This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on March 19, 2017
It had been brewing for years, but was fully exposed last year when Brexit happened. It was bolstered by Donald Trump being elected as the President of the United States, growing popularity of Le Pen in France and now Geert Wilders, the Dutch right-wing politician who wanted to be Holland’s next Prime Minister. While celebrating Trump’s victory, Sarah Palin termed it a movement. What is it? The growing popularity of a specific strain of right wing politics in Europe and the United States.
Sitting in Africa there seem to be common threads that run through this ‘movement’; it’s anti-Islam and selectively anti-immigration with a specific strain of aggressive (white) nationalism. It also comes across as racist, self-involved and insular. Europe and the United States have grown weary of taking care of the world, the rhetoric argues, having sacrificed the welfare of ‘real’ Americans and Europeans at the altar of immigration, laissez faire economics (the Chinese are taking over!) and generous aid packages to under-developed (and corrupt) continents such as Africa.
Naturally right wing populism is making some in African capitals jittery. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) heavily rely on Europe and North American organisations for financing, which, they argue, allows them to engage in activities that alleviate poverty, protect the vulnerable, and fight for human rights and good governance on the continent. Kenya was one of Africa’s top Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) destinations in 2015 with key investors coming from the USA, UK and the Netherlands. Large companies from Europe and the United States have also set up shop across the continent buoyed by the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative (now somewhat battered) and the growing African middle class. And military and security support from Europe and the USA have been important for countries such as Kenya currently trying to fight Al-Shabaab.
Just as Africa was starting to be seen as more than a basket-case of poverty and poor governance by Europe and the USA, just as the continent was beginning to be perceived as a serious and attractive destination for investment, right wing populism stepped in and changed everything. Some Africans worry aid from the US and some of Europe will drop; in fact last week State Department staffers in the USA were instructed to seek cuts in excess of 50 percent for funding UN programs. And the combination of the economic recovery of the USA coupled with right wing populism juxtaposed with slowing economic growth in Africa may relegate Africa to the periphery of investment once more. Right wing populism wants to Make America/Britain/the Netherlands/France great/ours again; and it seems continents such as Africa will be very low on the ‘to do’ list.
However, there is another side to the story. Gone are the days where African economies were dominated by western metropoles. We now live in a multipolar world where countries such as China and India have become important economic partners for Africa. Research from a French research institute indicates that the share of Europe in Africa’s total trade has steadily declined from around 68 percent in 1990 to 41 percent in 2016. Asia has surpassed Europe as Africa’s biggest trading partner, accounting for around 45 percent of the continent’s total trade. And while some of Kenya’s top FDI investors were from Europe and the USA, key investors also came from India, Japan and China.
And it must be stated, frankly, that some Africans are relieved by the growing insularity in Europe and the USA; perhaps now those countries will have less impetus to meddle in African affairs and focus on their own domestic issues. Older Africans have not forgotten how the UK and USA in particular took out post-colonial African leaders such as Lumumba and Sankara and many modern Africans are not ashamed of being Africans; in fact we revel in Africa’s culture and newfound economic dynamism.
So while the growing popularity of (extreme) right wing politics may negatively affect the continent in some ways, let Africans also leverage the reality of a multipolar world. As some retreat into self-involvement and insularity, let the continent intelligently engage the many who are still seated at the table.
Anzetse Were is a development economist; firstname.lastname@example.org