Separating symbolism from reality?

By IAfrica
In Zimbabwe
Jul 28th, 2014

Onyekachi Wambu Correspondent

There is a pervasive sense that many African countries are client states of the West. Did the Paris conference on Boko Haram confirm this?

IS the perception of Africa still being a client state of the West a reality? Let’s look elsewhere at a real client master/relationship. The US has kept and underwritten peace and security in Europe, through its leading role in NATO. Its generals always head the critical military component of the alliance.

But symbolism matters, and the obvious client relationship is obscured. Though the US largely pays for it, NATO’s headquarters is in Brussels, and its political head is always a European. The symbolism suggests a partnership, despite the unevenness of this partnership, as we saw in the Libya conflict which relied overwhelmingly on US military hardware.

The pretence of the equal partnership is maintained through symbolism. So it would be hard imagining Barack Obama asking European leaders to Washington to discuss the Ukrainian crisis. Such a meeting might happen within the framework of a G7 or some other such meeting taking place in Washington, but not be a stand-alone conference.

It would look as though Europeans were satraps of an American empire. As Rwanda’s President Kagame passionately noted at the recent AfDB meeting in Kigali, the real problem about the trip by the African presidents to Paris is that it made no sense either in symbolic or in real terms. Symbolically, it was a disaster for the region, and especially for Nigeria. In reality it was puzzling.

There are two regional AU frameworks, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), within which these discussions on sharing intelligence and taking co-ordinated action could have taken place. ECOWAS already has a well-oiled military dimension; Ecomog has had some success intervening in Sierra Leone and Liberia, so there are already precedents for cross-border cooperation, action and local problem-solving.

Nigeria is pivotal within ECOWAS. It hosts the ECOWAS HQ in its capital Abuja. Why then would it need to go to Paris to discuss a regional response with its fellow ECOWAS members Benin and Niger, when a mechanism already exists?  Similarly, there must be cross-border mechanisms for security discussions between ECOWAS and ECCAS, given the discussions at AU level about the African Command, and the role of the Regional Economic Communities (RECS) like ECOWAS in the AU architecture.

So what was the trip to Paris really all about? On a wider and deeper level it reveals a crisis of governance: especially around planning; local stakeholder involvement; peer communication and relationships; and local ownership.

It’s been apparent since 9/11, that religion would have increasing primacy in geopolitics. Also as the “hot” part of the Cold War was fought in Africa, given our religious diversity and fault lines, the “hot” part of Samuel Huntingdon’s clash of civilisations, would likely play out on our continent as well.

How have we planned for this possibility? How have we involved local communities, alongside governments in this process? How do we ensure national ownership as well as regional cooperation, alongside peer communication? The reality is that the continent has devised a mechanism that can accomplish all of this — the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), but the tool remains under-utilised.

The mechanism is a process through which a country provides an initial self-assessment of its challenges (governance, economic and social), an external country review, and completion of a country report, followed by the Peer Review by other African leaders on the key findings. The process provides an early warning system for emerging challenges and conflicts.

Home grown solutions exist, but remain still-born or merely symbolic. The hugely important APRM is currently convulsed by crisis. A mechanism for improving governance is itself embroiled in a governance scandal. Until we get our own problem-solving institutions which are in place to work properly, we will always be seeking symbolic salvation at the hands of others.

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS. Source:

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