• Iran
    Women This Week: Iranian Schoolgirls Targeted by Poison Attacks
    Welcome to “Women Around the World: This Week,” a series that highlights noteworthy news related to women and U.S. foreign policy. This week’s post covers February 25 to March 3.
  • West Africa
    Preventing Conflict in Coastal West Africa
    The Global Fragility Act allows the United States to encourage greater stability in Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Togo over the next ten years, argues Eric Silla, though it will be contentious and require high-level diplomacy.
  • Benin
    Benin's Democracy Continues its Downward Spiral
    Benin has been something of a poster child for African democracy following its move away from Marxism–Leninism after the collapse of the Soviet Union. No longer. On paper, Benin is a constitutional democracy conducted according to the rule of law. But since Patrice Talon was elected in 2016, the president has systematically squeezed the substance out of the democratic and constitutional forms, leaving only a shell. Over time, Talon has intimidated or banned the opposition, politicized the security services and the judiciary, and limited the media. Freedom House has charted the downward spiral: between 2019 and 2020 it lost its status as a “free” country. The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, a part of the African Union (AU), also publicly criticized the trajectory. Talon's response was to withdraw Benin from the court's jurisdiction. The April 11 presidential elections are a major signpost of the transition to an authoritarian—if weak—state.  Talon banned opposition candidates, the supporters of whom boycotted the election. Turnout was perhaps 26 percent of those eligible to vote. African reaction to the elections is disappointing but not surprising. Election observers from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the AU praised the elections as being "calm" and "orderly." Election observers from African organization tend to be loath to criticize elections in African countries. The U.S embassy's official statement after the elections was conventional if hardly hard-hitting. It called on those aggrieved to pursue their claims in the courts not the streets, urged the government to “consult with all stakeholders” on the way forward, and expressed concern about the low turnout. (Benin has been a political ally in the struggle against jihadism in West Africa.) Over time, authoritarian rule is like to promote instability in Benin—as it has elsewhere in Africa. For now, however, Talon appears to have gotten off scot-free. He is not a tyrant in the style of Uganda's Idi Amin or even of Chad's Déby, thereby muting Western criticism. Indeed, he appears to be an example of a new style of African "Big Man" who comes to power without need for a military coup. No longer do military units seize the central bank, the presidential palace, the radio station, and install one of their own as president. Instead, duly elected heads of state gradually erode democratic and constitutional norms. John Magufuli in Tanzania was another example of this approach, and he, too, appeared to be successful until he literally dropped dead. This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.
  • France
    Art Protests Shine Spotlight on Post-Colonial Restitution Question
    Mwazulu Diyabanza, a Congolese-origin activist in France, first attracted social media attention by seeming to steal an artifact from the Quai Branly Museum in Paris to protest slavery, colonialism and the alleged French theft of Africa's cultural patrimony. The attempted theft was carefully staged for live streaming. The museum authorities stopped the theft. In July, he repeated his protest at a museum in Marseilles. It was also live-streamed. Diyabanza is now back in the news because he, along with four accomplices, will stand trial on September 30. Diyabanza and his supporters hope that the trial will put on the stand France's colonial history. Fueled by social media, the Diyabanza episode is now in the mainstream media.   France's relationship with many of its former African colonies is close. Indeed, French interests in Africa are seen by some as the basis for France's international standing as more than merely a large member state of the European Union. In 2020, against a background of domestic protests against inequality (the "gilet jaunes" demonstrations), the French version of the "Black Lives Matter" protests that focused on the history of French participation in the slave trade and colonialism, the new assertiveness of French citizens of colonial origin, and the unfocused anger at the disruptions caused by the coronavirus, the Diyabanza trial has the potential for a renewed popular focus on French holdings of African art. In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to return to Africa the African art in French museums. He established a commission to consider how that might be done. The commission issued a report that has failed to win widespread support in France. According to U.S. media, the French government has announced the restitution of 27 objects, of which only one has been returned. (It is claimed that there are some 90,000 sub-Saharan African art objects in French museums.)   Though the media tends to be focused on the issues of race, class, and colonialism, the question of the return of art to countries of origin has many dimensions and is long standing. For example, successive Greek governments have demanded that the United Kingdom return the Parthenon fragments in the British Museum (the Elgin Marbles). On the other hand, it is argued that great works of art are part of the world's heritage and do not belong to the descendants of those that made them. Hence, so this argument runs, African-origin art no more belongs to contemporary Africa than the works of Leonardo or Michelangelo belong to modern Florentines. With some exceptions, African art housed in Western museums is carefully curated and is accessible to the public. (For example, there is a major collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that periodically presents "block-buster" exhibits of African art.) In sub-Saharan Africa, there are few institutions that can safeguard and display art works of world importance. In what may be a partial way forward, however, France is largely funding the construction of a state-of-the-art museum in Benin that would display the 27 returned works of art, among others.
