The world is undergoing profound and tumultuous transformations. Africa’s participation is likely to be uneven, messy, and unpredictable, but undoubtedly critical. The continent and its peoples have been an integral part of all momentous historical developments ever since the emergence of the modern world system half a millennium ago, indeed since the evolution of humanity on our incredibly beautiful but fragile planet increasingly despoiled and damaged by human activities.
However, more often than not Africa has been, as the late great Kenyan intellectual, Ali Mazrui, used to put it, a pawn rather than a player. What are the prospects for the continent becoming a key driver rather than a hapless passenger on the locomotive of global dramas and transformations in the 21st century? It is tempting to assume the ineluctability of Africa’s history of internal underdevelopment, external dependency, and global marginality. Evidence for such continuities is not hard to find in the voluminous data and indices churned incessantly by international agencies, consultancy firms, and academics on development, democracy, higher education, and even happiness in which Africa tends to score lower than other world regions.
Yet, beneath the invented and imaginary immutability of Africa’s fate, sanctified in the calcified and contemptuous narratives of Afro-pessimism, there are other developments, possibilities, and trajectories. Indeed, in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Afro-optimism arose from Africa’s purported hopelessness proclaimed by The Economist in 2000 or the “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s in Africanist discourse, with new hopes for self-determination, democratization, and development, the triple dreams of the enduring nationalist project. The “Africa Rising” narrative briefly captured the imagination of the ubiquitous development industry that is always looking to reinvent the frontiers of capitalist super exploitation. That optimism has faded a little, shuttered in part by the Covid-19 pandemic and apparent recessions of democracy and development.
Still, the 21st century is only in its infancy, and the future that is endlessly long cannot be foreclosed by the present. As a historian, I’m trained to be wary of crystal-gazing, indulging in futuristic fantasies of bliss or fears of blight, of forthcoming nirvana or damnation. As a scholar, I’m suspicious of both unbridled Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism. I veer towards Afro-realism that entails candidly acknowledging the structural weight of history on the present, as well as the power of human agency, of contemporary social movements and reconfigurations of power, to refashion the future. The past, present, and future are inextricably intertwined by the subterranean material and superstructural ideological forces through which the dialectical dance of history takes place.
In this presentation, I would like to discuss three forces out of several that will affect the place of Africa and African peoples in the 21st century. They include demography, diaspora, and culture. Let me say at the outset that these are exceedingly complex, contradictory and rapidly changing dynamics that will be conditioned by equally complicated, conflicting, and shifting constellation of global forces. My argument is quite simple: Africa is likely to become an increasingly important player in global affairs. I will begin by briefly outlining the unfolding changes in the world political economy. Then, I will discuss at greater length the three major transformative forces for Africa’s repositioning mentioned above. I’ll conclude with a few reflections on the implications for international relations and higher education.
Global Crises and Transformations
Please allow me to preface my remarks by referencing two of my books, one published, another under preparation. In 2021, I published Africa and the Disruptions of the Twenty-First Century. In one chapter covering what I regard as momentous developments in the 2010s, I identified six key trends. At the moment, I’m working on a book tentatively titled, The Long Transition to the 21st Century: A Global History of the Present, in which I seek to elaborate on several of these themes.
The first trend is what I call the globalization of tribalism, which refers to the spread of ethnocultural, xenophobic, racist, fundamentalist, and jingoistic nationalisms. Second, democratic recessions manifested in democratic backsliding, polarization and breakdowns in civic discourse even in the so-called mature democracies, which is accompanied by countervailing resistance by social movements. Third, there is rising economic disequilibrium evident in slower economic growth in many world regions, deepening inequalities, and significant shifts in the world economy.
Fourth, the world is undergoing shifting hierarchies and hegemonies evident in intensifying international tensions and rivalries that are fueling the specter of decoupling and de-globalization. The economic and political weight of emerging economies has risen; in 2018 middle-income countries accounted for 53.6% of global GDP in terms of purchasing-power parity. In PPP terms China overtook the United States as the world’s largest economy in 2014, and by 2018 its GDP stood at US$25.3 trillion compared to US$20.7 trillion for the United States.
