Ebenezer Obadare, CFR’s Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies, leads the conversation on Africa’s domestic and international relations.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome, everybody, to the first session of the Fall 2022 CFR Academic Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
So we thank you all for joining us. Today’s discussion is on the record, and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/academic, if you would like to share it with your classmates or colleagues. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We’re delighted to have Ebenezer Obadare with us today to talk about Africa’s domestic and international relations. Dr. Obadare is the Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies here at CFR. He is also a senior fellow at New York University’s School of Professional Studies Center for Global Affairs, as well as a fellow at the University of South Africa’s Institute of Theology. He previously served as professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence and as a lecturer in international relations at the Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including his forthcoming book from the University of Notre Dame Press. It’s entitled Pastoral Power, Clerical State: Pentecostalism, Gender, and Sexuality in Nigeria.
So, Dr. Obadare, thank you very much for being with us. We appreciate it.
OBADARE: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Africa is, obviously, a huge continent and this is a very broad topic, but we thought you could give us—set the scene and give us an overview of the state of democracy in the African countries that you follow.
OBADARE: Thank you, Irina. Thank you for having me. And good afternoon, everyone.
This is a very exciting topic. It’s a very broad topic. But it’s also a very exciting moment to be talking about it. I could—I was thinking about this and thinking about the various directions in which I could take this. We could talk about COVID and the long aftermath. We could talk about the Ukraine conflict, and the long aftermath. We could talk about the resurgence of military rule, you know, in West Africa, which is also pertinent to Africa’s democratic struggle. Or we could talk about the emergence of Africa—or, the reemergence of Africa as a theater for, you know, big—for struggle between the major powers. You know, China, Russia, and the United States. And I’m hoping that, you know, the audience out there will ask me questions about all those—you know, all those things.
But what I want to do is focus on what I’m calling—you know, for the next, maybe, you know, eight to ten minutes—talk generally about what I’m calling Africa’s democratic challenge. And there are two reasons, you know, why I’m decided to do that. One, I was thinking about a subject that, you know, with variations here and there, applies, you know, to African countries by and large. African countries have their own democratic struggles. The national particulars, their demographic particulars, you know, are different, but you could speak generally about, you know, those—the continent itself, you know, being involved in this struggle. So that’s one.
But the other reason I wanted to talk about, you know, democratic challenge in Africa is that it’s surprising that some of the themes, some of the questions, some of the concerns that in current time in an African context ultimately also resonate in a North American if not in a global context. So I’m hoping that, you know, a few of the points that I’m going to make presently, that people will be able to identify with them, even in an American context.
So the first challenge that I would like to talk about is what I’m calling, you know, the fact that the public-private distinction, you know, in many African countries—the way, you know, that distinction between what is public and what is private, the way it is conflicted, it’s still to the disservice of democracy. You know, it remains, you know, a major problem. I think one of the things that you take for granted in a democratic society is that what belongs to the public and what belongs to the private—you know, what belongs to both domains—that it’s separate and the challenge for, you know, democratic leaders, for the media, for actors within civil society is to ensure that that distinction always holds.
I think since independence, you know, most African countries have sort of found it very difficult, you know, to keep that distinction. And I think it’s one challenge that, you know, generally most of those countries face. The other thing which I think is pertinent to that is the ongoing need to strengthen the rule of law as a way of increasing public trust in the law and its institutional apparatuses. You know, including law enforcement, judiciary. I don’t think I’m saying anything terribly original when I say that, you know, if you don’t have rule of law, you can’t have democracy.
And one challenge that, you know, many African countries continue to face is that those in power, those with, you know, substantial prestige in society, those with resources are almost always in a position to either set aside the law, override the law, or mount the kind of influence that ultimately means that, you know, the rule of law is horribly treated. So there is that challenge for African countries, on making sure that the rule of law, you know, is the rule of law. And the idea that the law applies to everyone, irrespective of their status, their class, or their social standing, you know, in the society in general. So, you know, that continues to be a problem, you know, for many African countries. And you sort of see the ramifications of that in many different instances, you know, in different regions of the continent.
The other thing which I think is sort of, you know, related to that is the fact that civil society continues to be weak. And what I mean is that if you think about civil society as that independent forum, that autonomous forum where notionally equal citizens congregate, associate, and determine what happens to them—irrespective of the state, right? Where people sort of say, this is what we’re going to do. You know, those little (platoons ?), you know, that, you know, Burke and, you know, Tocqueville, you know, refer to in different contexts, part of what you find is that such is the width and the breadth of state power that it’s always a challenge to maintain the autonomy of that sphere.
So there is an ongoing concern to strengthen civil society such that, you know, actors, everyday citizens operating within the ambit of civil society, are able to do whatever it is that they want to do so long as they do not break the law. And you can see that as a connection between what I just said regarding civil society and my earlier point about the rule of law. The two are mutually reinforcing. On the one hand, if you make sure that the rule of law applies to everyone, part of what you are doing vicariously, even though you may not think about it, is to also make sure that that independent public sphere, where notionally equal citizens, where they operate, that you are making sure that at the end of the day you protect the integrity, you know, of that sphere.