  • Nigeria
    Buhari Orders Land Borders Closed in Long-Running Effort to Boost Rice Production
    In August, President Muhammadu Buhari ordered closed Nigeria’s land border with Benin, preventing the import of goods. The move significantly affected trade in foodstuffs, which had already been affected by various past import restrictions. This recent move is part of an effort to tackle smuggling and associated corruption, but also to spur the domestic agricultural industry. On October 14, Nigeria ordered closed all of Nigeria’s borders with Benin, as well as those with all other countries, for the same reasons. With the market for smuggled food now restricted, domestic food prices—already high—have gone up and the economy of neighboring Benin—a staging area for smuggling into Nigeria—has been devastated. Imports into Nigeria are to come through sea ports, where customs duties can be imposed more easily than at land borders. Nigeria’s vital oil exports are not affected.  In conjunction with the announcement of additional border closures, Hameed Ali, comptroller general of the Nigerian Customs Services, announced that there is no timeline for reopening the borders, which will remained closed “until we have total control over what comes in.”  The increased rice smuggling, chiefly from Benin, likely stems from a long-running effort by President Buhari to increase domestic Nigerian food production and support Nigerian farmers. In June 2015, weeks after taking office, the Buhari government in effect restricted the import of rice in order to encourage Nigerian rice production. They did this in part by not providing favorable foreign exchange rates to would-be rice importers, making imported rice more expensive. While it is true that Nigerian rice production has since steadily increased, so have smuggling and the price of rice. (To an extent, the same is true for the price of other food products.) Soon after the restriction, rice imports to Benin skyrocketed. Many guess that would-be smugglers accounted for the increase of rice imports to Benin—now the world’s second-largest exporter of rice—to meet demand for rice in Nigeria, itself expected to be the world's largest buyer of rice. Nigeria’s borders reflect late-nineteenth century agreements among the British, French, and Germans. Most African borders were similarly created by European colonial powers. The point being, the borders rarely reflect indigenous history or culture. In the case of Nigeria, while there are formal border crossings with customs services along the main roads, there are literally hundreds of others along footpaths and minor roads that are unregulated. The practical consequences of closing the land borders is likely to vary from one part of the country to another, based on government capacity to enforce closures. Further complicating the decision, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), of which Nigeria is a prominent member, is based on the principle of free movement of people, goods, and services. So, too, is the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, signed by fifty-four of fifty-five African countries—including Nigeria—and which went into effect in July 2019. The closure of Nigeria’s land borders is contrary to the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of those agreements. The Nigerian border closure episode highlights how difficult it will be to establish a real—rather than aspirational—Africa-wide free trade regime.
  • Benin
    Confronting Africa's Role in the Slave Trade
    Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani has written a sensitive essay, published in the Wall Street Journal, on the African role in the trans-Atlantic and trans-Saharan slave trade. She observes that the four-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of slaves in Virginia coincides with questions about guilt and responsibility and a debate in the United States about reparations to the descendants of slaves. She observes that this fraught debate is largely absent in Africa, even though Africans were deeply involved in the slave trade. Africans raided for slaves often in connivance with local chiefs and then acted as middlemen with European and Arab purchasers. She recounts stories of the ambivalence of at least some Africans about the role of their ancestors in the slave trade. She reports that Donald Duke, former governor of Calabar state and a good-government presidential candidate in the 2019 Nigerian elections, acknowledges that his ancestors participated in the slave trade. However, Duke says “I’m not ashamed of it because I personally wasn’t directly involved.” However, he does not want history to be forgotten. While governor, he established a museum of Calabar’s history has a slave-exporting hub. Others who are deeply embarrassed by their ancestors’ participation and try to hide it, and some still think they are paying a price for their ancestors’ sins, quoting the Book of Exodus that God is “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children…to the third and fourth generation.”  Nwaubani’s welcome report provides another dimension to the conversation about slavery, in Africa as well as in the United States. But, the subject is painful. Nwaubani recounts a conversation with a Tanzanian now living in the United States: “Because of the crimes, the pain, the humiliation that I saw them (descendants of slaves) suffer in the United States,” he avoided talking about his family’s role in slavery, instead highlighting Tanzanian music, architecture, and poetry. Though the histories are interlinked, former Governor Duke does not believe that Africa should play a role in the American reparations debate. After all, the focus of that debate is in on maltreatment and injustice in the United States—not Africa.