Fifth, is the emergence of digital capitalism embedded in the unfolding Fourth Industrial Revolution that is transforming all aspects of economic, social and political life as digital, biological and physical systems increasingly converge. Sixth, is what I term the rebellion of nature which refers to the accelerating onslaught of extreme weather events, from hurricanes, tornadoes, cyclones, tsunamis, floods, and blizzards to droughts, dust storms, and wildfires, to melting icecaps and rising sea levels that threaten the survival of many islands and coastal settlements. Scientific consensus, global consciousness, and commitment to sustainable development goals and climate mitigation and adaptation have grown led by indefatigable environmental moments.
Since the end of World War II when the development industry emerged and poverty was discovered as a global problem amenable to policy interventions, scholars and policy makers have grappled with explaining why some countries are developed and wealthy and others remain underdeveloped and poor. These questions have been addressed differently in the various academic disciplines and from divergent ideological perspectives informed by Marxist and neo-Marxist, neo-classical, neo-liberal, feminist, constructivist, postcolonial, and ecological theories.
In more popular discourses, there are the various determinisms of geographical location, cultural norms, historical pathways, and ideological predilections. Undoubtedly, geography, culture, history, and ideology affect the processes and patterns of development. But notions that civilization, modernity, or development are a monopoly of selected peoples in Euro-America are intellectually untenable and emanate from odious imperialist, racist, and white supremacist ideologies.
More compelling explanatory frameworks of development are those that stress the quality of institutions, social trust, and human capital. Time does not allow for elaboration. Suffice it to say, the quality of human capital refers to the knowledge, skill sets, experiences, and attributes that people possess, which reflects their levels of education and state of health. Since independence the imperative of building human capital has been widely recognized by African states, international and intergovernmental agencies, and civil society.
There are three critical dimensions to consider in relation to the continent’s human capital development. First, is the demographic explosion from the centuries’ long demographic devastations of the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism both perpetrated by Europe. While demography is not destiny, without population growth future destinies are compromised. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that Africa’s share of the world population returned to what it had been in 1750 when the slave trade intensified. Population growth began to accelerate from the 1960s.
Africa’s share of the world population grew from 9.3 percent in 1960 to 10.7 percent in 1980 to 13.2 percent in 2000 to 17.2 percent in 2020. In raw numbers, there were about 283 million Africans in 1960, the so-called year of African independence. The population skyrocketed to 811 million in 2000, and 1.341 billion in 2020. On current trends, it is projected to rise to 25.6 percent in 2050 (2.489 billion) and 39.4 percent in 2100 (4.28 billion). Thus, whatever the challenges of postcolonial Africa, the continent has been enjoying a historic rate of population growth which points to improvements in material conditions and more subterranean changes in collective mentalities, moral economies, and cultural ecologies.
The youth bulge is a demographic phenomenon which occurs when child mortality declines but the fertility rate remains high so that a large share of the population is comprised of young people. Currently, about 60 percent of the African population is below 25 years old and by 2100 the continent will still have the world’s youngest population with a median age of 35. The relationship between population growth and economic development is a matter of fierce debate. In a world of fixed resources, Malthusian pessimists contend population growth undermines economic growth. But empirical evidence in the 1970s and 1980s showed that incomes in many regions continued to rise despite rapid population growth.
The optimists argue that population growth spurs increased competition, knowledge, innovation, and technology that fuels development. In contrast to the demographic pessimists and optimists, neutralists maintain there is no significant connection between population and economic growth. The reality is that population growth can become an asset or a brake on development depending on its evolving age structure and quality of human capital. The youth explosion, I believe, gives Africa unprecedented opportunities for development and democracy so long as the youth are fully mobilized through quality education and smart and targeted investment.