The last—the last point that I would like to make, with respect to what I’m calling, you know, the democratic challenge, is something that it’s not written. It’s not set down anywhere. And I will come—I will talk presently about how this relates to the United States, for instance. And it’s about how to make sure that pro-social and liberal norms that lubricate social interaction among citizens and between the citizens and the state—how to make sure that those norms are continually reinforced and shored up.
One of the things that we saw over the last—you know, during the era of President Trump in the United States was, you know, the alarm that many people, you know, continually, you know, expressed about can the president do that? You know, is the president allowed to do that? And people will go back and say, well, yeah, that’s unprecedented, you know? It’s in the Constitution. People say to you, and then you come back to the point that many of the values, many of the norms that lubricate the great engine that we’ll call democracy, are never actually written down. They are norms that have been passed down over generations, and people sort of buy into those norms not because they thought, you know, comprehensively about them, but because that they see that the norms make sense. And those norms work—allow the system itself to work.
Part of the challenge that you continue to find in an African context is that because of economic immiseration, because of deeply social precarity, because of, you know, political uncertainty, there is a consistent attack on those norms, right? So that politicians or members of the political elite are able to basically get away with murder, and then they’re able to say: Well, show me where in the Constitution it says I can’t do those things. But to then begin to think about those norms, how to make them more robust, how to make sure that, you know, the generality of the people buy into those norms and understand that without those norms there’s no democracy, there’s no rule of law, there’s no independent public sphere. That’s another ongoing challenge that African countries face.
So I’ve mentioned four things. Let me just quicky recap them so that, you know, you sort of see where I’m coming from.
One, deepening the public-private citizenship, right—holding separate what is public, holding separate what is private, and making sure that there’s no easy conflation. That solves, you know, the projects, you know, of those who do not want democracy. That’s number one.
Number two, strengthening the rule of law. I should have started—you always start with that. It’s paramount. It’s important because idea of the rule of law is that no matter who you are; no matter your status in society; no matter what you’ve been able to accumulate; no matter your pedigree, you know, in terms of class, in terms of society, in terms of kinship and all of that; that you are never above the law. This is extremely important. And part of what you find in many African countries is that once people have, you know—you know, of means, and once they are able to trade influence, one of the things they try to do is to bypass the law. And that means that, you know, eventually they weaken, you know, the rule of law. And when you weaken the rule of law, you weaken, you know, democracy itself.
And then the third thing, you know, I said about strengthening civil society and making sure that the space within which civil society operates is kept sacrosanct, because indeed it is sacrosanct. If there is no autonomous civil society where people feel that the state itself has no power and has no control, there can’t be—you know, there can’t be democracy. And the last thing I said is the intangible thing, but no less profound thing, like pro-social and liberal norms that everybody subscribes to. Not because there’s been a process of those norms, not because they will reflect that on them, but because they see those norms at work and they see how the operationalizing of those norms helps to strengthen, you know, democracy. Having people, you know, buy into those norms is extremely important, you know, for African countries.
So I think—I don’t know if I’ve, you know, gone beyond eight or ten minutes, but I wanted to put those preliminary points out there so that we can have a good conversation. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Ebenezer, for that overview. We look forward to digging down with the students on the call. So for all of you, we’re going to come to you now.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
So we will now go to all of you. And I am just looking—I know that there’s some—the first question we will take from Buba Misawa. And please unmute yourself and say your affiliation.
Q: Thank you, Professor Obadare.
OBADARE: Thank you.
Q: I’m Buba Misawa, Washington and Jefferson College, political science. I’m here with my students. We’re listening to you. Thank you for your wonderful overview.
My class is the politics of developing countries. And one of the things we’re looking at is the suggestion, which is that—and this is the last thing you were talking about—is civic culture. I know the literature is always onboard with this idea that many developing countries do not have a civic culture and that the only way we can become democracies in developing countries is if we have civic culture. And I think you buy into that, and I buy into that in some way, but how do you develop civic culture in those countries?
OBADARE: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you. Good afternoon to your students. That’s a very important question. And it’s something I’ve addressed in my work on civil society. You are right. I think both of us sort of—I’m glad that you agree with me that there is, at the end of the day, you know, a common understanding of civic culture. To the extent that you’re talking about a common ethos around which everyday citizens in a particular democratic context must subscribe to, right? So the question is, you know, what are those, you know, common ethos?
So one of the—my last points, remember, was about liberal, you know, and pro-social norms about tolerance, you know, for instance. Tolerance is not a Western, you know, value. It’s a universal value. And as we see from experience of looking at democracies across the world, it’s a value that helps, you know, make civil society robust and strengthens the bonds of relationship among citizens, you know, in a daily context. If you read—if you go back to the literature—you know, I’m glad—you say you’re a political scientist. I think the foundational work here would be, you know, I’m thinking about Almond and Verba’s work. I think it’s—was it The Civil Culture? Is that the title? I’m blocking on the title now. Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba.