  • Terrorism and Counterterrorism
    Coastal West Africa Now Facing Islamist Extremist Threat
    Adam Valavanis is a former intern with the Africa Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. He received a master’s degree in conflict studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science. West Africa is facing a growing threat from Islamist extremist groups. Many of these groups originated in Mali but have since spilled over its borders, with jihadis establishing themselves in the north and east of Burkina Faso. The country has become a desirable haven for many groups because of the security vacuum that has defined the country following the deposition of longtime strongman Blaise Compaore. The presence of these groups, including Ansaroul Islam, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen, has precipitated a rise in interethnic and interreligious tensions in a country that has for years been characterized by peaceful coexistence.  Burkina Faso's inability to clamp down on many of the extremist groups operating inside its borders has allowed such groups to use the country as a launch pad for attacks in coastal West African countries, most notably Benin. Burkina Faso borders Pendjari National Park in Benin's northwest. This forest has become the site of several incursions by jihadis, who have attacked communities and tourists in the area. The situation has become so dire in the north that both France and the United States have issued travel warnings for Pendjari and the surrounding areas. Such incursions by Islamist groups come at a time of political fragility in Benin, following its controversial legislative elections in April. The protests and general sense of insecurity that have gripped the country in the last few months could provide fertile ground to extremist groups looking to gain a foothold in the country. Officials fear that jihadis have also infiltrated Togo and Ghana.  Currently, the most comprehensive effort to combat Islamist terrorism and intercommunal violence in the region is the G5 Sahel Joint Force, a security partnership between five states in the Sahel and supported by France. Unfortunately, the G5 has faced funding shortfalls, preventing it from quickly and effectively responding to threats as they arise.  For most of the past decade, coastal West Africa has been spared the Islamist violence that has dominated the Sahel. It hosts some of the continent's most stable democracies, including Senegal, Ghana, and Benin. The region has also become a hotspot of foreign investment, attracting interest from the West as well as China and Turkey. The presence of Islamist groups, along with ongoing issues such as corruption and drug trafficking, threatens to upend all of this.  
  • France
    Macron Leads Renewed Calls for Return of Looted African Artifacts
    A report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron recommends that France should return to Africa art and artifacts held in French cultural institutions. It characterizes the collections as part of “a system of appropriation and alienation” that takes away from Africans their “spiritual nourishment that is the foundation of their humanity.” The authors of the report are Felwine Sarr, a Senegalese economist, and Benedicte Savoy, a French historian. As part of his “reset” of France’s relations with Africa, President Macron in 2017 said he wanted to start returning African cultural artifacts within the next five years, and has since called for an international conference on the return of African artifacts. However, under French law, the French government is prohibited from returning or “alienating” items in public art collections.  In October, discussions organized in the Netherlands by the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG), comprising representatives of European museums with significant African collections and Nigeria, produced an agreement to loan artifacts back to Nigeria within three years. The artifacts would be housed at Nigeria’s planned Benin Royal Museum. Many of the artifacts in question were looted from Benin City in a retaliatory British raid in 1897. The Sarr and Savoy report is non-binding and it is unlikely that France will return significant amounts of art to Africa anytime soon. At present, Macron has committed to returning twenty-six artifacts to Benin. But the report, together with the agreement reached by members of the BDG, will likely reinvigorate the long standing debate about the disposition of art and cultural artifacts acquired as a result of colonialism.  At first glance, the return of art to Africa from European or American collections is appealing, the restitution of a cultural heritage looted by former colonial masters. Certainly many of the African objects had a religious purpose. Native Americans have been successful in recovering from American institutions art and artifacts, especially those with a religious value. Similarly, the Greeks have been demanding for years that the British Museum return the Elgin Marbles to the Parthenon in Athens.  But important issues remain. Too many museums in Africa lack the resources to protect and care for art and artifacts. There are plenty of examples of works having been stolen from poorly-secured African museums. The hyper-monetization of art makes theft even more likely than in the past, especially in very poor countries characterized by high levels of corruption. On the other hand, art housed at, say, the Musee Quai Branly in Paris or the British Museum in London or the Metropolitan Museum in New York, are secure, cared for, and readily available to the public. There is also the question of where the return of art should stop. Should Italian renaissance altar pieces in American museums automatically be returned to Italian churches? Or El Greco’s religious paintings to Spanish churches? Or Powhatan’s Mantle, now in England, be returned to Virginia? It can be argued that renaissance art, Dutch old masters, and African bronzes are part of the world’s cultural patrimony, not just that of the countries where they were originally created.   
