Economic diplomacy in Africa

Isaac Mpho Mogotsi says lumpen, dependent and collapsing states predominate on continent

Karl Marx once said that human history is like paleontology, for a long time even the best intelligences fail to see what is before their very noses, and then all of a sudden everything becomes obvious. The recent growing interest in our country and abroad in economic diplomacy in Africa reminds one of this Marxist analogy with paleontology: the great potential of economic diplomacy in Africa has for too long stared us back from under our very noses.

And now, all of a sudden, a lot of things are becoming clearer. Bear in mind that the very first paragraph of Henry Kissinger's epic book, "Diplomacy", makes this very bold and sweeping assertion:

"Almost as if according to some natural law, in every century there seems to emerge a country with the power, the will, and the intellectual and moral impetus to shape the entire international system in accordance with its own values."

There is no doubt that China is currently the country that has emerged in this new century with the power, the will, and the intellectual as well as moral impetus to shape the entire international system, even if not so much in accordance with its own China-specific values. What is it that the African continent, or a willing African country candidate for world pre-eminence, can do to offer itself, for a millennial change, to be such a game-changer to the international system? 

Is there a role for economic diplomacy in Africa for such a possible African global centurion leadership role?

Adam Smith once said that "little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and tolerable administration of justice..."

This Adam Smith theory has not been of much use to Africans because, up to now, we have failed to unlock the potential of economic diplomacy in Africa. Africa, with the possible exception of a few of its democratic countries, has enjoyed neither peace, nor tolerable administration of justice, or easy taxes, or the highest degree of opulence. The contrary is true.


It seems clear that in Africa Adam Smith has to be dethroned through economic diplomacy in Africa. But what is the meaning of economic diplomacy in Africa?

Nicholas Bayne and Stephen Woolcock of the London School of Economics (LSE) say, in their "The New Economic Diplomacy", that "in some respects economic diplomacy is like sex,  easier to describe if you have practised it goes much wider than foreign ministries...Within government, economic diplomacy is less and less the preserve of closed circles of officials."

But Africa cannot and should not accept Bayne and Woolcock's postulation that "economic diplomacy is concerned with international economic issues" primarily. Nor should we accept their formulation that they "take economic diplomacy to embrace the whole spectrum of measures from informal negotiation and cooperation, through soft types of regulation (such as codes of conduct), to the creation and enforcement of binding rules or regime" only.

This is a very reductionist and State-centric conceptualisation of economic diplomacy in Africa. Rather, economic diplomacy in Africa should go way beyond being concerned with international economic issues only, or being State-centric, to developing a capacity in Africans to view international and domestic developments through the prism of a triangulation of governance, social and economic cohesion and sustainability, and sustainable Statecraft.

Traditional and conventional understanding of economic diplomacy, as popularised by the London School of Economics academics, (Bayne and Woolcock), on the subject, who, apparently, are still heavily influenced by, and under the spell of, the theories of Adam Smith, consigns Africa to continuing marginalisation, subservience and dependence; because of Africa's current weak and dependent position in the international system.

In addition, an over-emphasis on the State role, in circumstances where African States are weak and fragile, or lack integrative internal State cohesion, dynamism and self-renewal, is to trap Africa in a corner of perpetual weakness from which it can hardly escape. What is even more of a constraint is that Africa, for the most part, lacks robust, independent and developed capitalist, or even middle, classes, except in a few African countries. So the challenge to vigorously mediate and engage with traditional international economic issues is limited to, and dumbed down on, the failing and failed majority African States.

What predominates in Africa are lumpen, dependent and collapsing states that lack capacity to adequately mediate and engage with the international system, and thus easily become pawns in the games, intrigues, and interests of hostile externalities. 

These States constantly display all the negative and destructive symptoms of rent-seeking in the globalised international market, where often might is right, and the weak are bullied into subservience.

But despite these limitations on the African States, these limitations do not prevent African States from seeking to capture, dominate and neuter the great potential of economic diplomacy in Africa, in their domestic spaces, through the process of authoritarian professionalisation and bureaucratisation of this new academic sphere with a huge libertarian promise for African societies. 

Most African States loath and fear the mass popular appeal of economic diplomacy in Africa. They often equate its manifestations in the public discourse and arena with the disruptive force of an internal political  insurgency. These states often tremble at the sight of popular mass energies that are unleashed by broad-based citizen participation in domestic and international economic diplomatic issues. 

For these States are used to the traditional conceptualisation of diplomacy in general as an elitist, rarified and exclusionary State activity, to which the masses must be granted only a key-hole peek, if that.

Yet there are impressive lived examples, and experiences, of economic diplomacy in Africa that attest to the phenomenal power of joint African cooperation between States, civil society and business that goes way beyond the ritualised, formalistic and staid SA NEDLAC-type tripartite negotiations over "codes of conduct, binding rules, etc", to drawing in and harness mass popular energies to set sustainable national African economic diplomatic agendae.

Four such examples are the challenge to Shell oil activities in Nigeria's Delta region; the debate in Southern Sudan on the type of relationship it wants to forge with Northern Sudan on the basis of the former's oil resources, and the latter's oil pipes-lines and ports; the debate that happened in South Africa on the vexed matter of the recent restructuring of SACU's revenue sharing formula to the disadvantage of smaller and dependent SACU members; and lastly, the debate in South Africa and the Kingdom of Swaziland regarding the recent multi-billion loan by South Africa to Swaziland.

All these above examples showed the triangulation of good governance, social and economic factors, and sustainable Statecraft, interfacing with popular mass activism, and seen through the prism of domestic and international developments. They also manifested the power and promise of a non-State-centric approach to economic diplomacy in Africa, and thus providing an escape route to ordinary African masses from lumpen, dependent and weak African States that are deeply addicted, and beholden, to hand-outs from, and rent-seeking entries to, not always benevolent externalities.

Internationally, the worst example of a failed and dismal State economic diplomacy is the long-running, and still festering, unresolved dispute between Russia and Ukraine over the transnational gas pipeline carrying Russian gas through Ukrainian territory, to meet the insatiable Western European demand for Russian gas.

The failure of South East Asian countries to find a mutually beneficial resolution to the explosive and long-festring territorial disputes around the Spratley Islands, which are claimed by a number of powerful South East Asian countries, is another example of failed economic diplomatic imagination on the part of South East Asian States

By dethroning Adam Smith in Africa, together with the small political and economic African elites that worship at his feet, economic diplomacy in Africa may, ironically, assist Africa to realise the call of Adam Smith to human societies to graduate into, as Adam Smith put it, "the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism."

With the great promise of economic diplomacy in Africa at hand, should Africa continue to treat its potential economic fortunes as if they were a field of paleontology, to paraphrase Karl Marx?

Isaac Mpho Mogotsi is Executive Director, Centre of Economic Diplomacy In Africa (CEDIA). He is also a businessman and a former diplomat. This article first appeared in The Thinker magazine, October 2011

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