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Ideas & Debate

African ‘agency’ crucial as foreigners court continent

China’s President Xi Jinping (centre) with
China’s President Xi Jinping (centre) with African government leaders including Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta as they attend the Forum On China-Africa Co-operation - Round Table Conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on September 4, 2018. PHOTO | AFP 

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar organised by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) on African agency in the context of Sino-African relations. What became clear over the course of the conversation is that African agency is important in any relationship the continent has with others.

‘African agency’ partly drawn from the paper by SAIIA, can be defined as Africa’s ability to make independent decisions, strengthen its bargaining power and pursue its interests. There are several issues of note.

Firstly, there are numerous centres of African agency; government, private sector, civil society, communities, and academia and think tanks for example. And within each of the centres are sub-centres where specific thematic areas of interest and priorities emerge. Further, each centre of agency has differing abilities to exercise and voice their agency.

African governments, due to the way modern countries are structured, are often the most obvious centre of agency. And foreign governments use African governments as key centres of interaction thereby amplifying the power of the agency of African governments. However, the agency of African governments may not necessarily reflect the interests and priorities of African public’s as a whole. A key example is with regard to the increase in public debt across the continent.

In my view this is a direct reflection of the debt appetite and agency of African governments, not African public’s. In countries like Kenya, there is clear disgruntlement with how this government agency is being used to accrue public debt in a context of financial mismanagement and corruption.

Secondly, African agency is not always a good thing; agency can be predatory or emancipatory. For instance, certain segments of the African private sector routinely exercise their agency to contribute to illicit financial outflows from the continent. In short, certain elements of African private sector exercise their agency in a predatory manner that denies Africans of revenue that should rightly be theirs. Thus, just because an African actor is exercising agency, one cannot assume that this it is good for the continent.

Thirdly, because there are so many different types of actors with agency in Africa, there can be disagreement within Africa as to whose agency is best for the continent. Further, because there are so many centres of agency, their interests can be pitted against each other. For example, African governments can disagree with each other and exercise their agency in manners that undercut each other, and the agency of certain elements of private sector may not align with the interests of government, for example.

Thus, it is crucial that different African actors understand the importance of being clear as to what their priorities are and expect resistance for other African actors. This is not to say there are no key issues on which some consensus can be found but the effort to create this has to be deliberate as it will likely not emerge organically.

Finally, African agency is growing in importance as the continent functions in a world where not only China is demonstrating interest in Africa, other developing economies from Asia, Gulf States and South America are too.

Further, Africa’s traditional partners in the forms of Europe and North America are re-focusing on Africa as a key point of interest. Thus, let Africans know that they will only be heard if they are organised, because it is only through deliberate organisation that key agents of interests from Africa will emerge.

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