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Western paternalism in Africa reaches its limits

Decades of failed policy, including US and French counterterrorism programs, have some African leaders looking for alternatives.

Analysis | Africa

Viral footage of recent pro-coup soldiers waving Russian flags in the face of cheering crowds provoked real concern, with major publications warning about a growing “Russian influence” in West and Central Africa. 

This followed recent statements from Secretary of State Antony Blinken on “countering Russian influence” on the continent and the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act , which has already passed the House. 

Anxiety about Soviet influence has dictated U.S. Africa policy for decades. Nonetheless, the world has changed and America is failing to adapt to the 21st century. This Great Power Competition approach is stale to Americans and dangerous to Africans. Modern Africa policy must respond to the causes of African frustration, not just the visible symptoms.

The Burkinabé soldier waving the Russian flag is unlikely sponsored by a partially mobilized Russia, even if some Burkinabé protestors call for Russian sponsorship. The relevant factor in this unrest is the targeting of French symbols and institutions. Protests call for an end to French involvement in counter-terrorism efforts and a pursuit of “other partners.” 

If America characterizes this as Russian subversion, then it misses the point. French and American security strategies in West Africa have been ineffective, even worsening the crisis. A new generation of Africans are rejecting the status quo. There is little concrete evidence of Russian involvement since the coup, even with vague invitations from the new military junta. In the past days, the military government has even changed their messaging, with the newly appointed Prime Minister Tambela directly stating that Burkina Faso “must not break from France for Russia.”

But this doesn’t change the intent of the pro-Russian gestures. The waving of a Russian flag is no doubt a primarily symbolic gesture, adopting Russian imagery in a show of anti-establishment bravado.

The United States is tying itself to a nostalgic dream of a liberal international order, with little thought for what that means to those on the periphery of America’s global hegemony. Burkina Faso has suffered for decades under American global leadership, specifically America’s deference to France in the region. 

Since the 1960s, France has been determined to maintain a strong grasp on its former West African colonies. Occasionally symptoms of this come into the public eye, like how Niger is critical to French energy supply while 90 percent of the country is without electricity. Through the Cold War, the United States functionally deputized France to keep communism out of its former colonies, but this came at a huge cost to the African populations in these regions.

One of the most popular leaders of Burkina Faso (and Africa for that matter) was Thomas Sankara. Although he came to power through a military coup, his progressive reforms won him international acclaim and French animosity. When he was gunned down in 1987, his killer and successor Blaise Compaoré was praised by the United States and France alike for reversing all of Sankara’s policies, despite their popularity. The New York Times highlighted Compaoré’s perspective on the coup in the face of Sankara’s “eccentric policies.” Foreign involvement in Sankara’s murder was an open secret.

In 2016, two years after the fall of Compaoré’s 27 year dictatorship,  the government of Burkina Faso called for the declassification of French military documents on the issue. In the spring of 2022, the government of Burkina Faso tried those involved with his murder. Although the guilty verdict was largely toothless, it was hugely symbolic for West Africans and a major rallying point for the anti-French protests today.

In a 2017 speech to a university in Burkina Faso, French president Emmanuel Macron implied an end to France’s long held approach. But in 2020, Macron increased his troop count in Mali. The French military buildup, even in light of their 2022 withdrawal, has fueled a sense of anger and betrayal that plays on the history of violence and colonization. 

U.S. collaboration with France in security efforts in West Africa directly ties the French neo-colonial history with the American world order.  French counter-terrorism failures are aptly tied to American failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, so American-endorsed French soldiers seem like an extension of the same failing approach to policy. French and American flags are side-by-side in the anti-colonial tradition of African intellectuals and revolutionaries alike. Institutions like the permanent members of the UN Security Council are based on global paradigms from 1945 — a time when Burkina Faso was called French West Africa.

Russia would not be a better partner for Burkina Faso in any sense, considering the Putin-tied Wagner Group’s atrocities in the Central African Republic and Mali. Despite this, the United States has done little to consider why young Africans might grow to despise the American flag. 

A new perspective is emerging in the Global South, one where challenging U.S. interests is almost punk rock. Seeking to antagonize the American establishment is becoming comparable to the American conservative language about “triggering the liberals” — you should seek to provoke your ideological opponents for the sake of their own discomfort. 

The practical effect of this developing approach to anti-imperialism in Africa could go in many directions. Even if Russia does remain the archetypal rebel against the American century, it likely won’t be able to capitalize on this in a meaningful way for the foreseeable future. A strong relationship with countries like Burkina Faso will not be able to replace things like the lucrative European markets. It will at best be a way to share in the mission of “triggering” NATO. 

The more likely outcome is an effort from China to assert itself as a preferable representation of the anti-establishment. China already has invested heavily in Africa through its Belt and Road Initiative. If America continues to be the patron of a hegemonic order rejected by millions, China will realize that it stands to gain popular support from all corners of the world by provoking anti-American sentiment.

This means that an action like the invasion of Taiwan could both alienate China from a global order, but also endear it to an alternative counter-order. The more this counter-order develops, the more attractive it will be. The more America demands that the Global South adhere to its stated positions, the weaker American sanctions and diplomatic pressures will become. 

Already, alternative superpowers like China are earning a favorable reputation in the region. However imperfect, China and Russia appear to offer tangible results and the promise of real change in the future. There is little point in arguing whether this is a fair conclusion  — this is a game of interpretation and America has a reputation for talking more than it listens.

By maintaining this paternalistic approach to Africa, the United States dooms its long-term global image. The only path out is to apply the core values of the American experiment to contemporary Africa. The United States should denounce neo-colonialism by its European allies, past and present. The United States should seek out African solutions to African problems. 

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are hopeful values when applied equally and without bias. It is our prerogative as Americans to disavow historical contradictions and pursue a respectful partnership with Africa.

Supporters of Burkina Faso's new junta protest against the arrival of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) delegation in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso October 4, 2022. The sign reads"Down with ECOWAS France". REUTERS/Vincent Bado
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