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
    African Development Revisited
    This is a guest post by Owen Cylke. Mr. Cylke is a development professional and a retired senior foreign service officer with USAID. A spate of press articles over the past several months speculate on the quality and direction of development in Africa. For the most part, the articles reflect the establishment view that things are looking brighter; but brighter for whom? For politicians who look for any sign of progress that might generate electoral capital? For investors who take advantage of promising reports and then lobby for ever-increasing favorable treatment in regulatory regimes? Or for international consulting organizations that would build on optimism for their marketing efforts? But certainly not brighter for the poor who continue to hover at the 50 percent breakpoint–50 percent earning more or less than $1.25 a day. Certainly not for the burgeoning populations of young people seeking employment off-farm and in Africa’s cities. Indeed, if there is a singular sign of weakness on the development front, it is the African disconnect from the global experience and historical association that industrialization and urbanization create higher and more productive levels of employment and contributions to national GDP. While the international development community remains preoccupied with agriculture and the rural sector, African heads of state are looking beyond that to a larger and historically grounded understanding of the development process–a process known as economic transformation. Their understanding is that the real test for development will be found in the extent to which economies can successfully move labor and resources into activities with high and increasing levels of productivity. And it is widely recognized that these activities are more likely to be in the industrial and urban rather than agricultural and rural sectors. It is true, even paradoxical, that the modernization of the agricultural sector is key to the desired transformation. But the failure of the development community to engage on a larger development agenda makes the transition from agriculture to industry, from rural to urban settlement, and from self-employment to formal wage employment difficult. Labor may well still flow out of agriculture; indeed it will. But in the absence of deliberate and targeted policies, it will be absorbed largely into the informal sector where the scope for sustained growth in productivity and incomes is limited. In the spatial dimension, that spells slums. Just last week, the New Partnership for African Development’s (NEPAD) Planning and Coordination Agency (NPCA) and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) hosted a continental forum in Cotonou, Benin to further advance the intent of African leadership to achieve the long sought transition from an entrenched agricultural and rural development model to one that supports more productive industrial and urban activity. UNECA has recently also published a report on the importance and prospects for economic transformation in Africa as input to the debate surrounding the Millennium Development Goals post 2015. This disconnect is now finding voice in the international community. New and established voices on the development front are contributing to the discussion. Writing in Foreign Policy, Rick Rowden notes that African economies are not generating the kind of employment off-farm that Asia did as part of its Green Revolution that lifted millions out of poverty. And the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Alumni is sponsoring a workshop in collaboration with the Woodrow Wilson Center on May 22 directed to “Agriculture, Structural Change, and the Urban Imperative.”
  • Nigeria
    Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea
    A U.S. Navy boat patrols the waters of Nigeria's Lagos harbour, March 24, 2009. (Akintunde Akinleye/Courtesy Reuters) Such has been the increase in piracy that London-based insurers Lloyd’s Market Association has listed the waters off Nigeria and Benin in the same risk category as Somalia. However, there are important differences between the piracy in the two regions. In West Africa, piracy tends to be of the “hit and run” variety, where ships are looted, rather than taken hostage, as is the case in the Horn. The Gulf of Guinea pirates also appear to be more violent. In Somalia, there is no effective government authority that can counter piracy, and an international anti-piracy patrol has stepped in to fill the void. In the Gulf of Guinea, there are capable governments and no international patrol. Nigeria President Goodluck Jonathan has promised close anti-piracy cooperation with the government of Benin, probably more affected by the scourge because a significant portion of the state revenue comes from port charges. Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has begun to receive extensive media attention, especially in the aftermath of the Lloyd’s Market Association notice. If piracy continues to grow in the Gulf of Guinea, there may be calls for greater involvement by the international community. There is a press report that Nigerian naval officers, representatives of its maritime industry and other groups have already met with U.S. officials. In the past, Nigerian government officials and Nigerian naval officers have been complicit in illegal oil theft (called “bunkering”) in the Gulf of Guinea. Part of the challenge of addressing piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, for local governments and for the international community, will be the culture of impunity that continues to exist with respect to maritime crime in the region.