggling to cope with a nascent new order in a state of flux. As the UN Secretary-General, Antonio. Gutteres aptly puts it, “we are now at an inflection point… power dynamics have become increasingly fragmented as new poles of influence emerge, new economic blocs form and axes of contestation are redefined.” (United Nations, A New Agenda for Peace, 2023).
Although not surprisingly, it is important to note that the emerging multi-polarity is also happening alongside a new arms race, which has seen an unprecedented expansion of military spending in recent years, especially by the old powers (with military expenditures globally reaching a new record of $2.24 trillion in 2022, according to SIPRI and IISS), committed to boosting their defence (or offensive) arsenals, and proliferating military bases around the world. And as more countries acquire nuclear capabilities, the old fear of a mutually assured destruction is no longer about East and West; new axis of nuclear triggers now exists and the fear of a nuclear conflict has once again become an active part of public discourse.
The precarious balance underpinning the evolving multipolar system requires enlightened leadership on all sides. Yet, it is precisely this kind of leadership that has increasingly been in short supply around the world in recent years. Narrow nationalism, raw xenophobia, blatant fear-mongering, and belligerent militarism now overwhelm the political space and constrict avenues for constructive dialogue that is so necessary in navigating a world faced with unprecedented disequilibrium.
We have seen it in Ukraine and we currently witnessing it in Palestine. As the drums of war are beaten, and events are increasingly being tendentiously interpreted through what looks like a new Cold War prism, it would appear, like many observers have noted, that we have never edged nearer to a third world war than now. Some have even suggested that what we are witnessing in Ukraine and Palestine are indeed a prelude, if not the first Acts of a new World War.
Even as precarious as this situation is, there is yet another dimension to it. When one looks at the various conflicts raging around the world, the temptation to define the crisis that we face in military terms alone is quite high.
However, the existential threats that we face have greater ramifications than military conflicts, and requires even a higher level of leadership and global cooperation. Through ever more frequent and frightening forest fires, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes; rising temperatures, irregularities in weather patterns, and the attendant droughts and famine, climate change is taking its toll on people and economies everywhere. Internal and cross-border migrations triggered or accelerated by climate change have, in turn, revived ethno-regional consciousness and produced serious inter-communal clashes over water resources, land, and pasture among farmers and pastoralists.
International migration, undertaken through the most hazardous routes, have met with a rising tide of racist populism and extreme right nationalism that is changing the face of politics in the world, particularly in Europe and North America.
Our world is caught today in a vortex of multi-dimensional and mutually reinforcing crises that can only be solved by a more united world.
Implications for Africa
What then are the implications of these imminent changes for Africa? It is evident that the crises and instability that are wracking the international system in this period of transition has not spared the African continent. This has manifested largely through the spate of security challenges arising from radical extremist claims, mostly tinged with questionable religious and ethnic motives that have called the secular state into question and challenged its constitutional foundations. Although not limited to Africa – the continent has borne some of the harshest and most prolonged brunt of violence and insecurity perpetrated by local and ambulant franchisees of Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Ansaru, and other global networks of militants committed to the violent pursuit of an alternative vision of governance and development clothed in a contestable Jihadist ideology. The Boko Haram group which started as a small, highly localised movement has flourished to encompass huge swathes of northern Nigeria and the entire Lake Chad Basin. The entire Sahel belt stretching from West to East Africa has been in a state of continuous turmoil for nearly two decades resulting in unconstitutional change of governments in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea and Niger.
The Horn of Africa has equally been the hotbed of devastating conflicts in Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan. Official estimates put the fatalities from the Tigray conflict alone at over 600,000 deaths while the ongoing carnage in Sudan has already accounted for thousands of deaths, “turning homes into cemeteries” with six million displaced people according to the latest United Nations figures. The continent is also witnessing increased activities of rogue and/or mercenary groups, whose modus operandi reflects the transnational nature of organised crime, such as the Wagner group’s operations in the Sahel and parts of the Horn of Africa.