Writing in Foreign Affairs on the recent authoritarian wave in West Africa, Gyeman-Boadi, states, “citizens have taken matters into their own hands. Activists, journalists, opposition politicians, ordinary citizens, and even some state officials have forged a kind of resistance movement to demand accountability across the region. The most formidable foot soldiers include the new generation of creative young people, who are using a mix of new technology and old-school protest tactics to challenge corrupt officials and agitate for better governance.” Living in Kenya from 2016-2021, I was struck by the irrepressible energies, creativity, and entrepreneurial mindsets of the youth.
Second, then, is the question of the policies adopted by governments to build socioeconomic systems that can harness the youth bulge into a demographic dividend. The term refers to the economic benefit arising from a significant increase in the ratio of working-aged adults relative to young and old dependents. In countries with a high proportion of children or the elderly, a high proportion of resources is spent on taking care of these groups, which is likely to depress the pace of economic growth. When the youth bulge transitions into working age, it becomes, if it is endowed with good health and education, quality human capital that can generate the demographic dividend of economic growth.
However, the demographic dividend is not automatic or inevitable. It is driven by a complex mix of policies and investments through the mechanisms of labor supply, savings, and human capital. As Africa undergoes a demographic transition previously traversed by other regions, it has an opportunity to turn its current population boom into faster economic growth and development along the path of the economies of East Asia. There is now a huge literature and policy documents on the subject that time doesn’t allow for further elaboration.
Third, building capabilities is imperative, a concept that is well-articulated in reports by the United Nations Development Program. Defined as people’s freedom to choose what to be and do, which is closely related to the notion of opportunities, capabilities are critical for human development. The UNDP distinguishes between basic capabilities, such as early childhood survival, primary education, entry level technology, and resilience to recurrent shocks, and enhanced capabilities including access to quality health at all levels, high quality education at all levels, effective access to present-day technologies, and resilience to unknown new shocks.
The challenge for Africa is to raise both sets of capabilities and to improve what the UNDP calls the inequality adjusted HDI, which was introduced in 2010. The IHDI discounts the HDI according to the extent of inequality. The data is disaggregated in terms of the gender development index and the gender inequality index (a composite measure of gender inequality using three dimensions: reproductive health, empowerment, and the labor market). HDI and IHDI rankings vary from conventional GDP per capita rankings. For example, in 2019, the world’s largest economies, the United States and China, were ranked 17th and 85th, respectively.
Education and employment are key indicators of human development. There have been remarkable improvements in education. For example, in 1959 there were only 76 universities across Africa concentrated in North Africa and South Africa. The number increased to 294 in 1979, and exploded to 784 in 2000 and 1,690 in 2021. But this accounted for only 8.39% of the world’s universities. Primary and secondary enrollments also improved raising the literacy rate to 65.6 percent, still the lowest in the world. The UN Economic Commission for Africa estimates that $39 billion in annual financing is needed to improve access to the quality of education.
Also in need of massive investments and improvements is employment. According to data from the International Labor Organization, World Employment and Social Outlook Trends 2020, the sub-Saharan Africa region suffers from high rates of unemployment, labor under-utilization, decent work deficits that are especially prevalent in the informal economy, the largest source of employment, and extreme rates of working poverty.
However, the narrative of Africa’s unemployment crisis has been challenged. According to Louise Fox of the Brookings Institution, “While there are exceptions—most notably South Africa and several resource-rich or fragile states—the economic growth registered since 2000 was accompanied by a steady growth in wage jobs, at a rate significantly faster than the growth of the labor force. Meanwhile, youth unemployment has been below world averages, controlling for income level. Unfortunately, this progress was interrupted by the COVID-19 health and economic crises, but it demonstrates the importance for job creation in African countries of getting back onto the path of economic stability and balanced economic growth as well as maintaining this trajectory through this decade.”
One of Africa’s biggest assets is its global diaspora created in successive waves of dispersal from the continent following the emergence of the modern world system. As the late renowned Egyptian intellectual, Samir Amin, often reminded us, Africans and Africa played a pivotal role in the development of the modern world system notwithstanding their exploitation and subjugation. Being oppressed doesn’t mean being marginal; as we know the oppression of women and workers doesn’t entail their irrelevance to the intersected system of racialized and patriarchal capitalism.
