Why Africa taking on the West over Mugabe is a Bad Idea

Writing in the South African newspaper Business Day, Thami Mazwai, says that Africans must back up their demands for the West to drop their sanctions against Zimbabwe by detailing what action SADC and the African Union will do if sanctions are not dropped. Mazwai compares the West’s refusal to accept the results to Hamas’ win in Palestine and says that African leaders should unify in the same way they have ‘stood their ground’ on the matter of Omar al-Bashir’s arrest warrant from the ICC.

Fortunately, this view isn’t shared by others at Business Day (above), but it does continue a pan-African narrative that dates to the liberation era which has been co-opted into a pro-dictator narrative in recents times. It builds upon the idea that Africans must unite as a whole in order to fulfill their liberation mission of removing the hold that slavery and colonialism has on the economy and society of the continent. This was an effective communicative technique in the 20th century – Africa was the underdog both before and after colonialism. The need to rally as a cohesive and stronger whole, thus forming a larger bloc of actors at the UN, as part of the Non-Aligned Movement. It also worked in defeating Apartheid South Africa.

But the issues that faced newly liberated African states in the middle of the 20th Century were much simpler than today – climate change, free trade, political development, technological innovation, and health crises don’t have moral imperatives likes slavery and colonialism. These issues are not black and white (the ones that are, such as freedom of expression challenge the domestic govt’s power so those are left to the side).

Mazwai doesn’t recognize this fact in his call to back Mugabe. Africa is not a homogenous nation – while their are theoretical linkages in the societies between similar colonial experiences, a black South African is just as likely to have more in common with a someone from Britain than from Senegal.  Thus, calling for a unified bloc is hard enough but to back a tyrannical leader against punititive sanctions surely would only damage the reputation of African organizations and states further. We must not forget that repercussions still exist from Dictators’ Club of the old OAU and its refusal to condemn auhuman rights abuses.

However,  the narrative in calling for unity behind a fellow African leader resonates for some. This only makes issues worse for Africans on the global stage because of the idea that African states will stand behind each other no matter their transgressions. This damages the moral standing and rhetorical arguments made by African leaders on other issues. If other countries view the African bloc as a unified group that will never condemn one another, Africa’s ability to negotiate and stand firm will be damaged. Similarities abound to how white colonists or slave owners stood together to prevent the end of the system that benefited them.

This is not to say Sub-Sahara Africa countries should not work together – they should. But the issues upon which to form a continental bloc are specific – not the default stance taken by African leaders. To do so would not strengthen Africa’s power in the world, it could set it back even further.

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African Diplomacy: Overview of a Project

African Union MapMy latest project originally sought to understand African diplomacy from a true realist IR perspective. Of course that’s ironic, because IR realists rarely acknowledge the pull or influence that diplomacy (or Africa) has on the IR field. My goal was to understand if there could be any benefit to African nations by pooling their diplomatic representation through a body such as the African Union, rather than conducting their own individual missions abroad. Why staff a small embassy with inexperienced diplomats when a nation could leverage the power of the entire continent and have the best and brightest African diplomats representing their collective needs? Again this runs a tad contrary to realist thinking who usually dismiss the supranational organizations of the world of holding any real power. However, I’m of the believe that in the future these bodies will be the real power holders in IR theory and practice.

Of course, this idea of a African foreign service would sound very similar to the European External Action Service that has come into being with the signing of the Lisbon Treaty in the European Union. There are now two tiers of European diplomacy: national diplomats from individual countries & EU diplomats representing the organs of the supranational body. The African Union, while modeled on the EU in some circumstances (though it was mostly a recasting of the Organization of African Unity while combining the economic capabilites of the African Economic Community and taking its mandate and supplanting it with NEPAD), the AU has yet to develop a pan-African diplomatic service. Thus I was very curious if there would be a way to argue for and against such a diplomatic organ of the AU. As it turned out, predictably, there is very little research into this idea, and while I had thought to expand my comparison to ASEAN, most papers focused on the integrationist desires, not the benefits of a collaborative foreign service, that diplomats or the diplomatic corps in supranational capitals (Brussels, Addis Ababa, and Jakarta). Thus I turned to the wide ranging literature on regional integration for my project to see how the move towards integration on the continent compares to the EU and ASEAN and what impact that would have on the respective diplomatic powers.

AU Emblem

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Africa’s Technological Potential

I recently discussed ICT in Africa with practioners in the field during a recent morning, and had a realization shortly after about why I have a passion for Africa and for ICT. Because it can be hard to talk about my interest in the continent, I usually brush the question off on ‘Why Africa?’.

I’ve realized since the beginning of my interest, that for a young white male American to have an fixation on the continent is a fact many people find perplexing. African Studies on a whole is a threatened discipline in the United States, and I certainly don’t give off the vibe that I believe most people expect an Africanist to exude.

