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Nanjala Nyabola on the African Union Summit & Neocolonial Influence of U.S., Russia & China

Web ExclusiveFebruary 21, 2024
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In Part 2 of our interview with Kenyan writer and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola, she discusses in more detail this year’s African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, regional and economic tensions, and the neocolonial role of the United States, Russia and China on the continent.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue with our web exclusive on the African Union Summit that took place this past weekend in Ethiopia. The summit took place in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. It condemned Israel’s assault on Gaza, called for its immediate end. The chair of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki, Saturday said Israel’s offensive was the “most flagrant” violation of international humanitarian law, and accused Israel of having, quote, “exterminated” Gaza’s residents. Meanwhile, Azali Assoumani, president of the Comoros and the outgoing chair of the African Union, praised the case brought by South Africa against Israel at the International Court of Justice, where the court ruled there was a plausible case that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. During last year’s AU Summit, an Israeli delegate was removed from the plenary hall amidst a disagreement over Israel’s observer status at the AU.

For more, we’re joined by Nanjala Nyabola, a writer and political analyst from Kenya. She’s joining us from London. In Part 1 of our discussion, we talked about the stance of the AU on Gaza. In addition, you had this very strong statement by the Brazilian President Lula calling what Israel was doing genocide, and now he’s persona non grata in Israel. But there were other issues that were addressed at the summit. And I’m wondering if you could take them on one by one, beginning with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and the M23, for a global audience that may not be following this at all.

NANJALA NYABOLA: Sure. It’s important, I think, to remember that the tension between Rwanda and the DRC has never really abated. It has fluctuated from being very hot to very cold, but it’s never really abated, going all the way back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the mass emigration of Hutu civilians, but Rwanda argues also militants who were party to the genocide also entered eastern Congo, and therefore there’s been this long history of unrest in the region. This has been an issue at the regional level with the East African Community, and it’s come up again at the African Union, because the two — relations between the two countries are on the outs again.

The Democratic Republic of Congo argues that Rwanda is not only supporting militia who are active in the region, who are terrorizing citizens in the region, but is also party to this clandestine extraction of resources from the Congo, notably coltan, which is an integral part of the semiconductor and, therefore, the electronics industry and one of the most valuable minerals for the electronics industry. And so, the DRC claims that Rwanda has been party to this clandestine extraction that’s been happening in the region. And Rwanda claims that the DRC is harboring Hutu militants who had been party to the genocide in 1994, and is supporting this network of people who have basically gotten amnesty for their participation in the Rwandan genocide.

It’s been an issue that has tried to be resolved at the bilateral and multilateral level. Both nations are party to the East African Community, which is one of the — we call them regional economic communities, but they’re really more political entities, as well. And the African Union has taken it on, because fighting has escalated in the last few months, particularly since the — at the advent of the last election in the DRC, which was in December. We’ve seen a massive escalation in violence and displacement in the region, mostly targeting civilians. There are new militia groups that have organized in the last few months, and that is cause for great alarm. And so, this is one of the issues that the African Union is trying to resolve, because, obviously, the DRC is a large country. It’s an influential country in the region just by the sheer size. But also, Rwanda has, you know, an interesting relationship with other African countries that’s been, let’s say, fraught in the last few years.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you also about the increasing U.S. military footprint in Africa, expanding beyond the Horn of Africa, where U.S. forces have been in the past, and, clearly, how the African Union is dealing with this, whether it comes up or not. There are obviously countries, like Kenya, that are much closer to the U.S. Kenya is even now considering sending troops at the request of the United States. They had a multinational force in Haiti.

NANJALA NYABOLA: So, the main military entity that is present — U.S. military entity that is present in Africa is AFRICOM. And AFRICOM has an interesting relationship. They are bilateral relationships with multiple countries in Africa, and then they are also multilateral relationships that happen at the regional level with the various entities.

One of the interesting things, for example, that connects U.S. military interests in Africa to Gaza and Israel is that in some of the bilateral agreements that the U.S. has with Kenya, for example, that this is on record, that one of the ways in which Kenya was able to get financial assistance from the United States was to agree to normalize relationships with Israel. So we’re seeing that there’s a massive political footprint that the U.S. has on the continent, that’s much deeper than what it appears even on the surface. AFRICOM has a massive presence on the continent, has permanent missions, permanent bases in multiple countries in East Africa. And sometimes the relationships with the local communities can be very tense. Several countries in the Sahel have decided that they would like for the U.S. military presence in the region to be reduced.

