Opinion: Justin Trudeau shouldn’t rely on Africa’s ‘Big Men’

Opinion: Justin Trudeau shouldn’t rely on Africa’s ‘Big Men’

Special to The Globe and Mail

Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey is an assistant professor at McGill University.

Etienne Mashuli is a Gates-Cambridge PhD scholar at the University of Cambridge.

In 2015, they launched the Tujenge Africa Foundation, a skills development and peace-building organization in Burundi, one of the world’s poorest countries.

There are 50 dictatorships in the world; nearly half are in Africa.

Canada cannot expect dictators, who have no accountability, to champion women’s rights, let alone the rule of law.

It is partly for this reason why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s high-profile mission to court UN Security Council votes at the African Union (AU) sent the wrong message. Mr. Trudeau missed an opportunity to reset relations with African states and engage the continent and its peoples meaningfully.

The misguided courtship of African leaders – many of whom have appalling track records on human rights, press freedom, anti-corruption, yet aspire to be presidents for life – will draw the Trudeau government into the “benevolent authoritarianism” trap. This approach to foreign policy, which subordinates democratic values and moral authority in favour of propping up imaginary benevolent strong men, will safeguard the status quo, rendering as empty rhetoric Canada’s progressive pronouncements.

Benevolent authoritarianism is how China portrays itself and how it perceives Africa’s ruthless dictators. The China model has enormous traction among these leaders, because it requires zero accountability where the governed or environment are concerned. It is hardly surprising, then, that ordinary Africans have come to regard the AU – whose headquarters China built in Addis Ababa – as the dictators’ den.

Political scientist Thomas Tieku has pointed out that the AU serves the interests of the ruling elite, while it ignores the tremendous hardships that face the masses. On balance, the AU has helped with conflict management and resolution on the continent, but it remains hamstrung by violent extremism from West to East Africa and intractable refugee flows, among other humanitarian crises that bedevil the continent.

Although Africa’s middle class is growing and living standards are slowly improving, many Africans remain poor. They are subjected to de facto economic caste that keeps them in a perpetual state of living hand-to-mouth without any viable means of achieving upward mobility.

As Africans, we, along with countless others in the 1980s and 1990s, were robbed of stable childhoods. Instead, we experienced first-hand abject poverty and hopelessness, coup d’états and military dictatorships, wars and genocides.

The vast majority of African leaders continue to be depressingly disappointing, failing to live up to the ethics of visionaries and freedom fighters – such as Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Thomas Sankara, to name a few. Neo-colonialism – from Western-aided coups to structural adjustment of African economies to the continuing looting of minerals in the Congo Basin and elsewhere – is also blameworthy. Western intelligence agencies, after all, helped topple and or assassinate these four exemplary African leaders and many others.

Canada must pivot swiftly from an ineffective foreign policy that places too much faith in Africa’s “Big Men,” authoritarian leaders who do not have legitimacy to govern, but instead rule with an iron fist while enjoying a cult of personality at home and elite patronage abroad.

What is the purpose of Canada’s 70-year legacy of pursuing (albeit an imperfect) liberal internationalism that is rooted in moral authority if Canada is not concerned about poor people in Africa who lack a fundamental right to peace and security, quality education, self-determination and, ultimately, self-actualization?

Privileging those who are most vulnerable should be a top priority in Canada’s foreign policy. Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, said the real threat to global security was not communism, fascism, or even nuclear war, but rather that “very large sections of the world go to bed hungry every night and large sections of our society do not find fulfilment.”

When it comes to Canada’s foreign policy in Africa, the elder Trudeau’s perceptive remark about human dignity and self-actualization should serve as our guiding principle. (It is also a sensible and humanistic approach to Canadian public and social policy.)

In addition to empowering women and girls and promoting democratic values – such as the rule of law, freedom of speech and of the press, and ethnic and religious pluralism – Canada can champion entrepreneurship and innovation. Supercharging our efforts to help Africans incubate their own talent and ideas, and identifying future labour-market skills and the training to acquire those skills, will go a long way to unfetter African creativity, jumpstart prosperity from below, and encourage Africans to nation-build and transform their own societies.

Indeed, we must prioritize Africa’s youth: 70 per cent of Africa’s population is under the age of 30. Sociologist Marc Sommers’s research shows that Africa’s strong men, at best, view the youth with suspicion and, at worst, manipulate them as instruments of violence and extremism. Our work in postgenocide Burundi is a testament that, when prioritized and given a fighting chance, African youth can acquire coveted skills and drive innovation and positive change.

If Canada and other countries fail to inaugurate a wholesome foreign policy in Africa, the highly anticipated African Renaissance will continue to elude the international community.

Furthermore, we must stop pretending that an overwhelming number of Africans – who are young, impoverished, anxious and devoid of institutional power or political representation – will wait idly on the margins as oligarchs and kleptocrats maintain the status quo with the tacit approval of their Western and non-Western enablers.

The more destabilized Africa becomes and the more desperate ordinary Africans feel, the likelier that many will turn to armed struggle or extremism or daring attempts to reach the shores of Southern Europe. This confluence could be our collective death knell.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.