The Paleoglobalist is a a new column by Disposable Words founder and co-editor Austin Andrews. Every second Wednesday, The Paleoglobalist will turn to the site of a world event abandoned prematurely by the twenty-four hour news cycle, attempting to answer the question: “and then what happened?”
When Africa votes the world watches, though rarely for long enough to play a meaningful part in its outcome. Indeed, of all the narratives to emerge out of postcolonial Africa, few have been fetishised to quite the same extent as the West’s obsession with democracy on the continent. The global news media, beaten into a default setting of paternalism by a five-decade tide of misguided public sympathy, has been all too ready to recycle the broad strokes of the same ready-made story no matter the fit. While details and B-roll do get swapped out, the players are regularly shoehorned into a perfectly six o’clock-ready story of heroes, foes and, increasingly, the reluctant frenemies of shared-power governments and regional economic blocs.
This has played out twice in recent months to a strikingly similar tune, in Côte d’Ivoire and Sudan, and was in both cases hurried off the world stage before the first act had wound down. But despite contriving to tell each story from the same pool of images familiar to a public weaned on an Africa of strongmen and starvation, it would be difficult to find two stories involving ballot boxes more different than these.
In the wake of its botched presidential runoff last November, several images from Côte d’Ivoire had onlookers transfixed by virtue of their outrageousness. Even with allegations of fraud and widespread voter intimidation, incumbent Laurent Gbagbo still managed to lose the popular vote—placing him in a select group of despots so unpopular they can’t even win their own rigged election. Then he announced that, no, he did in fact win, and, yes, he would remain in power. Opposition leader Alassane Ouattara attempted to claim the presidency from the luxury hotel-turned-fortress command centre that his party was—and still is—confined to, a latter-day Bastille where helicopter is the only way in or out. But the public’s appetite for novelty in an obscure West African country with a name that few could pronounce lasted about as long as one might expect, and when stalemate emerged as the most likely short-term outcome most newsrooms understandably fixed their gazes elsewhere. Stalemate on this continent, as demonstrated by Kenya and Zimbabwe, can last for years.
But that was four months ago and the first ripples of post-election tension in Côte d’Ivoire have given way to burst-main ruptures of civil war. The death toll from political violence has risen sharply with each passing month, and at 435 people it’s already more than a tenth of the final tally from the region’s last major conflict. That was the country’s civil war of 2002–2007, fought under Gbagbo’s watch, a period still too fresh in the minds of most of the 90,000-odd people who have fled in recent months to the relative safety of Côte d’Ivoire’s neighbours. “Relative” is the key word here, however, and when those neighbouring countries include Liberia and Guinea, both teetering on their own precipices of varying widths, there’s little doubt the threat is serious.
The parallels between the situation in Côte d’Ivoire and that of Africa’s current headline-monger Libya are legion. The defining feature of each are stories of long-serving presidents violently oppressing a restless people to hold onto power in the face of UN and African Union condemnation. But where in Libya social media- and cable news-led scrutiny have led to decisive international intervention, in Côte d’Ivoire the eye that the world turned towards it in November has gone blind. Côte d’Ivoire lacks Libya’s strategic importance, and its chief export—cacao—has rather less sex appeal than Brother Leader’s oil. Short of its people storming Ouattara’s Bastille and taking Gbagbo down by force, which would hardly be the panacea it may appear to be, France’s former jewel of West Africa seems destined to slip into another of the anonymous civil wars that rise and fall with the seasons here.
The story has turned out rather differently in Sudan, where this year’s election wasn’t an election at all but a referendum on whether its future shape would include one country or two. But here it’s what hasn’t happened in the nine weeks since the south voted to secede that’s been the real story. With the so-called Spring Revolution sweeping through the Arab world, Sudan’s Islamic north has been conspicuously quiet. There have been scattered rumblings, like when Islamist opposition leader Hassan al Turabi was arrested in January for threatening Tunisia-style revolt, but little has materialised.
While simply being Arab isn’t reason enough alone to expect uprising, a cursory glance at Sudan shows a situation that’s late-autumn ripe and ready to drop from the tree.
Before Tunisia, this was the last Arab country to jettison a ruler through popular protests, when in 1985 tens of thousands of people took to the streets en masse in a coordinated effort that sent failed populist Gaffari Nimeiry packing. After a brief flirtation with democracy, Omar al-Bashir is who they ended up with. The ageing dictator, who came to power in a 1989 coup, is now almost as much a villain at home as abroad. He presided over the large-scale dismantling of middle class social infrastructure, the most effective in a years-long line of measures design to slow the growth of opposition, and for sixteen years failed to end a civil war that by its closing chapter had killed nearly two million. The peace deal that was brokered in 2005 is fragile.
But the stories emerging from the countries to Sudan’s north have stressed the “Arab” Egypt and the “Arab” Tunisia, not the “African” one, and it’s in this simple geographical divide where some answers might be found. Unlike its neighbours to the north, sub-Saharan Sudan is geopolitically African through and through. Simple computer access is out of the reach of most of its population, to say nothing of enablers like Facebook and Twitter (though in a characteristically preposterous statement, President al-Bashir last month promised “internet, computers and Facebook” to all his supporters). With few alternatives to the state-run media, it’s not just the organisation of protests that becomes difficult but instilling the need for them at all.
Also unlike Egypt, which counts the United States as its top trading partner, and Libya, which for years has acted as a petrol pump to the developed world, targeted economic sanctions have effectively removed the West from Sudan’s day-to-day life. One of the African Union’s most isolated states, Sudan has little responsibility to the West and behaves accordingly. In the void that’s opened up as a result, China has deftly and predictably stepped in, filling not just a trade role but, increasingly, that of mentor as well.
Indeed for all the talk of an Africa run by Africans, China has been the five hundred kilogram dragon in many nations’ corners, asserting its newfound economic prowess in the form of a resource takeover that resembles neocolonialism in everything but the title deed. Without enough resources at home to fuel its 11 per cent year-on-year industrial growth for much longer, China has turned its sights on the untapped resource bases of central Africa. With perennial basket cases like Equatorial Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo hungrier for foreign investment than legitimacy, the deals that Chinese concerns have struck in recent years with the parastatals of otherwise-blockaded African nations must have legislation-tied Western multinationals salivating. Never mind that the deals often mean placating the ruling kleptocrats with arms shipments and token infrastructure projects to keep the oil and coal moving freely. Where the West has lectured and condemned, China has cashed in.
So despite the fist-pumping proclamations of this being “Africa’s Century”, the casual observer would be forgiven for mistaking the Africa of 2011 for the Africa of 1981. The governments are as big and bad as ever, although they may not all be in the same places or—where they are—have the same names as they did thirty years ago. There have been breakthroughs, most notably in South Africa and Ghana, but for every Uganda that ends there’s been a Somalia or Zimbabwe waiting in the wings. Democracy may be what the world says it wants for Africa, but if it continues to take this form for much longer the term stands to lose what support it has left among Africans.