But the whole point is about how certain norms, certain, you knowreflexes, you know, certain attitudes are necessary to the development of a robust civic culture in a society. And the way to think about whether it’s universal or not is to think about anti-civic, you know, norms, right? If I’m speaking now and somebody interrupts me on a consistent basis, there’s something that that person is doing that we all agree does not, you know, help conversation, you know, to flourish between the two of us. If the government, you know, shuts down the press, right? If the government goes after journalists. If everyday citizens, you know, become enemies, you know, to other citizens, all of those things affect the operations, you know, of civic culture, you know, within a particular society.
So I think I’m of the orientation that without the strengthening of that culture, you know, civil—democracy itself has no chance. But you asked a very interesting question about how do we make sure that—how do you produce this, right? I think that I will mention, you know, maybe one or two laboratories for the production of civic culture. School/education is extremely important, because these are the places, these are the spaces where you inculcate a particular set of norms and you tie them to the history of democracy, democratic decision making, journalism, the media—it’s a very interesting space. The larger civil society itself, right? Those associations, those unions, those places where people sort of talk freely, are able to speak freely, those places, the interactions of those institutions, you know, it’s very, very essential to the promotion of civic culture.
The other thing, you know, that I would like to talk about, that I’m hoping with resonate to your students given the moment in which we are now, is free speech. The freedom to be able—for anybody in a democratic society to be able to speak their mind freely, no matter their background, no matter their race, no matter their culture, no matter where they are in society. That freedom and the assurance that one sentence will not lead to another sentence. Meaning that one sentencing talking in error would not lead to either cancellation or a jail sentence—all those things taken together institutionally in the spaces I’ve mentioned but much more broadly outside those spaces, the interactions of those things ensures that, you know, a civic culture is produced.
This is not done overnight. Democracy is hard work. It takes time for many of these things, the wrinkles, to smooth themselves out. But I think, you know, the more you think about those things and focus on them, the more you are able to, you know, also strengthen the civic culture in a particular society.
FASKIANOS: So, Ebenezer, I’m going to take a couple written questions that are along the same lines. From Mark Hallim, who is a doctoral student at American Public University. He asks, is corruption not affecting the democracy and governance? And Carolina Castillo, who’s a student at Lewis University, is taking a comparative government course. She’s giving it more specific to the country, Nigeria. How are we supposed to rethink a political system that is full of corruption? Won’t there always be someone in office remaining from the previous mess? It seems like such a big undertaking, where do you start? So you can give the broader context, and then take—and then speak specifically about Nigeria.
OBADARE: Thank you. And thanks for both questions. They are wonderful questions. And they revolve around the same theme. So I’m going to try and answer them as if they were the same question and maybe I will say a couple of sentences about Nigeria.
The other thing I would like to say is that I’ve written, you know, a lot about corruption in an African context on my blog. So if anybody wants to check, you know, some of those things I’ve written out, I think, you know, they will give more illumination.
But the straightforward answer is yes. Corruption undermines democracy, right? One of the things it does is that it weakens institutions. So I wrote—so let me give an example from the streets—you know, from the street of Nigeria, because there’s a Nigerian student out there in the audience. So I wrote this week about what I call rule by salary. And I was talking about how regularly now African governments withhold wages and salaries from public servants, and they use that to sort of control—as a means of social control. And I was then pursing the implications of that. And I said, so think about a police officer who has not been paid for eighteen months, as indeed some have not been paid in Nigeria.
So what happens? So what do people do? So a policeman will go to the streets and take out his anger on everyday citizens. Sometimes that leads to violence, but on the regular basis, that policeman imposes an informal tax on everyday citizens because he’s not been paid, he wants money for himself in order to be able to feed his family. The public servant who has not been paid, who cannot go to the streets, who does not have the capacity for violence that the policeman has, what does he or she—what does he or she do? So you find people convert the very space of the public office or the very resources of the public office to private ends.
So corruption almost always has that—you know, that effect of undercutting, you know, not just the integrity of everyday citizens, or it creates uncertainty within—you know, within the system. And at the end of the day, everybody loses, because once you create uncertainty and people lose trust in civic institutions and physical infrastructure collapses, what happens? The best talent from within those spaces leave. So you have this endless cycle where corruption leads to social—you know, social distrust. Social distrust leads to collapsed infrastructure. Collapsed infrastructure means that people—young people especially, who are extremely talented—wants to leave the country.
And when they leave, what happens? The system itself loses on account of that. So corruption is—and there’s so many African countries, you know, trying to sort of wrap their minds around this problem. And they’ve been largely unsuccessful. Why? Remember the point I started with, about public-private distinction. It’s extremely important, because the very meaning of corruption is that a public office order refuses to recognize the distinction between what belongs to him and what belongs to the public. Whose money is this? Does it belong to Ebenezer, as the chairman of a local government, or does it belong to the public, the local government? Once you elide that distinction, once you conflate it, once you don’t make sure that one does not bleed into the other, you basically open, you know, the doors for corruption. And that’s a challenge, you know, that, you know, many African countries are facing.