Another European Church

I’ve often told people that, having been taken to nearly every castle and church in western and eastern Europe as a child by my parents that I wanted something new to explore as I grew older. While it makes seem like Africa was just something to study, in reality it initially was a process of elimination (I had no interest in Asian studies, I didn’t feel I spoke enough Spanish to take up Latin American studies, and saw little future as an American specialist). However, since then, the interest that I hold in the continent has grown into a passion. It is still hard to describe why the passion exists, but I realized what captivates me about the continent: its potential.

Working in the tech industry in Los Angeles exposed me to a huge cross-section of society each day. It has been an eye opening experience to interact with different people from various socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. I’ve been able to see how there is a universal joy when it comes to using certain pieces of technology, or discovering a new way to do the things easier with technology. However, I’ve also seen a perplexing amount of trepidation, hesitation, and disinterest in the uses of technology. While this might mean you conjure up an image of an elderly American, in fact, just as many young people fail to get the most out of their technology. And when we as Americans do utilize our technology it often serves as a purpose for distraction or entertainment.

I see this hesitation and fear of learning the by-product of the Microsoft-led PC-era, where IT departments were set up to support to a workforce that was forced to embrace technology, rather than empower the users. Still, using computers was seen as dull and monotonous. This relatively forgotten video makes the best critique of the era of the Personal Computer.

While the term ‘nerd’ is no longer in vogue, the pejorative nature of the term has lost some of its cultural significance. However, I believe this lingering stereotype has still impacted the willingness of people to dive into and explore new technology. Technology is increasing being used not only to solve old problems and processes, but allow us to think and imagine in new ways. With this potential, why are there people who call themselves ‘tech-illiterate’. I think of that as an excuse used by people to excuse them from learning. Why would anyone want an excuse to not learn?! Learning is one of the most enjoyable, rewarding, and fulfilling joys of life.

The classic modern/traditional ICT picture

The potential that Africa possesses is the fact that it avoided this debilitating PC-era. There is unlikely anyone on the continent who would describe themselves as ‘not tech-literate’. This term isn’t acceptable. For example for many, the ability to use a mobile phone to conduct your business, to send money, to receive money is crucial to their lives. This reality is not realized by many in the west who are able to coast along on legacy processes and technology.

This is where Africa’s potential gives it the greatest competitive advantage in the world. If you were to hand a multi-touch tablet to a young African, rich or poor, he or she has unlikely used or owned one before. Yet, the ability to touch, manipulate, and input data with their fingers would be extremely intuitive, just as with any young person around the world. The reason is many of the adults of the continent have lacked access to personal computers. While PC-penetration has skyrocketed in the past decade, there’s no institutional memory of using unnatural data inputs like a mouse and keyboard that exists like there does in Europe and the United States.

The uses and applications for technology in Africa are part of the final piece of the potential that I see. When I see how parents are increasingly using technology as a substitute for parenting or conversation in the US, I wonder whether this is setting the child up for success, or crippling his or her ability to have the skills to one day apply their creativity in designing new technology. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with games or social networking apps, if it is taking the place of opportunities to build skills that foster creativity: group collaboration, critical thinking, or problem solving, I fear that the future will not meet its potential. While its amazing to watch a child pick up the nuances of Cut the Rope, I wonder what this is teaching them.

I see the applications being made on the continent as being more about solving the problems that have inhibited Africa’s growth which means overcoming certain logistical, budgetary, or geographical problems. While not all of them are going to be as meaningful or well promoted as those from Apps4Africa, I believe the upbringing that is experienced by a majority of Africans will cause them to focus on creating technology that will continue Africa’s trajectory of growth and property, rather than the first African killer app being an addictive game.

This possibility of technology to have a positive and significant impact on development on the continent is what drives my current passion. Seeking out opportunities to increase these possibilities for change and growth in Africa is the mission I’ve adopted. Handing a mobile phone to someone is not going to instantly bring about growth, improved health, and good governance. People need to be able to make the apps and services that will do these things.There needs to be local content and cultural relevance for any ICT product that wishes to succeed. Developers need to be in touch with culture, society, and the history of the people who are the target audience for their app, or their hardware. This is where the melding of the humanities with the tech industry can serve to propel development on the continent.

The knowledge of an area’s history, politics, and culture can be the difference maker when it comes to providing and applying technological solutions. Without it, you fail to understand your potential customers and the market as a whole. While we would like to believe that globalization is making all those who use technology into a homogenous culture of YouTube watchers, Netflix renters, and App downloaders, the underpinnings of culture will provide obstacles for those who seek to enter new markets into the foreseeable future.

Africa’s underdevelopment has hindered progress in many areas. However, for once, the lack of a PC-culture on the continent may provide a unexpected advantage. With the future in mobile technology, and in new, more intuitive interfaces, Africa has the long-term advantage. With technology being seen as a gateway to prosperity on the continent, it will not be long until Africa out innovates the world.

Rebranding in Action: The African Week in Review

Despite the positive response to the launch of a weekly recap of African tech, political, and sporting news, after review of the project I realized that I needed to figure out a way to separate it from other news sources and blogs, while also giving it a brand that could help it prosper. Also, making sure I don’t rely on the auto-correct, will help with the success (see below):

Auto-correct in action

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