It is impossible to analyze this in the current moment without thinking about, again, Russia and the war in Ukraine, because Russia has also taken advantage of this tension that exists between the African communities, African people and the U.S. military presence, to also expand its influence on the continent, to position itself as a putative savior from, you know, American neocolonialism. And so, Russia has also made significant inroads in this regard.

So, it’s one of those situations whereby the U.S. military presence on the continent is definitely not universally welcome. It’s definitely created a lot of political friction. There are significant claims of neocolonialism, of militarism, of unprecedented influence over domestic politics. But at the same time, there is also this inability to maneuver, because as one nation withdraws, another one seems to rise to take its place. And so, for many African people, it feels like a false choice between different forms of European, of Western — well, “Western” is not the word — of neocolonial expansion into politics on the continent. It’s a false binary that’s being created between either you accept the U.S. military presence or you make room for a Russian military presence, either you accept U.S. economic interventions or you accept China’s economic interventions. And ultimately, the end result is that African people are stuck between a rock and a hard place, and neither one of these alternatives delivers the freedom that many communities hoped independence would bring.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And speaking of between a rock and a hard place, the debt crisis that’s faced by many African nations. Has the AU attempted to address this in any way at this meeting, and the forced dependency on foreign loans for so many of these countries? And obviously, you mentioned China is increasingly trying to position itself as an alternative to the IMF and other forms of European financing.

NANJALA NYABOLA: So, the most urgent financial crisis for many African nations at the moment is the fact that the dollar is overheating, and it has created a balance-of-payments issue, particularly with the large countries that trade in dollars. And this is South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia. Many countries are struggling with the balance of payments, just because of the way the dollar is performing internationally. There has been a lot of talk about — and China is taking advantage of this in many ways — shifting, de-dollarizing international trade and shifting to the renminbi and moving away from the dollar, just because of the knock-on effects that it causes. Certainly, Kenya and South Africa have taken a big hit in this regard.

And it creates, as you said, opportunities for foreign nations to exert influence on domestic policy by trading financing, budgetary support for political support in other regards. This is one of the things that we’re expecting to see a great deal of. You see all of these Russia-Africa summit, China-Africa summit, Italy-Africa summit, France-Africa summit. All of these summits are basically conversations that are trying to find ways of exchanging, you know, financial, budgetary support for more political influence over the continent, and also access to resources.

The other thing that’s, again, important to pay attention to in relation to Russia and Ukraine is that many European countries are dependent on Russian natural gas, and they are dependent on resources coming from Russia. And so it’s not been as easy for Europe to extricate itself from trading with Russia as they would like. And so, Africa exists as this alternative source for many natural resources. Russia is dependent on diamonds, for example, from the Central African Republic, and that creates a line of political influence. There’s all of these economic interrelationships that, by extension, affect African politics in ways that are not necessarily constructive for African people, whether we’re talking about conflict or whether we’re talking about subtle interference in politics.

And this, to go back to the conversation that we had before about coups in the Sahel region, this is one of the points of contention that many of these coup leaders are bringing to the people. These are young people. Many of the coup leaders are below the age of 40. They have not lived under colonization. They have only known the economic crisis that has been triggered by neoliberalism. They have only known that there are no jobs, that there is climate change, that there is violence, that there is foreign interference in politics. And so, a military leader who can speak up against foreign interference then can position themselves as a power broker, as a source of hope for young people, who are being told in all directions that the economic system does not work in their favor, that global politics doesn’t work in their favor.

And so, this is the context in which the AU is trying to come up with a position for Africa on various political issues, mediating all of these regional conflicts, many of which have direct connections to politics overseas. We’ve talked about the DRC and coltan, but there’s also Sudan. All of these things, you can trace the foreign origins and the African Union trying to come up with a way of articulating an African voice in global politics, while taking into account the very complex domestic politics that also exist in the various countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Nanjala Nyabola, you mentioned Sudan, the U.N. appealing for over $4 billion in aid for Sudan, which is facing some of the world’s worst internal displacement and hunger crises, after months of fighting between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces. What came of the discussion at the African Union?