And I hate to say, but Nigeria is among the leading—you know, one of the most corrupt countries, you know, in Africa. That’s not me. That’s Transparency International, you know, saying that. And, you know, the country, you know, has that problem. They have the—you know, the government, you know, there’s the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission that the government set up, you know, over a decade ago to sort of follow—you know, to see—you know, rein in corrupt leaders, bring people to justice. Institutions like that have had some success, but the question that always comes is whether you can use a single institution to track down a problem that is spread across, you know, society at large. And you are finding, within a Nigerian context, within a Kenyan context, or increasingly in a South African context, that, you know, that’s a tall order and you cannot do that.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. So I’m going to take the next question, oral question, from Dr. Sherice Nelson, who’s an assistant professor at the Southern University in Baton Rouge.
Q: Professor Obadare, thank you so much for this presentation.
I’m getting ready for a lecture today with my students. We are going to be going over this lecture. And that class is for American foreign policy. And so something that you said to me, that I think that I would love for you to elaborate on so that I can have this conversation with my students today, is this idea of Western concept. I think that we have allowed—because the United States has been, in many ways, the torch for how to do multiethnic democracy, we have now made it so that these concepts are now Western or United States concepts, that make it difficult for other countries with different cultures to grasp onto, right? One of those—one of those being tolerance, right?
What is your suggestion for how we as Black Americans, right, because I’m at a historically Black institution, inform our students on de-Westernizing some of these terminologies that are more universal than Western. Thank you.
OBADARE: Thank you. That’s—thank you. That’s a great question. I wish I was there to talk to your students. And this is what I’m going to say to them: I’d say, imagine a universe where the United States does not exist. Where somebody came to me, to you, and said: You know, I think we should be able to choose our representatives. You know, everybody should be equal before the law. Oh, by the way, there should be gender equality. Women and men should be equal. Oh, every four years, or every three years, you know, people should be able to vote for their representatives. Oh, and by the way, people should be able to have the freedom to speak.
I think just in abstract if you speak to 100 people gathered at—you know, selected at random from different parts of the world, if you told them: How do you organize—would you agree to have a society organized on the basis of those ideas? I bet you 99 percent would say, oh yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. Women, who have been oppressed by men in an African society, should be equal of men. Oh, tolerance? Yeah. There are Muslims, there are Christians, there are traditional worshipers. There is no need for one to try to impose its own ideas on the other. Let them all be free.
I think what happens is that once we interject the United States, people sort of forget that we’re not really talking about the United States. So there has to be a separation between the fact that the United States has had a very difficult, very contested history. And I think it’s extremely important that we’re beginning to talk—not only are we talking about those things, that we are continuing to have conversations about. And I think, you know, at the end of the day it redounds to the benefit of the United States.
But a mistake which we shouldn’t make is to reduce ideas that have worked successfully not just the United States but across the West, to say, oh, those ideas apply only to the West or only to the United States, and do not apply elsewhere. There is nothing culturally specific about gender equality. There’s nothing culturally specific about tolerance. There’s nothing culturally specific about the rule of law. If you think about the framing, if you think about how African countries got their independence from the British, from the French, they mobilized these universal things.
So think about the right to self-determination. They said, oh, you guys came here and said everybody should be free to rule themselves on the basis of representatives that are freely chosen. Well, you keep ruling us without our permission. So what they did was to turn the table on the colonizers, to say: We accept the universality of these ideas. How about you accept the universality of the same ideas? You are purveyors of these ideas, but you have not been true to those ideas. So the point being democratic values, modernity itself—think about the foundations of modernity, the rule of law, the freedom of the individual, the sovereignty of the individual, gender equality, tolerance, free speech. Those ideas may have originated from the West. And many of them, in fact, did originate from the West. And there’s a whole history there that we don’t have time to go into today.
But the point is that they are applicable to human beings everywhere. So when we think about, you know, Malala, the Afghan young girl, you know, that the Taliban did not want to go to school, that they shot in the head. What do we say? We say, we recognize the right of Malala as an individual to have education. And when we do that, we are going over and above the claims of a particular culture on Malala. Because the moment we don’t affirm universality, the moment we bow to the claims of culture in that context, we lose everything. It means we are no longer able to go to a particular—so it means there are no universal human rights.
And that’s a problem. And I think it’s important for people, you know, to always keep that in mind, that a critique—a legitimate critique of Western duplicity—you know, the terrible things that the West has done in different parts of the world, ought to be separated from very good, solid universal ideas that contributes to development everywhere. And if there’s anybody who understands those things, it is oppressed people. Women especially, minorities everywhere, who understand, you know, that these themes, these principles, are not specific to a particular traditional, but apply to everybody, irrespective of race, creed, or color.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next written question from Stan Mierzwa’s class. He’s a lecturer at Kean University. And this is from his class.
As a result of the current Ukraine conflict, can you speak about what, if any, policy changes regarding cybersecurity have been introduced for tech citizens?
OBADARE: In an African context?
FASKIANOS: In an African context—I am not sure. He was not more specific. Dr. Mierzwa, do you want to clarify a bit for us? If you can unmute yourself. It may or may not work. We will ask him to clarify. Let’s go back to—and we’ll come back to it, Dex Harrison. And you can unmute. Thank you.
Q: Thank you. My name is Dexter Harrison. And I am a student at the American Public University. And I’m studying global security. And specifically, I’m a doctoral student.