Diaspora Africans from the Iberian peninsula were among the conquerors of the Americas, and enslaved people from Western Africa, whose numbers outstripped European migrations until the staggered abolitions of the slave trade and slavery, helped lay the demographic, economic, social, cultural, and political foundations of the emerging colonial settler societies. As Walter Rodney taught us 50 years ago in his book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, that became the canonical text of my generation as college students, slavery profoundly defined the development of modern capitalism, its institutional arrangements, and intellectual and ideological scaffolding.
Rodney’s powerful thesis echoed age-old writings by political activists and public intellectuals across the diaspora. In the United States, they ranged from Frederick Douglass to Ida B. Wells to W.E.B. Dubois to Mary McLeod Bethune. In his magisterial 2021 book, Out of Africa: The Real Roots of the Modern World, Howard French boldly takes the mantle of retrieving Africa from the mute presence and marginality imposed by Eurocentricism’s enduring epistemic conceits. Compellingly, he illuminates Africa’s centrality in the birth of the modern world.
Once academic discourses enter the popular media, they are deployed by dueling partisans and pundits. And so it was with the 1619 project by the New York Times that repackaged well known academic analyses that put enslaved Africans and their descendants at the center of American history, society and culture, and the development of the country’s economic, political, judicial, and educational institutions, as well as the struggles in the fiercely contested and unfinished project of democracy. The series inflamed America’s already incendiary racial politics, that was followed by the global racial reckoning forced by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
Recentering the histories of Africa’s old diasporas is essential for repositioning the centrality of Africa in world history and its multiple futures. There are nearly 200 million African descended peoples, the largest number being in Brazil with approximately 97 million, the United States with 43 million, and the Caribbean with 28 million. The new diasporas created out Africa’s recent global migrations number more than 15 million. In 2020, Africa had 40.6 million emigrants representing 14.5 percent of the world’s total of 280.6 million; the respective percentages were for Asia 40.9, Europe 22.6, the Americas 16.8, and Oceania 1.1. Twenty-five million of the continent’s international emigrants lived on the continent representing 1.9% of the population. Globally, emigrants represented 3.6% of the world population up from 2.8% in 2000 (or 183 million). So much for the myth that the world is facing an unparalleled invasions of migrants!
For the past two decades, I have been investigating the complex patterns and processes of engagement between Africa and its diasporas in Afro-America, Afro-Europe, and Afro-Asia. In my work, I focus on six sets of flows—demographic, cultural, economic, political, ideological, and iconographic. Particularly well-known is the important role played by the historic diaspora in the development of Pan-Africanism and the process of decolonization, which reverberated with civil rights struggles in the diaspora. Equally fascinating are the intricate cultural and artistic exchanges from religion to the performing and visual arts that I’ll briefly discuss shortly.
The new diasporas, are enmeshed in complex and contradictory relations with the historic diaspora and Africa encompassing physical movements, exchanges of cultural practices, productive resources, organizations and movements, ideologies and ideas, images and representations. The new diaspora is Africa’s biggest donor to use the language of the development industry. In 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic, remittances to Africa reached $84.3 billion; they represented between 8.8 percent of GDP for Egypt which received $26. 4 billion, the largest, and 2.9 percent of GDP for Kenya that garnered $2.9 billion.
The opportunities for the remittances of social capital including what I call intellectual remittances are immense. For example, the approximately 2.1 million immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa in the United States, to quote a report by the Migration Policy Institute, “tend to have higher levels of education than the overall foreign- and native-born populations. In 2019, 42 percent of sub-Saharan Africans ages 25 and over held a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 33 percent for both all foreign- and U.S.-born adults.”
Relations between Africa and its global diasporas, old and new, must be scaffolded to a Pan-Africanism of the 21st century that simultaneously looks back and forward. The first requires critically examining the diverse and complicated histories of Pan-Africanisms in their ideological, political, economic, cultural, social, and artistic articulations across the interconnected local, national, regional, continental, trans-continental, and global historical geographies, paying attention to the work, struggles, activities, imaginations and aspirations of elites and ordinary people, men and women, and young and old. The second entails locating Pan-Africanism in the maelstrom of the contemporary world and its difficult demands and tantalizing possibilities. We need to decipher, systematically, strategically and smartly, what the political economies and ecologies of the 21st century entail for African peoples around the world.
