In Other Words

Africa’s Shaky New Voice

African Geopolitics, No. 1, Winter 2000/2001, Brazzaville The long-term deterioration of Africa’s educational infrastructure has contributed to a paucity of new ideas from African thinkers and leaders about the continent’s role in world affairs. But African Geopolitics, a new quarterly journal out of Central Africa, hopes to reverse that trend by providing a forum for ...

African Geopolitics, No. 1, Winter 2000/2001, Brazzaville

The long-term deterioration of Africa’s educational infrastructure has contributed to a paucity of new ideas from African thinkers and leaders about the continent’s role in world affairs. But African Geopolitics, a new quarterly journal out of Central Africa, hopes to reverse that trend by providing a forum for local voices to debate Africa’s modern challenges. Although in reality the journal is published in Paris and Washington, D.C., it claims Brazzaville as its "local address" and enjoys the patronage of Congolese President Denis Sassou N’Guesso. The journal’s inaugural issue represents a promising — though ultimately flawed — attempt to raise the level of the debate on Africa’s political economy.

An interview with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo offers insight into the leader’s views on political corruption and the role of the military in his country. He decries past military incursions in Nigerian politics, asserting that such episodes only brutalized and traumatized the nation. Acknowledging that the military remains an integral part of constitutional life, Obasanjo commits to investing in the retraining needed to achieve "true professionalism" among military ranks. Obasanjo also proposes an International Convention on the Repatriation of Stolen Funds to oversee the return of public monies looted by predatory Third World leaders. He laments the hypocrisy of financial institutions in the industrialized world: "The banks which so frequently dismiss Nigeria as a corrupt country are the very ones which continue to cite the convenient doctrine of confidentiality as an obstacle which prevents them from assisting us in tracing and recovering these funds."

In a frank and personal interview, former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard reminisces about his country’s policy toward Africa. He gloats over saving Air Afrique in 1990 by obtaining money from the French Treasury in a record two weeks — a move that underscored France’s economic commitment to its former colonies. Rocard also complains that Uganda’s "regional imperialism" results from U.S. diplomacy that tries to counter Sudan and its "terrorist aspirations." Equally revealing is his view that in Africa, where there is no "democratic culture," military strongmen will gradually build democracy. He praises Mali’s Amadou Toumani Toure, who took power in a 1991 military coup, stabilized the chaotic economy, and launched a democratic transition resulting in elections a year later.

Unfortunately, a hagiographic account of Congolese President Sassou N’Guesso’s democratic credentials by writer Jacques Baudouin — described only as an "expert on central Africa" — raises fundamental questions about the new journal’s objectivity. Additional comments on Sassou N’Guesso by André Soussan, editor-in-chief and publisher of African Geopolitics, only compound these fears. Soussan, who describes himself as a long-time friend of Sassou N’Guesso, lauds the Congolese chief executive for holding free elections in 1992. In reality, Congo reverted to a multiparty political system in 1991-92 when a national conference forced Sassou N’Guesso to resign and promulgated a new constitution. Subsequent civilian rule was brittle as the major political rivals, including Sassou N’Guesso, formed militias that plunged the country into civil war in the mid-1990s. The conflict ended in October 1997 when Sassou N’Guesso’s militia triumphed in Brazzaville on the backs of an Angolan intervention force.

There is nothing wrong with presidential patronage of knowledge production — along the lines of princely support of music in medieval Europe — as long as the product maintains a measure of editorial independence. Soussan claims at the outset that "friendship and independence are not incompatible." That may be true, but friendship raises the threshold of independence. Perhaps if African Geopolitics steers clear of Central African themes, skeptical readers may come to take the journal more seriously.

These concerns aside, one hopes this publication will allow more African scholars writing from the continent to publish original, innovative research. But filling Africa’s idea vacuum through a Western-based journal presents enormous challenges. Rather than being a forum for debating new ideas, a purely policy-oriented journal runs the risk of targeting audiences already familiar with these issues. Moreover, the danger of conflating knowledge generation with advocacy looms large: African Geopolitics appears more of a platform for supporting particular positions than a place for creating new ideas. Without a deliberate integration of conceptual issues into actual policymaking, these debates may become increasingly irrelevant.

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