Populism and the African Region: Potential Dangers

J.A. Doma

NDC Rally – Image by Jarreth Merz

Populism has taken flight throughout the world today, and despite an aggressive response primarily in the media, the populist movement has surged on. With recent European Parliamentary elections all but highlighting that far-right populist parties had become a mainstay in Europe as IvanKrastev has highlighted in the New York Times, one is compelled to imagine what a populist Europe means for the rest of the world. With the United States (U.S.) all but lost, except for a much-changed outcome in the 2020 presidential election, the global order and balance of power is most certain to be transformed, with the developing world once again being the greatest losers. Some of the consequences of growing populism throughout the world have been identified, for example, Max Bergmann, Carolyn Kenney, and Trevor Sutton have highlighted the dangers of the rise of far-right populism to global democracy and security. In particular, of concern to me is the potential impact of populism on the African region. While the liberals of the international community have failed to respond adequately to rising populist movements, there has been a subtle and quiet convergence of a coalition of the radicals. This coalition is set to upset the way things are done today, all to the detriment of the most disadvantaged regions of the world.

With the United States (U.S.) all but lost… the global order and balance of power is most certain to be transformed

Already, Paul Rogers and Richard Reeve in a report titled Climate Change, Populism and National Security have highlighted that many countries usually consider climate change (in)security in terms of how it directly affects national security. Today, many governments especially of the populist kind, have persistently understated the dangers posed by climate change. From current indications, the world may not be able to deliver on the agreements reached in Paris. Already, many African countries are negatively being impacted by a changing climate, with no African country possessing the resources and the ability to mitigate climate change, Africa’s hope solely rests on global action. However, global action will be difficult to attain when some of the world’s most influential nations are climate change cynics. A coalition of populist nations, driven by skepticism in climate change will greatly undermine efforts against climate change, and the first casualties will be regions who contribute little to no carbon emissions – African countries and other developing nations. Ian Dunlop and David Spratt’s recent climate change report has highlighted the horrors the world might face in the coming three decades if fast action is not taken. This implies that action to tackle populism must equally be implemented rapidly.

While we are able to infer Chinese intentions in the region, we will never be able to tell with all certainty what their objectives are.

Similarly, as populist nations continue to gain ground, and as they begin to adopt protectionist policies in international trade, once again the African region is left at the mercy of poor global economic choices. Sino-African relations today is at an all-time high, and has sparked intense debate on the intentions of the Chinese for Africans. Martin Wolf has argued in a Financial Times essay titled The Looming 100-year US-China conflict,that as America and possibly its allies in Europe continue to antagonize Beijing, the rest of the world is set to have to leave with the consequences. In the face of populism, African countries will find it impossible to resist Chinese advances. While numerous literatures have defended China-Africa engagements as a win-win, numerous others consider Beijing’s encroachment as neo-imperialist in nature. Presently, Trump’s America has greatly reduced aid to developing nations, rhetoric from western populist nations has further dampened the confidence of the global south in the global north, compelling developing states to see China as an increasingly more attractive partner. While we are able to infer Chinese intentions in the region, we will never be able to tell with all certainty what their objectives are. The west has continually served as an important check to Chinese advances in the African region, however, as these countries adopt more nationalistic values, their waning interest in Africa will pave the way for the Chinese to take full control of affairs.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, March 31, 2015

Once consequence of this will probably leave the region financially worse off. Historically, colonialism and imperialism has left the region underdeveloped, and its people in great poverty. If the Chinese were to thread similar paths as Africa’s colonial lords or imperialist partners, the region will further be underdeveloped. Furthermore, one is compelled to contemplate what a Chinese global leadership will imply for Africa’s growing and fragile democracy. The Chinese model has continually been mooted as an alternative path to growth and development for poor countries, in the face of neglect from western states, African nations maybe compelled to do away with democratic values believing that the Beijing system maybe more suitable to their developmental needs.

The political structure of the African region has always sought to emulate western nations, and has indeed made progress albeit gradually.

I am additionally curious as to how current populist trends would affect regional and global integrations. While the African Union (AU) and most especially the United Nations (UN), are not as politically integrated as the European Union (EU), their relevance nonetheless for the world and the African region can not be understated. Britain has begun processes of formally exiting the EU, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally Party has unequivocally vowed to attempt to withdraw France from the European organization, many more governments have hinted on their desire to leave the EU. However, writing in the Washington Post, Chico Harlan has suggested that after watching the strenuous processes Britain has undergone in an attempt to leave the EU, many countries seem to have had a change of heart on taking a similar path. With a possible coalition of radical western nations gradually and silently emerging, united by their nationalistic sentiments, harsh immigration policies, and an aversion to integration, the chances of European disintegration persists. The political structure of the African region has always sought to emulate western nations, and has indeed made progress albeit gradually. With the collapse of the EU and a weakened UN, African states would be left lost and looking to be rescued.

J. A. Doma holds a BA in Politics and International Relations from Lancaster University Ghana. Doma is a scholar of African politics, and is currently a volunteer advocate for the implementation of SDGs in Nigeria. Doma is seeking to pursue an MA around International Relations, Security, Conflict and Peace.

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