In a world obsessed with the materialities and imperatives of economic growth and development it is easy to underestimate the centrality of cultural production and consumption, how the cultural and artistic artifacts of the human imagination embody and endow us with profound ontological and epistemological meanings. African cultural economies need to be understood from historical, expansive, and open-ended epistemic, aesthetic, and sociopolitical perspectives.
Under the authoritarian gaze and logic of empire, sanctified by the primitivist fantasies and desires of colonial anthropology, the authenticity of African cultures was frozen in an ethnographic present and premised on eternal difference and inferiority to Europe. African “tradition” interpolated as an eternal African past was counterposed to a dynamic western “modernity.” The former purportedly represented the “real Africa” and the latter imported mimicry.
In reality, during the colonial encounter African cultures were produced and reproduced through the dialectical interplay of domination, resistance and conversion in which imperial ideologies, practices and spectacles, and colonial transactions, negotiations, and struggles clashed and coalesced in messy, unpredictable, and tumultuous ways as historical processes tend to. The metropoles and colonies became imbricated, although each valorized the representations of difference, in stressing, reproducing and performing their respective ontological distinctions, despite the fact that the social formations of both were being reconfigured.
This points to the inherent complexity in the project of cultural decolonization. Colonialism and globalization make the recuperation of precolonial African cultures, which were themselves neither static nor uniform, idealistic gestures at best. Unpacking the historical processes of colonial cultural production is exceedingly demanding but critical to theorizing Africa’s cultural transformation. Part of the challenge is that during the colonial period, and after, cultures on the continent were also influenced by diaspora cultures and vice-versa.
In an article on musical engagements, for example, I show that “the influence of diasporan music on modern African music, especially popular music, has been immense. These influences and exchanges have created a complex tapestry of musical Afro-internationalism and Afro-modernism and music has been a critical site, a soundscape, in the construction of new diasporan and African identities. A diasporic perspective in the study of modern African music helps Africa reclaim its rightful place in the history of world music and saves Africans from unnecessary cultural anxieties about losing their musical ‘authenticity’ by borrowing from ‘Western’ music that appears, on closer inspection, to be diasporan African music.”
The creative arts “have constituted critical media of communication in the Pan-African world through which cultural influences, ideas, images, instruments, institutions and identities have continuously circulated in the process creating new modes of cultural expression” in both spaces. “This traffic in expressive culture is multidimensional and dynamic… it is facilitated by persistent demographic flows and ever-changing communication technologies and involves exchanges that are simultaneously transcontinental, transnational, and translational of artistic products, aesthetic codes, and conceptual matrixes.”
We have to go beyond the depoliticized, dehistoricized, idealistic and technicist approaches that treat African cultures within the continent and in the diaspora as separate from each other and divorced from political economy by reducing and equating “African culture” to “tradition” and imagined precolonial pasts. The term precolonial should be banished into the dustbin of Eurocentrism as it makes colonialism the pivot around which Africa’s history, the longest in the world, spins in eternal enthrallment to Europe.
The versatility and irrepressible exuberance of popular African cultures and creative arts, their irreverent and exhilarating yearnings for all-inclusive liberation mocks and subverts the singular elite narratives of African nationalism, their aspirations for social uniformity and conformity.
The importance of African cultural and creative industries (CCI) is increasingly recognized by governments, the corporate sector, social movements, and among the creative communities themselves within Africa, the diaspora, and around the world. Some value CCIs for their economic contributions to development. Others stress their dynamism and demonstrative power of African energies, excellence, and empowerment. There also those who applaud them for their capacity to forge shared Pan-African identities, understanding, and comity.