It is not unusual in periods of transition in global order for those countries that are the weakest link in the chain of power and influence to bear some of the biggest costs of change. Africa has been badly hit by turbulence emanating from outside its boundaries, whether it is the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2007/2008 sub-prime economic crisis, fallouts from the global ambitions of new axis of power or even the global climate change as a result of unsustainable production practices.
Without doubt, turbulence in the international system has been refracted into Africa to generate new problems or exacerbate pre-existing social and economic conditions on the continent.
In addition to rising poverty, growing inequality, currency depreciation, mounting inflationary pressures, and persistently high levels of youth unemployment, a new external debt crisis is hovering over many African countries, which potentially undermines the sovereignty of these countries and threatens another round of austerity and externally-imposed adjustment, if not quickly contained.
Historic social gains of the early post-independence years and early wins of the first decade of the return to democratic politics, has seen Africa move from the season of afro-pessimism of a “hopeless continent” so-called to a season of afro-optimism of “Africa Rising”. Unfortunately, the season of afro-optimism now appears short-lived, leading back to a season of anomie, where the legitimacy of the state itself is being contested and liberal democracy is increasingly threatened.
In the face of this season of anomie, the temptation is strong, and has already been manifested, to resort to fragmented, disjointed and uncoordinated actions that produce dysfunctional outcomes and are largely ineffectual in dealing with the most severe threats to peace and security on the continent. Yet, with the erosion of the institutional capacity of the average African state, triggered by both internal and external factors, African countries, big or small, have leveraged on efforts to seek a common response to the problems of security and stability within their respective boundaries or across contiguous boundaries.
Historically, post-cold war Africa has demonstrated a robust understanding of common security needs, cross border nature of security challenges, the need for collective response to regional issues and coordination and harmonisation of actions and policies by external actors.
These have been demonstrated through collective commitment to certain principles and values with the establishment of common protocols, norms and standards both at the continental level – at the African Union and at the regional bodies – ECOWAS, SADC, IGAD, EAC to mention a few – to which all stakeholders subscribed. For a period, this seemed to have worked well to the great credit and pride of the continent. However, it appears that many of these regional peace initiatives seem to be losing steam or gaining less traction. Two examples in recent times will suffice here – it took the continental body, African Union close to a year to work out a formula to tackle the Tigray conflict. We are also witnessing, rather helplessly, the unfolding carnage in Sudan, without the operationalisation of any continental framework or roadmap, six months after the outbreak of conflict. This has exposed the creeping weakness of the regional and sub-regional institutions mandated to tackle threats to peace and security at both the sub-regional and continental levels.
However, this need not be so. Nor should it be allowed to continue. Every change comes with serious adaptive challenges. However, embedded in every change and even the crisis it produces are also huge opportunities.
For us in Africa, one clear opportunity in the current development is the chance to win ample autonomous space within which to advance our ambitions of structural transformation and, in doing so, take a stand as a co-rule maker as the new global order gets fashioned out. We can do this by collectively leveraging on our competitive advantage.
Africa’s sheer numbers and demographic assets give it a major opportunity to influence the coming world order.
According to the United Nations, by 2050, one in four people on the planet will be African. In 1950, Africans only made up 8% of the world population.
By 2040, Africa will have a larger working age population than the rest of the world combined. The median age on the African continent is 19. In India, it is 28. In China and the United States, it is 38. With the appropriate investments in education, healthcare and infrastructure, the continent’s productive potential would significantly increase.
It will also boost demand from aging industrialised nations for skilled human capital.
Apart from the human resources, the region’s abundant natural resources, if properly harnessed, could increase Africa’s strategic importance at the global market place.. The region boasts 90% of the world’s platinum and cobalt reserves, half of its gold supply, 35% of global uranium deposits, two-thirds of the supply of manganese, and nearly 75% of the world’s coltan. A bloc of influential African economies acting together to offer privileged access to specific natural resources in exchange for more robust and transparent financing for critical infrastructure projects, a more flexible network of security relationships, pragmatic negotiations from climate finance to debt relief or market access for African exports would be more effective, provided this is handled as a collective rather than individual countries going it alone.