So my question is, what is the effect of global governance in strengthening or weakening the rule of law and associated norms of civil society in Africa? Thank you very much for taking my question.
OBADARE: Thank you, sir. That’s a great question. So civil society organizations, you know, organized around the idea of the public sphere in Africa, have always counted—you know, have always, you know, sort of tried to get support from global governance institutions. You know, whether you’re talking about the U.N., you know, talking about EU, talking about—I mean. So it’s always been taken for granted that these global governance institutions have a role to play, not only in strengthening civil society but in providing logistics, in monitoring elections, in giving succor and refuge to civil society actors who are fleeing from persecution, in supporting gender rights, in supporting the media, right?
I used—you know, I used to be a journalist in Nigeria in the early ’90s. And I still remember that when we came under the cosh, when the military attacked, you know, my institutions, you know, one of the first things that was talked about was, you know, appealing to international organizations, you know, like the United Nations, to sort of come to our help. Which sort of relates to the last question I answered. And we were able to do that because the principles that we appealed to were global principles. You know, freedom of the press, right? We said, oh, we didn’t say freedom of the Nigerian—we don’t say freedom of the press, because that was a principle that, you know, anybody could buy into.
If you know a little bit about the Nigerian delta, you know, the struggle of the people there to sort of have—you know, against global oil, one of the most interesting things that has happened over the last two decades, the recognition of the right of those people, you know, to the sanctity of their land, you know, to their property, to their, you know, bodily integrity, and all of that. And many of those struggles are taking place within the context of the United Nations. So global governance institutions have a very, you know, important role to play. It's a symbolic role, but also a material role in terms of actually giving support to civil society organizations, people fleeing persecution, and, you know, people just sort of election monitoring. All these other—you know, all these things are extremely important. And global governance institutions have played, you know, a considerable role in strengthening them.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. Stan did clarify, Stan Mierzwa, about policy changes regarding cybersecurity to protect citizens in Africa. And maybe you can speak more broadly about the war in Africa—sorry—the war in Ukraine. The Ukrainian war—yes, thank you.
OBADARE: Ukraine, yeah. Yeah. I don’t think there’s been a lot in terms of, you know, cybersecurity. There’s more been in terms of food security, right, because part of the blowback from Ukraine is, you know, the fact that for the first time in a generation people are realizing that, you know, many African countries import their food and, B, much of that import comes from Ukraine, you know, also part of Russia. So many governments have sort of moved to, you know, make sure that when you sort of put pressure on—not just on Russia, but on the United States to make sure that the blockade on Ukrainian ports, you know, is lifted.
And I think they were successful in doing that. You know, President Sall of Senegal, you know, visited with Vladimir Putin. A lot of pressure was put on Putin. And I think about six weeks—you know, about two months ago, you know, there was—the blockade was lifted and, you know, again grain started coming out of—started coming out of Ukraine. There hasn’t really been a lot about cybersecurity because Russia hasn’t really been, you know, involved in that. Russian involvement in security has been through, you know, the operations of the mercenary Wagner Group. And I encourage anybody who’s interested in that to check out some of the blogs, you know, I’ve written on the Africa in Transition blog.
FASKIANOS: Right. And so your blog, Africa in Transition, can be found on the CFR website, CFR.org. And so we did include one of your blog posts in the background readings for this call. So you should all go back to look at what Dr. Obadare has written for that, and everything else.
So for the next question I’m going to take a written question from Arlen Agiliga, who is a current Schwartzman scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. In one of my classes yesterday a fellow scholar referred to the Arab Spring as a success. I had a difficult time understanding his perspective. And then he, the question is: In the North African countries that were involved in the Arab Spring just a decade ago, how has democracy taken shape since the widespread popular protests? How do current challenges to a functioning democracy in Tunisia and the current civil conflict in Libya impact the legacy of the Arab Spring? And has the economic or legal condition of the average African really changed in any material way since the Arab Spring?
OBADARE: It’s a great question. I have a very brief answer. So, and this is—this is a big tragic, right, but this is the way I try to measure the progress of any society. Anybody who says, oh, that’s successful, you know, from a democratic point of view, I always ask: How free are women? Can we say that women are free across the Middle East? I don’t think so. So as far as I’m concerned, the Arab Spring called attention to ongoing problems in the Middle East, you know, with theocracy, with conservative Islam, you know, with despotism.
In many of those—in some of those countries—you know, so it started in Tunisia, you know, Morocco. You know, some of the blowback, even as far as, you know, Syria, and we know what’s going on in—you know, what’s been going on in Syria since then. But if you go by my own, you know, self-imposed rule, like, OK, you think a society is free, how free are the women? I would say to that extent, the Arab Spring failed. It succeeded to the extent that it allowed things that had been similarly under the surface—civic disgruntlement, you know, people’s frustrations—in any case, this Arab Spring started with the frustration of one—you know, one vendor, right? I’m blocking on his name now, Mohamed—was it Abdulaziz (sp)? You know, maybe, you know, I didn’t get the second name—who set himself on fire in frustration. And then that’s basically sparked, you know, what we know as the—you know, as the Arab Spring. But in many of those countries, the ruling forces, you know, sort of initially they were overwhelmed, you know, maybe astonished. And then, you know, they sort of, you know—(laughs)—regrouped. And what we have in that part of the world, we still have societies operating on the basis of the same principles that preceded the Arab Spring.
