TWN  |  THIRD WORLD RESURGENCE |  ARCHIVE
THIRD WORLD RESURGENCE

Africa and the geopolitics of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the vulnerability of the seemingly powerful countries belonging to groupings such as the G7, the G20 and NATO. If ever there was a time for African solidarity, it is now.

Gilbert M Khadiagala and Bob Wekesa


THE COVID-19 pandemic has provoked multiple geostrategic uncertainties among nations and regions and schisms in various levels of global governance. Faced with the growing unpredictability of these developments, analysts are hard put as they gaze into the crystal ball to figure out global geopolitical trends and prospects in the coming months, let alone years. It is for this reason that just about every analysis over the last couple of weeks has cautiously inserted ‘if’ into its projections.

Despite the nebulous character of the COVID-19 disease, the pertinent question is: what are some of the ‘ifs’ for Africa when examined through geostrategic lenses? For a long time, African commentators and strategists have lamented the continent’s economic dependence on the rich economies of the Global North and emerging powers such as China. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the vulnerability of the seemingly powerful countries belonging to groupings such as the G7, the G20 and NATO. If ever there was a time for African solidarity, it is now. With wealthier nations in other parts of the world focused on dealing with their own problems, it is important for African nations to pursue a geopolitical solidarity that reflects the mantra of ‘African solutions for African problems’.

Given the ways in which the pandemic has exposed the structural inequalities and fragilities of developed nations, African nations need to pool their resources and give greater meaning to the elusive idea of Pan-African solidarity. In addition to the probability of muted assistance from the developed world, several global factors necessitate the coming together of African countries to collectively address structural and emerging challenges.

Consider, for instance, the state of play in the import-export arena. A large number of high-performing African countries are dependent on the export of raw materials and minerals as sources of national revenue and foreign exchange earnings. At the same time, most African countries are reliant on the importation of manufactured goods for both economic production (for instance, agricultural machinery) and domestic consumption. With supply chains broken, these avenues for generating revenue are closed, giving rise to the prediction of a continent-wide recession for the first time in 25 years. Already, it is being estimated that 49 million Africans will be pushed into extreme poverty.

On the political-economic front, meaningful Pan-Africanism is beginning to take shape in the form of the new African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Broken global supply chains mean that African nations need to devise intracontinental supply strategies such as the continental cross-border trade envisaged in the AfCFTA agreement. One scenario therefore is that the continent will take advantage of the opportunities presented by current events to emerge much stronger in terms of developing and building on its internal political and economic affinities.

Experiences elsewhere show that economic downturns force countries to begin the process of indigenous industrialisation. This was the case with the Great Depression in the 1930s, which forced Latin American countries to develop homegrown industrialisation processes. Africa can seize the opportunities occasioned by the COVID-19 crisis to start doing the same. Africa has the resources and people with innovative skills to pursue a manufacturing strategy geared towards prioritising and meeting its industrial and socioeconomic needs.

That said, what will happen in Africa in the coming months should COVID-19 infection cases spike to the levels witnessed in the United States, Italy, France, the United Kingdom and China during their peak periods? This is already happening across the continent. Several analysts have painted a grim picture of a disaster waiting to happen across Africa based on the fragility of its public health systems coupled with economic limitations and weaknesses in governance. Some pundits have pointed out that the pandemic may worsen the political tensions that existed before its outbreak.

Even if African countries invoke the spirit of generosity, compassion and humanity among the rest of the world, there are no guarantees that assistance from the outside would be forthcoming. Confronted by their own enormous recovery needs, many donor nations, be they traditional Western nations or emerging economic powers such as China, would not likely be prepared to bail out African countries. While international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other international organisations, such as the United Nations agencies, may step in, the question remains as to what extent they can bail out a large number of countries.

Some have argued that the devastation wrought on Western countries by COVID-19 will tilt the balance of economic and political power in favour of emerging economies. China is by far the most significant of these. Chinese engagements in Africa have attracted both praise and criticism in almost equal measure. Thus, the optimistic scenario is that a resurgent China would seek to support and rise with Africa as an act of Global South solidarity. These sentiments have been expressed during ceremonies for the handover of COVID-19-related donations to African countries. In this ideal sequence of events, China would continue or even enhance the awarding of loans and grants directly through its International Development Cooperation Agency and development banks such as the Export-Import Bank, or indirectly via mechanisms such as the BRICS New Development Bank. If this happens, it would contribute to seismic global shifts with far-reaching implications for global norms and values.

The pessimistic scenario is one in which a rebounding China assists Africa but at a great cost. These costs may include Chinese officials calling in loans due for repayment and Chinese companies flooding African markets with cheap products, thus deindustrialising the continent even further. Optimistic or pessimistic, both scenarios remain ‘ifs’ because there is no certainty that China will bounce back to its pre-COVID-19 economic status.

Some commentators have lamented the isolationist responses and policies adopted by the US, Italy and the UK as being among the factors that have hampered a coordinated global response to the pandemic. In the wake of the pandemic, there have been calls by opinion leaders, as captured in a European Council on Foreign Relations article, for the Global North to once more come together, not just now but also in the aftermath of the pandemic. If this happens, and if African countries remain in the grip of COVID-19, the latter would have to defer any hope of charting independent developmental trajectories forged on the basis of production and trade rather than aid.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the existing geopolitical competition between the US and China, some progress was achieved in negotiations over trade issues via an agreement signed in January 2020. If the pandemic abates and the two powers are able to ease tensions in other bilateral areas, this could be an opportunity for them to lead the crafting of new global rules for managing pandemics and their economic consequences. Africa could be a beneficiary of a new global architecture for pandemics. In fact, Africa’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have since the beginning of 2020 been at the forefront of articulating a set of norms and standards for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, including coordination of health expertise, knowledge sharing on medicines and vaccines, and boosting public health institutions. It will be important for these African initiatives to feed into an emerging global regime on pandemics.

If level-headed minds on either side of the US-China divide prevail, the resultant rapprochement would be good not just for Africa but for the world at large. If the rivalry escalates – and this is a likely scenario – African nations will have to walk a tightrope in deciding which of the two powers to align with. The choices African leaders make during and after the COVID-19 era merit a separate full-length discussion. We are of the view that the decision about which side to align with will be largely determined by the extent to which democratic ideals, developmental interests or other proclivities influence the decision-making processes of Africa’s governing elites. Tentatively and subject to further analysis, it would appear that most African leaders will be inclined more towards China than towards countries of the West for economic support, while leaning more towards countries of the West than towards China for normative governance.                                   

Gilbert M Khadiagala is the Jan Smuts Professor of International Relations and director of the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. He has previously taught comparative politics, African politics and international relations in Kenya, Canada and the United States. Prof. Khadiagala holds a doctorate in international studies from the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC. He is the editor of War and Peace in Africa’s Great Lakes Region (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and author of Regional Cooperation on Democratization and Conflict Management in Africa (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2018).

       Bob Wekesa is partnerships, research and communications coordinator at ACSUS. He holds master’s and doctoral degrees from the Communication University of China, Beijing. His area of teaching, research and public engagement is the intersection of journalism, media and communications on the one hand and geopolitics, diplomacy and foreign policy on the other. He supervises postgraduate projects in these fields.

     This essay originally appeared in Kujenga Amani, a publication of the Social Science Research Council (www.ssrc.org), as part of its ‘COVID-19 in Africa’ (kujenga-amani.ssrc.org/category/covid-19-in-africa) essay series.

*Third World Resurgence No. 345/346, 2020, pp 94-95


TWN  |  THIRD WORLD RESURGENCE |  ARCHIVE