Leadership for a peaceful and prosperous continent
Finally, let me spend a bit of the time left on the need to address the scourge of dependency, impact of population dynamics and the importance of visionary leadership in response to the challenges of this multi-polar moment.
Based on current trends and evidence, there is no doubt that awareness is widespread in Africa about the potential opportunities from which the continent can profit at a time of global transformation. However, translating that awareness into comprehensive national-level policy and collective continental action has proved to be daunting and elusive so far. Too many among African leaders are still trapped in outdated models of conducting inter-state affairs in a manner that either wittingly or unwittingly reinforces old dependencies or steers them into new ones.
Interest among competitor international actors in the various resources and endowments of the continent – human, mineral, land, agricultural, water, rain forests, markets, geo- strategic opportunity, etc. – has not so far been successfully harnessed to serve Africa’s priorities. Instead, encouraged to act individually before actors that are far more powerful than them, African countries have accumulated external debts, West and East, in a relationship that has laid them bare and vulnerable.
This is where visionary leadership must come in to help in developing a strategic, coordinated, coherent, and shared African approach to managing the turbulence in the international system as the process of change gathers momentum. The underlying goal must be to ensure that amidst the turbulence, Africans and all peoples of African descent do not become casualties and cannon-fodders as various interests compete for advantage or supremacy. We must also ensure that the hard-won sovereignty of African countries is jealously guarded and is not compromised on the altar of any external help in whatever guise. While Africa needs to actively promote a vision of multilateralism in a world in transition, it must do so within the context of strategic autonomy.
Visionary African leadership fit for these turbulent times will, additionally, demand close attention to the new global order that is evolving slowly, and even chaotically, but surely. When the key pillars of the post-1945 global order that has now come under strain were established, most of Africa was under direct colonial rule and global Africa was under the weight of political oppression and exclusion. Today, the continent has every reason to assume a seat at the table and play the role of a joint-rule maker for the new order that is emerging.
For this to happen, Africa requires nothing less than a complete reset in her approach. And this begins with refusing to be corralled into the corner of any of the competing powers and insisting that the only thing that matters to us is the advancement of the needs and dignity of Africans at home and the global Africa at large.
To advance our own core interests and values, African leadership must also of necessity expunge the dependency framework from their thinking and instead embrace the audacity to defend the rights and interests of Africa in global affairs that has eluded us for way too long.
Leadership audacity was at the heart of the launching of the pan-African project. That same audacity served Africa well in the march to independence. As the world is being remade to reflect shifts in the balance of power, that old audacity must be rediscovered and deployed to maximum effect and for maximum benefit.
Out of the turbulence of the moment, the path for continental rebirth must be cleared and a conscious effort must be made to extend the rebirth to global Africa. Opportunities for this abound in large measure if only the continent is ready to seize the moment.
That Africa has geopolitical clout in multilateral institutions and broader global fora has taken greater resonance in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine.
US efforts to isolate Russia on the global stage, for example, have been hurt by Russia’s ties in Africa. Only ten African countries voted in favour of a US sponsored resolution to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council in April 2023 whilst the majority of African countries chose to abstain. And in September 2023, official delegations from 48 African countries attended the Russia – Africa summit in St Petersburg despite ongoing condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
However, African countries were also well represented in China’s Belt and Road Summit in Beijing in October 2023 and at the US – Africa Summit in December 2022.
The choice should not be between the West and the East. Africa should be pragmatic in dealing with both sides of the geopolitical divide. Pragmatism should also mean insisting on the reform of the institutions that emerged from the post 1945 America led order like the UN and the Bretton Woods duo – IMF and the World Bank. Given the pressure these global governance and security institutions are experiencing, we need to empower regional frameworks and organisations as critical building blocks for an emergent multilateral security and governance architecture.
