When Rex Tillerson toured some of Africa’s “shithole” countries

When, now former Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, announced his five-day tour to Africa, I was a little skeptical as to how this trip would go given the alleged comments made regarding Africa’s “shithole” countries. Little did I know that this trip would end with the African Union failing to address the statements that caused anger and hurt and Tillerson getting fired immediately upon his return to the U.S. Still, this trip raised several questions about the role of the U.S. and China in Africa along with the issue of accountability of African leaders. Whose opinion matters most? Read my thoughts on these issues here. 

Zimbabwe’s Democracy and the African Union’s Legitimacy

This year, over 20 African countries will hold presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections. At a time where democracy is on the decline, these elections matter significantly insofar as what they mean for the consolidation of democracy in African countries. Each of these elections raise concerns as to whether the process will be peaceful or plagued by violence. Of these elections, eight (Egypt, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Mali, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Libya) have been highlighted as ones to watch as they mark critical political shifts in these countries.

In Libya’s case, the African Union (AU) has already expressed its concern regarding the country’s preparedness to hold elections this year. Despite also acknowledging the “complex political, security and legislative challenges to holding such a vote”, the United Nations (UN) expressed its willingness to assist with the process due to the “support for elections among Libyans”. For Zimbabwe, this will be the first election in 37 years in which Robert Mugabe will not be participating following his resignation in November 2017. Though his resignation was not considered a coup by the AU, Mugabe has claimed that his removal from the presidency was “unconstitutional” and that the upcoming election would not be free and fair. The irony of this escapes no one. Here is a man that sat in office for 37 years and systematically destroyed his opposition where the only one willing to stand up to him was, the now late, Morgan Tsvangirai.

Mugabe reiterated his claim that he was ousted by unconstitutional means when he met with AU Commission Chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, in Harare. He called Mnangagwa’s government illegal and for the AU to help “restore normalcy and democracy in Zimbabwe” which he later reiterated at his 94th birthday party. According to Mugabe, the issues surrounding Zimbabwe’s upcoming elections, given the illegitimacy of the government, along with the presence of the military in politics, will undermine the freedom and fairness of the process. This is the tense political background against which the 2018 election will take place.

Still, the African Union (AU) remains firm in its position that what occurred in November was not a coup and has promised to provide assistance in preparation for Zimbabwe’s election. The AU has assured the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) that it will “send a team to work with ZEC before and after the elections” and “mobilize partners to finance the process and give technical assistance to help prepare and run the elections between 30 and 45”. Mahamat stated that he was encouraged by the fact that the Mnangagwa has expressed the country’s commitment to holding ‘free and fair’ elections. Keeping in mind the AU’s role, it seeks to take the lead on this process indicating its continued commitment to rebuilding Zimbabwe’s democracy. However, the reliance on external partners harkens back to the question of the AU’s capacity to do so.

The AU’s Election Observation Manual establishes that all elections on the continent, in response to Kenya’s experience in 2008, would be subject to election monitoring, regardless of whether a formal invitation from the member state was received. Given this mandate, the continental body has regularly monitored elections in Zimbabwe. What makes this election even more unique is that President Emmerson Mnangagwa has welcomed the monitoring by Western election observers: The European Union, Commonwealth, and the United Nations. This position is a direct challenge to Mugabe’s longstanding ban of western election observers who he called “imperialists”. Concerns regarding Mugabe’s government were met with strong reactions by his regime where, in 2008, spokesperson George Charamba went as far to say that “[The Western countries] can go and hang a thousand times, they have no basis, they have no claim on Zimbabwe politics at all”.  Last year, in reference to west-funded non-governmental organizations monitoring the 2018 elections, Mugabe told journalists: “We don’t need them. We are saying no. We are going have elections in 2018 and we are going to say no to the whites”. In addition to welcoming observers, Mnangagwa mentioned the country’s willingness to rejoin the Commonwealth following Mugabe’s departure in 2003 after the organization suspended Zimbabwe following its problematic elections in 2002.

What this situation calls into question is whether the AU will take a position on this after lauding Mugabe’s departure as “an act of statesmanship that can only bolster President Mugabe’s political legacy” and welcoming Mnangagwa as having been chosen by the people. For an organization that is clear on its position towards non-constitutional transitions of power, the lack of forthrightness on this issue raises many questions and reminds us to pay careful attention to the other elections being held in difficult states and how this reflects upon the AU’s expressed commitments. In preparation for the 2018 elections, there is considerable pressure on the AU to maintain an objective stance on Zimbabwe. The organization’s verdict on the election will be critical in establishing Zimbabwe’s democratic trajectory and as an indicator of the AU’s relevance and resilience.

Bringing Africa Back In

“Bringing the State Back In” is a seminal work by Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (1985) that challenged the dominant paradigms in the study of comparative politics that failed to view states as autonomous, with a capacity to operate as individual actors in the political game. In the introductory chapter, Skocpol (1985: 3-37) discusses the need to reevaluate the role that the state plays in politics. When reading this work in my first semester of graduate school, I was struck by how I had always taken the state’s role in politics for granted. Growing up in Africa, the state is visible. Leaders faces are plastered, not only in government buildings, but at grocery stores (large and small), schools, hotels, etc. So how do you “bring a state in” when it’s all around you? It was interesting to see how these authors were challenging existing paradigms by asking scholars to rethink who the actors were. Thinking critically about this issue of the state  once not being viewed a central actor in comparative politics theory got me thinking about Africa and its place in the world. Even though this text was published 30 years ago, the sentiment still rings true. As a continent, it is often taken for granted and efforts made immediately labelled as ineffective but what are the roles of African states vis-à-vis the other players in the game that is international politics? Even in a more weakened position (for lack of a better term) what are these countries doing to make a mark on global politics, both at a continental level and abroad? And what role to international organizations play in this whole situation?

Africa is redefining its place in the international community, namely through the increased visibility of the multiple international organizations on the continent. Despite the constant challenging of organizations such as the African Union (AU), Southern African Development Community (SADC), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to name a few, these international bodies are playing a role in multiple areas – social, cultural, economic, and political. While the nature of their involvement can be disputed, it exists and must be assessed.

Going through all the literature for my dissertation sparked several thoughts that have ended up as scribbles on the side of my notebook. Considering this, I’ve decided to recommit to blogging these ideas and incorporate these ideas into what I observe on the daily basis. This blog stems from thoughts I want to expand on, articles that I read, debates sparked on Twitter or in the comment sections of various news outlets, and honestly any source of inspiration. As more people begin to ask these questions, conversation is imminent and “bringing Africa back in” is definitely a conversation that anyone interested in African politics, and international politics, should be having.

So, I leave you with one thought: Who, what, and where is Africa in international relations?

[Reposted from a previous version of this website]