The African CCIs are of course not new, although the discourse is. It brings together earlier debates sponsored by UNESCO and the OAU about culture and development, and deliberations on the “culture industry” and later “creative industry” in the global North, which continues to dominate theorization of the concept. In 2008, the African Union adopted a Plan of Action on Cultural and Creative Industries. It applauded “the significant increase in the share of culture, information and the services sectors of the world market,” due to the liberalization of political systems and industries as part of globalization and increasing youthful population.
A year later, in 2009, UNESCO published a new framework for cultural statistics to better capture the sector’s breadth and depth, develop direct metrics measuring its economic and social dimensions, facilitate international comparative assessment, and integrate conceptual debates and new developments. It divided the cultural economy into six categories: first, cultural domains encompassing several practices and products; second, intangible cultural heritage comprising oral traditions and expressions, rituals, languages, and social practices; third, education and training; fourth, archiving and preserving; fifth, equipment and supporting materials; and sixth, the related domains of tourism and sports and recreation.
The growth of cultural industries in Africa is quite impressive. One consultancy report enthuses: “Emerging markets, particularly those in Africa, are home to vibrant creative and cultural industries (CCI) with massive investment potential. From the Yoruba to the Kongo, African civilizations have shaped the aesthetics, music, sculpture, textiles, and architecture of regions from North America to Latin America and Europe for centuries.”The vibrancy and potential of the CCI is attributed to the continent’s rapid urbanization, explosion in the youth population, expanding middle classes, and increased internet and mobile penetration.
African artists are effectively using digital technologies to produce their work, access and expand their audiences, and dialogue with them. The consumption of music through streaming services has grown, and the Covid-19 pandemic made virtual concerts and performances vital for survival. Similarly, digital technology has revolutionized the African film industry as the consumption of films expands through on-demand streaming services, smartphones, the internet, and television. African films are increasingly distributed through such domestic platforms as iRoko, Showmax, and Viusasa launched in Nigeria in 2011, South Africa in 2015, and Kenya in 2017, respectively, and international platforms including Netflix and Amazon’s Prime.
African fashion has also experience remarkable growth and local designers are increasingly patronized by the expanding middle classes keen to wear their national pride on their sleeves. African fashion shows are now common in major African and world cities. E-commerce has expanded the regional, diaspora and global reach of some fashion brands.
Sports is an arena in which the historic diaspora has long enjoyed prominence in the Americas as it was open to enslaved Africans to entertain whites. Now the new diaspora is registering its presence in popular sports in the United States especially in basketball and football, and in the lucrative soccer leagues of Europe. Writers from the new diasporas are joining their historic diaspora counterparts in raising their visibility in the literary, cinematic, and comedic arts.
Thus, the appeal of the African CCIs goes beyond Africa. There is a huge market in the diaspora, both the new and historic diasporas. The consumption of African cultural and creative products provides a powerful platform to perform and consume diaspora identities.
African cultural producers are increasingly subject to the push and pull of local and global appeal. The former matters for them in signifying their African authenticity and in generating revenues and driving their international influence that can be even more lucrative. The rising attractiveness of African creative products to consumers in the global North and some regions of the global South other than the diaspora is premised, in part, on their prior domestic popularity, the power of the diaspora especially African Americans as trendsetters of popular culture, the expansion of global tourism to Africa before covid-19, and the proliferation of social media.
Moreover, there is a long history of Western artists, Picasso being one of the most well-known in the 20th century, mining, borrowing, and exploiting African cultures and arts for inspiration and novelty, for new styles, motifs and expressive languages. More recently, major western entertainment firms are expanding their corporate footprint in Africa, especially in music. In the contemporary global conjuncture, there can be little doubt that culture and economy are interconnected. The challenge for Africa’s cultural economies is to develop paradigms and practices in which culture is a site of resistance and radical dreams and visions of a different future, rather than being relegated to one more “raw material” to be exported from Africa.
Africa’s cultural economies must simultaneously pursue the enduring struggles for decolonization, as well as the reconfiguration of the creative arts and cultures and their expressive and performative ethos, motifs and aesthetics that unapologetically reflect African and diaspora modernities. It must help us reimagine ways of being whole, of knowing, seeing, and fully living in the contemporary world, of seizing and possessing the 21st century as truly ours, to paraphrase and realize Kwame Nkrumah’s long deferred dream for the 20th century. The power of the creative arts goes beyond its economic and social value. It is fundamental to people’s identities, their emotional and mental health, and ultimately their humanity.