I think by and large we can all agree that, you know, across the Middle East, you know, and part of, you know, the Maghreb in Africa that women still remain unfree; the media is still, you know, largely not free; and everyday citizens still have to operate within the rubric of, you know, a very conservative theocratic system. So I’m going to disagree with your friend and say I don’t think the Arab Spring was a success. Until woman become the equal of man in a legal sense in many Middle Eastern countries, I don’t think we can say, you know, that the revolution was successful.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
I’m going to go next to Buba Misawa, who has a question from the class. With Washington and Jefferson, I believe.
OBADARE: Yes. Yeah. I can see the hand up here.
Q: Hello. My name is Kade Patterson (sp). I’m a student in this class, “Politics of Developing Nations.” Again, I’m a political science major.
And one of our main topics right now is China’s growing influence in Africa. And I was just wondering what your general overview of that influence would be. Thank you.
OBADARE: Thank you, my friend. It’s a—it’s a great question.
I think China is a major power. And one of the things, you know, that China is trying to do is to project that power. And one of the things you do—because China not just wants to be the equal of the United States; it wants to be numero uno. It wants to overtake the United States and become the dominant power in the world. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. You know, China is welcome to it. The only thing that sort of bothers me about China is the kind of model that it offers, right?
So think about—so the way China operates in Africa is this. You know, China comes to African leaders—many of whom, keep in mind, are not accountable to their citizens—and says: You want me to build, you know, a railway from point A to point B? Don’t worry. We’ll do it. I’ll finance it. You owe me. There’s nothing wrong with that transaction. The only thing that is a problem with it is that on a consistent basis China goes over the head of, you know, citizens in African countries, does business with those people, and that’s a problem. If you are a—if you are an autocratic leader, you love China.
But the other model that’s in the United States, it’s not perfect. I’m not saying the United States is always sincere. But at the very least, United States will ask you about rule of law, ask you about freedom of the press. Now, if you are an autocrat, you just find those questions, you know, rather irritating and pesky. You just want to get, you know—you know, to do business.
And the Chinese model is a problem because leaders who are not accountable like that model. They want to work with China. China is not asking the kind of questions that the United States and Western countries normally ask of African leaders. And that’s one of the reasons why China has been very successful, you know, in cultivating, you know, many African leaders.
So it offers this model of top-down political centralization that is sort of—that is compatible with what you find in many African countries. So, to that extent, because I’m in favor of a democratic public sphere, because I think, you know, people should have a say in the projects embarked upon by their government, because I think that is extremely important that people are able to hold the feet of their leaders to the fire and ask very serious questions of them, I’m opposed to Chinese influence in Africa, right, from that point of view because I see China, ultimately, strengthening the forces of autocracy to the detriment of democratic forces in an African context. So that’s my personal opinion.
FASKIANOS: Yes. And I think you—by way of that answer, you’ve answered a couple of the questions in here.
So, essentially—this is a question from Morton Holbrook—you know, these deals, then—on the whole, you think African countries should be wary of Chinese influence and the Chinese model of development?
OBADARE: I think so. But I mean, the question is, it’s not really African countries at the end of the day that are engaging with China; it’s African leaders. Many of the deals that have been signed have been signed by leaders who are not accountable to the people, one. But it’s also a very interesting front for corruption, right, because you are not accountable to anybody. So if you—if you hear that a particular country is owing China $200 million, right, you have to ask: Who approved the fund? You know, how—what was the money spent on?
So this is—as far as China is concerned, it’s good—it’s good business. One, I’m not asking questions. I bring my people who are able to do—you know, who are—who are going to do the job. I give you the loans. You remain indebted to me. From the point of view of China, you know, it couldn’t be better. But if you are thinking about the long-term prospects of African countries, if you are interested in strengthening civil society, if you’re interested in making the democratic sphere more robust—if you’re interested in all those things that are conductive to democracy and modernity and all of that, you have to sort of see China not in a favorable light.
FASKIANOS: I’m going to take the next question from Victoria Williams to continue on this idea that we’re talking about. She’s with Alvernia University, which is in Pennsylvania.
Many people are concerned about the state of democracy here in America. Would or does the weakening of democracy and the rule of law in America make it more difficult to encourage African or other developing states to adopt those democratic norms?
OBADARE: Absolutely. I fully agree. And I think I tried to—I broached that in one of the four, you know, submitted points I initially made.
I think part of what we realize with the ascendance of, you know, President Trump—you know, the four years of President Trump—was how influential, you know, the United States is in—you know, in other parts of the world. And one of the things that, you know, the former president’s consistent disregard for the rule of law, part of what it did, you know, in other African countries was sort of to give encouragement to either sitting dictators or would-be dictators to say, hey, what’s wrong with me doing this? Look at the United States, you know. The United States is doing it.