NANJALA NYABOLA: It is we are not seeing a way forward, basically. There was a conversation about Sudan, but it hasn’t led to any concrete diplomatic commitments. Sudan is the third-largest country in Africa, and so the displacement crisis has had a knock-on effect. It is a — East Africa is what we would call a conflict system, in that displacement from one conflict tends to lead to massive influx of refugees to another conflict zone. And so, managing all these different interconnected conflicts, with Sudanese refugees in Chad, as Chad has its own war going, and Sudanese — receiving refugees from South Sudan because of the conflicts that are happening in South Sudan, we have this nexus of emigration, of refugee flows, of arms flows, everything happening in Sudan, and so it’s a really important diplomatic issue for the continent.

Unfortunately, the two belligerents, the two main belligerents in the Sudanese war, have not been sensitive to diplomatic intervention. There has been efforts to negotiate with Hemedti, who is the leader of the RSF, the Rapid Support Forces. This is a paramilitary unit that arose from the Janjaweed militia, which was castigated, obviously, for the genocide in Darfur. That has never been resolved. This current wave of fighting is built off of that crisis and the normalization of the Janjaweed as the RSF, wanting to take power. And they have tried to position themselves as a legitimate broker. But every time the RSF tries to participate in a conversation, the Sudanese national forces, the Sudanese army, declines to participate in that process, because they are not recognizing the RSF as a legitimate broker. They do not recognize them as a political entity. And so, what has emerged is that while there is a great deal of interest in finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Sudan, the two belligerents are not ready to come to the table, at least certainly not across from each other.

The Sudanese army made significant inroads this weekend in Khartoum. They reclaimed Omdurman, which is the second city in Khartoum. There was a great deal of relief, because there was a military unit that had been isolated in Omdurman, and so there was a significant amount of relief. But internationally, there is reluctance to deal with the Sudanese national army, again, because they also have a long history of violence against civilians. And at the same time, Western countries have expressed concern that it will lead to the return of Islamist extremists, who have been circling the Sudanese government for the better part of the last 30 years. So it’s not an easy thing to resolve.

But it is important to point out, I think, that the RSF is also a direct product of European foreign relations. The RSF, as part of its normalization, from becoming the Janjaweed to the RSF, was that they were Sudan’s official border force, that it was them who received all of the international funding that has gone into Sudan as an effort to try and reduce migration into the Mediterranean Sea. And so there is an element of accountability that is required from Western nations for their part in creating this force. There is an obligation there that I think needs to be restated, that Sudanese people had demanded a political transformation, they had organized a revolution, defied all odds, come out to the streets every day consistently, and they were disappointed, because the political interests of Western nations in keeping this paramilitary force as a backstop on migration directly undermined the democratic ambitions of Sudanese people.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we go, Nanjala, can you talk about how the AU addressed climate change on the continent?

NANJALA NYABOLA: Climate change remains a major priority. In part of the main discussions, the AU has a very strong program on climate change, and it has been a central part of all the summits that have happened. It’s usually framed in different language, because there is concern about desertification, the expansion of the Sahara Desert in the Sahel, and the loss of income from that. But climate change was a cross-cutting issue in several of the conversations that happened at the AU Summit.

We’re expecting to see a renewed commitment to addressing some of the more urgent outgrowths of the climate transformation, specifically the droughts that have troubled East Africa, and the demand for financing to support climate change mitigation. We expect there to be a renewed commitment from African nations to work as a bloc to demand better conditions for climate financing. At the subsequent COPs, African countries have been working together to develop a unified position on climate financing, so we’re expecting to see a renewed commitment from that.

But again, you know, the head of states summit in — the conversations of the head of states summit at the African Union tend to be overshadowed by the political issues that come up — in this case, Gaza sort of taking up a lot of the — rightfully so, taking up a great deal of attention. But climate change was one of the issues that was deliberated. And we’re expecting to see a renewed commitment for demanding justice in climate change financing for African nations, who are bearing the brunt of the climate change, of the disaster, the climate disaster, even though Africa, as a unit, as a bloc, contributes the least to carbon emissions around the world. So, expecting to see more conversations around that from the African Union as part of the agenda that emerges from the summit.

AMY GOODMAN: Nanjala Nyabola, we want to thank you so much for being with us, writer and political analyst from Kenya, speaking to us from London. To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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