Africa’s demographic, diaspora, and cultural resurgence, together with equally complex and contradictory transformations in various political, economic, social, and ecological spheres that I have not examined in this presentation, have far reaching implications for the world. Africa has never been a peripheral region, and certainly what happens on the continent will shape the rest of the world in this century and subsequent ones.
This is a reality the major emerging economies including China are increasingly embracing. The United States is behind the curve, its Africa policy locked in outdated humanitarian and security impulses, increasingly overlaid by re-emerging Cold War imperatives. Take trade, for example. In 2021, while trade between China and Africa reached $254 billion, for the U.S. it declined to $64 billion from $142 billion in 2008. Chinese investment also eclipses America’s as the latter clings to the necrophilia of dead aid as Dambisa Moyo calls it in her renowned book.
In an article published two days ago in Foreign Affairs, “The Unkept Promises of Western Aid,” Ian Mitchell and Nancy Birdsall, lament “in truth, wealthy Western donor countries are not always honest about the assistance they provide. They find ways to exaggerate their real commitments through creative and dubious accounting practices meant to expand the definition of development-aid spending. And when it comes to the other category of assistance that wealthy countries owe to developing ones—finance to help the global South mitigate and adapt to climate change—rich countries fall egregiously short of what they have pledged, which is in turn tragically short of what poorer ones need.”
Any productive American engagement with Africa requires, argues Jon Temin, also in Foreign Affairs, reframing Africa geographically by abandoning the Eurocentric division of sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa, supporting strong institutions over individual leaders, repudiating “the narrative that it is battling China for primacy in Africa,” and embracing African voices in international forums and geopolitical interests by reforming the United Nations Security Council and the architecture of international financial institutions.
Ignorance or disregard of African geopolitical interests will not serve any global power well, as its ill-informed pressures will be met by African resentment and resistance. Current American diplomatic pressure on African countries over Ukraine, including a proposed law in Congress that only targets the African region to toe the Western line, is deeply problematic and will not succeed. As Nanjala Nyabola reminds us in Foreign Affairs as well, “For many Africans, the current overtures from both Russia and the West are not about friendship. They are about using Africa as a means to an end… the dominant African position, given the large uncertainties about the war and its outcome, has been to demand peace and urge diplomacy—and, whenever possible, to avoid having to take sides in a conflict that seems unlikely to offer much to Africa, particularly if it turns the continent into a new theater of proxy war.”
What does all this mean for higher education institutions in the global North? In a recent presentation on rethinking global higher education partnerships, I propose a twelve-pronged agenda. Time only allows me to say that fundamentally this entails epistemic diversity, humility, and inclusion of African knowledges by institutions in the global North, and forging productive partnerships between them and African institutions premised on the ethical principles of respect, co-creation, and mutuality of benefits.
Since modern human emerged in Africa 300,000 years ago, from where they spread to other continents between 65,000 and 50,000 years ago, the long arch of history has bent towards two inexorable forces of globality, which override the periodic ruptures of great wars and the moral panics of othering outsiders. One is the expanding cycle of spatiotemporal compression that intensifies connectedness, communication, and the circulation of people, plants and pathogens, cultures, commodities and capital, and ideas, ideologies and institutions. The other is the rise and fall of civilizations, the periodic shifts in the geographies and technologies of hegemony and domination that the world is currently undergoing.
Ali Mazrui ended his celebrated 1986 television series, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, with an intriguing paean: “We are the people of the day before yesterday and the people of the day after tomorrow.” I read this as a tribute to the ancestral primacy of Africa, and its assured presence in the world’s futures as a player, not the pawn it has been over the last few centuries. The historic and humanistic project of fashioning African futures entails retrieving the past and reconstructing the present, and investing our imaginations and energies in envisioning a world that valorizes our duality as social beings and ecological beings, living in harmony with each other and sustainably with nature.