So to come back to one of the things we’ve been discussing, the idea of the rule of law has been sacrosanct and nobody being above the law. The fact that for a spell under the United States people felt that that was being violated generated very negative reverberations, you know, in Africa and in other parts of the world. So there’s an idea I call global Trumpism, which is about how—if you think about, you know, some of the things that President Trump did, you know, that were contrary to the spirit of the—you know, of the rule of law, the way those ideas spread to other parts of the world—we’ve spoken about, you know, President Bolsonaro in Brazil. You know, there were so many people who you could see were inspired by idea—by the idea that, you know, they could sort of get away with something because, hey, it was also happening in the United States.
To come back to the United States, part of what this reminds us of, maybe two things.
One, that there are no perfectly democratic societies; there are only democratizing societies. Even the United States with all its success—which we should celebrate—is not perfect. And as one of our Founding Fathers, you know, said, that eternal vigilance, you know, is the price of liberty, even what we’ve sort of consolidated, what we’ve enjoyed about democracy, that we should continually, you know, make sure that we don’t get to a point—ensure that we don’t get to a point, you know, where those things—where those gains, you know, are lost.
And I guess, you know, the other thing is—you know, is that the United States, for good or for ill, remains the beacon, you know, of hope for, you know, societies and cultures across the world, for minorities who want to be, you know, free from the cultches of dictatorship. And it’s more important—it’s never been more important to protect and save the democracy, you know, in the United States because of the consequences of, you know, a loss of democratic—you know, what—you know, what not doing that, you know, what it will mean for—you know, for other parts of the world.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you so much.
So the next question I’m going to take is from Nike Odularu from the University of Southern Mississippi.
Can I get your thoughts on brain drain from Africa to the developed countries, especially into the United States? Is it a plus or a minus to Africa? An example that comes to mind, we’re going back to Nigeria. And I think you did reference that earlier on, but—
OBADARE: And I thank you. It’s a great—and I did a piece recently and I’m blocking on the title now, but basically examining this question, I think, like, two, three weeks ago about migration and Africa. And I was trying to work—this is—this is an excellent question because it’s—clearly, if you can tell from my accent, I’m not from South Dakota, right? I was born in Nigeria. I’m an immigrant. I love the United States. I wanted to come to the United States. I love the United States.
But there’s the other side of the coin, which is so there are thousands of people like me in the United States. There are probably millions more who want to come. That’s good for this society. There is nothing wrong with that. More people should come. What I was trying to do in that piece, which I’m going to encourage everybody to read, is to the—inasmuch as we continue to, you know, focus and target advocacy around that—and we should; let me underscore that so that nobody says, oh, Ebenezer, an immigrant, is saying, you know, people should not immigrate. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m an immigrant. Immigration is important. We should defend the rights of immigrants. But it’s more—it’s increasingly important to ask the question of why do people keep coming, not because we want them to stop coming but because we want to ask questions of leaders in the developing countries. So, yes, we have to think about it.
Why are doctors fleeing Nigeria, doctors trained with public money? So not just the states losing money, but also losing the talents of those people, you know, the treatment that they would give people in hospitals.
So the way to think about immigration, there are two sides to it. We keep talking almost exclusively about the right of immigrants to come to the United States. We should. Let me repeat that. That’s not my—that’s not what I’m against. What I’m against is in doing that we’re not giving sufficient attention to what the so-called sending countries—you know, they are not sending because there is no agent situation, right—what those countries are losing when architects, doctors, you know, academics, professors, nurses, and all of—when they flee those countries and come here, what happens in those countries.
And it’s a very important question because pro-immigrant groups also want development for African countries. But one of the things that you end up achieving is the opposite of development because the very sectors of society that would ordinarily help those societies to develop, they’re coming to the United States. They’re in Canada. There’s a particular school in Canada, I think Carleton University, has more than 3,500 Nigerian students. One school. So there’s something there that is not about that school, but it’s about the places where those students are coming from.
In a Nigerian context, as I’m speaking to you, Nigerian professors have been on strike since February 14 this year. So many public universities have been shut for seven going on eight months. It’s important to talk about that, to put pressure on those leaders. So this is where the pressure on, you know, strengthening civil society, you know, ultimately is about pressure on those leaders so that a much more stable Africa, a much more prosperous Africa is also good for the United States.
Let me repeat this. I am not against immigration. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that the more we talk about that, we should also pay attention to the circumstances in places where people are coming from.
FASKIANOS: So your blog post was entitled Is Western Policy on Migration Holding Africa Back? And you did that—you published it on August 23rd—
OBADARE: OK, that’s it.
FASKIANOS: —and you can find it on the CFR website on the Africa in Transition blog post.
So we’ve gotten two upvotes on Pearl Robinson, who’s a professor at Tufts University’s, statement and question: I love the statement that tolerance is not a uniquely or specifically Western value. That’s why we have to identify sources and examples beyond Western contexts to support this argument. So maybe you could comment on what are those sources and examples beyond Western contexts.
OBADARE: Oh. Number one, thank you. Yes, we both agree.