It might be tempting, based on the sheer number of bilateral summits in which African leaders have, in recent times, been participating to conclude that the continent is well-placed to play a core role in a new multilateral system. That assumption is, however, yet to be proven given the fact that for all the plethora of summits and the pomp and circumstance of summitries that fill the air, African countries that answer the call to meet as a bloc with Europe, the United States, Russia, Japan, China, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE, do not go to the meeting on the basis of a shared agenda. This is in sharp contrast to their hosts that all invariably have clearly defined objectives of what they want from and out of Africa in the short, medium, and long term. Unable to fashion out clear policy objectives for engaging in the various summits and failing to devise mechanisms for speaking with one voice, the various engagements have generally taken on the form of donor-recipient sessions, complete with patronising statements and actions from the hosts. African leaders will need to do better than this. Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with seeking partnerships with other countries, it should be on the basis of mutual accountability and mutual benefit.
To address and transcend the weaknesses in the African engagement with the changing world order, steps need to be taken to fill the manifest gaps in policy and leadership without which Africa cannot shift from playing by other peoples’ rules to becoming a co-rule maker. For a shift in paradigm, Africa only needs to tap into its rich history and its leaders to deliberately mobilise themselves to win the future for a region of the world that is destined – with the correct policy-leadership acumen – to become the world’s primary pole of growth and development. This is a commitment that speaks to a combined effort to win power, influence, and prestige for Africa as an equal co-rule maker of the new world order.
But this also places an onerous burden on Africa’s leaders at this historic moment. Perhaps, most critical in this transition period is the opportunity by African leaders and institutions to collectively address the structural drivers of conflict and instability that undermine peace on the continent – with two inter-connected ones particularly in desperate need of laser beam attention – poverty and inequality.
A major challenge that the liberal, democratic order is experiencing on the continent nay the entire globe, as a result of these structural factors is the growing dissatisfaction with electoralism – liberal governance models which place a lot of emphasis on processes rather than developmental outcomes and disproportionately favour the pursuit of private gains at the expense of more structural economic transformation.
In 2022, an Afrobarometer survey found only 43 percent of respondents in 30 African countries “satisfied” with “how democracy works” in their respective countries, down seven percentage points from a decade prior.
The twin problem of poverty and inequality, has in recent years, been the scourge of democratic development in Africa. It is at the roots of the many other discontents that have fed and fuelled public anger in many African countries. They provide the underlying context for explaining why religious extremism, ethnic irredentism, inter-communal conflicts, unconstitutional change of governments, gender based violence, intergenerational discords and a multi-faceted criminality have been ascendant on the continent.
A primary duty of any political leadership is the incremental improvement in the welfare, social mobility and the wellness of the citizenry, the security of the populace, the cohesion of society and the enhancement of the productive capacity of the country. These are all closely interconnected purposes of nation building and statecraft. They comprise the first order domains of leadership action by which a just peace may be secured and sustained. Investing continuously and assiduously in them ensures the existence of the core foundational pillars upon which other things can be added in order to nurture a culture of just and sustainable peace in the governance system.
So, tackling the structural drivers of exclusion and social injustice is a sine qua non for winning just peace and security. Consequently, if Africa must win a seat at the global power table, African leaders must also make concrete efforts to win the hearts and minds of the majority of their own people.
Only then will Africa stand a good chance of breaking out of old frames of thought and action that have left the continent in a prolonged state of underdevelopment and dependency and reap the opportunities of the multipolar moment. And that is why the public and private sectors on the continent must invest in a deliberate policy of developing leadership capacities that equip a new generation of leaders with the tools to navigate this rapidly changing world.
Text of the keynote lecture delivered by Dr. Fayemi at the Africa Leadership Centre, King’s College, London, November 9, 2023