There are—so if—let me go back to an African context. You could think about all kinds of proverbs that talk about allowing the other person to be, right, affirming the integrity of, you know, the other—the right of the other person to practice their religion the way they see fit. And this is not just Africa. In every cultural context you have those—you know, those resources where people sort of agree that, look, you—I’m going to do mine, you’re going to do yours, but because we want peace to reign, you know—you know, we’re not going to, you know, sort of get in each other’s way. And whether in the context of Indonesia or in the context of, you know, Brazil, those things are not there. In fact, when you think about it, there’s really no alternative to that, right, because the only alternative to that is that I’m going to use the blunt power of the state to impose my own way on you. And what is going to happen? The moment you are able to displace me from power, you’re going to use the same blunt—(laughs)—power of the state to go against my people. And at the end of the day, you know, how did—was it Gandhi who said, you know, at the end of the day an eye for an eye leaves all of us—(laughs)—blind?
At the end of the day, we have to disagree profoundly with each other. We have to create these places where we continue to pursue those disagreements, but under a common agreement that what we will not do is to seek to wipe each other out simply because we disagree. That’s what tolerance is all about, right, that there is something worth defending about a society. And that’s—and oh, by the way, that disagreement is not going to end. That is going to continue because the everyday interactions among citizens, you know, sort of the push and pull, the rubbing together, not just physically like on the train and, you know, like—but there’s something about, you know, different cultures, you know, with different understandings, with different orientations, you know, with different expectations about norms, about—you know, about what’s decent, about what’s right, what’s honest, what’s not honest, all those things can only be—they will never be fully resolved. But within a secular context, people can continue to disagree about them.
And this is where, you know—I think the first question I was asked I was making the point about, you know, the civic culture, you know, the spaces where that culture gets to develop. Schools are extremely important. Teaching people at a very young age to see themselves as social equals to the extent that at the end of the day what I believe and what you—and to see how people change their minds over time. I’m not what—there are things I used to hold sacred ten years ago that I now think—and I think, that was stupid. Maybe ten years from now I will turn to those things and say, yeah, that was not so stupid, you know? I mean, so—but the all—the constant is that I continue to have the opportunity to exchange ideas with other people.
And so—and this is extremely pertinent since we are talking about, you know, African politics, where, I mean, think about the forces of ethnicity where people sort of think, you know, my commitment to my ethnic group is so strong. You want toleration precisely in those places because without it it’s blood and thunder and destruction.
FASKIANOS: So we are out of time, but I just—I’m going to throw one last question at you from Ambassador June Perry, who’s a former Vance Professor at Mount Holyoke College and a diplomat-in-residence at Howard University.
In your opinion, what is the most important element of a new American strategy toward Africa? And how best to implement a new approach as support for African institutions and economies? Has a very long history.
OBADARE: Thank you, Ambassador. Great question.
I’ve also written about this, by the way. I was one of the first people to respond to the strategy. You can also link to it when it came out.
I think the most important thing I saw, it’s not about actual policy; it’s about the tone. So you could see—I think I was trying to count the number of times in a twelve-, fifteen-page policy where the—you know, the policy says the United States will work in concert, the United States will collaborate, the United States will emphasize partnership. So there is a moral change. There is—the tone is completely different. And I think it’s coming out of—again, there is no time to discuss this, but you know, George Floyd, as you know, is part of it. Black Lives Matter is part of it. You know, the whole movement towards what is called decolonization—problems, you know. The upsurge of just arguments attacking the United States for doing preemptory looking down on other countries, not being—you know, not taking the interests of others into consideration, this policy sort of took all those things, folded it together, and is a—it’s a very conciliatory, you know, strategy.
The question is, how do you translate this wonderful literature? How do you translate it into actual policy? I think that’s the challenge that the United States faces, you know, for the foreseeable future. But if you are a student of African politics, if you are a student of U.S. foreign policy towards Africa, you sort of like this because it’s not the United States wagging its finger and saying I’m going to do X. It’s the United States saying I’m just going to come to a roundtable and we are going to talk, and I’m going to see you African countries as equal partners. I think that’s changed. It’s intangible, but it’s very profound, and I think it’s extremely important.
FASKIANOS: Well, thank you, Ebenezer, for this wonderful hour. We had so many questions in the written and raised hands. I’m sorry we could not get to all of you. We did our best. We’re just going to have to have you back.
And you all should sign up to get alerts for Africa in Transition. Look for Ebenezer Obadare’s forthcoming book. When is that coming out, in October?
OBADARE: It’s coming out tomorrow.
FASKIANOS: Oh, it’s coming out tomorrow? OK.
OBADARE: Yes. (Laughs.)
FASKIANOS: Tomorrow. So you should look for that. It will be available. And we appreciate your being with us.
OBADARE: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: The next Academic Webinar will be on Wednesday, September 21, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time. Adil Najam, professor and dean emeritus of Boston University’s Frederick Pardee School of Global Studies, will lead a conversation on climate change.
So, in addition to the things I already cited, please follow at @CFR_academic on Twitter and visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues.
Thank you again for being with us. Thank you, Ebenezer.
OBADARE: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: And we hope you all have a great day.
OBADARE: You too. Thank you.