Africa’s Soft Power in the Age of Global Afrophobia, By Oluwaseun Tella
… the book focuses on four key African states: Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Egypt and seeks to Africanize the concept of soft power by highlighting the prominent African philosophies of these states, notably Omolúwàbí, Ubuntu, Harambée and Pharaohism, respectively. A common denominator of these philosophies is that they emphasize collectivism as opposed to the Western notion of the primacy of individualism and a realistic international order.
Last week a book I wrote titled Africa’s soft power: philosophies, political values, foreign policies and cultural exports was launched as a webinar by the Institute for the Future of Knowledge at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), South Africa. Unlike hard power (the power of coercion), soft power (the power of attraction) is derived from the non-coercive attributes of states such as an admirable philosophy, an attractive culture, attractive political values and a multilateral foreign policy.
Professor Kammila Naidoo, Executive Dean, Faculty of Humanities, UJ, opened the lively discussion. Professor Thuli Madonsela, former Ombudsman and Law Trust Chair in Social Justice at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, chaired the event, while I was the keynote speaker. The speakers were Professor Peter Kagwanja, President and CEO of the Africa Policy Institute, Nairobi, Kenya; and Professor Christopher Isike, Department of Political Science, University of Pretoria, South Africa.
In his opening remarks, Prof Naidoo noted that the publication is the first book on Africa’s soft power and that the author’s quest to Africanize the concept is laudable in light of negative stereotypes, such as disease. , corruption, war and famine, which are associated with Africa.
I have noted that the book focuses on four key African states: Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Egypt and seeks to Africanize the concept of soft power by highlighting prominent African philosophies of these states, in particular Omolúwàbí, Ubuntu, Harambée and Pharaohism, respectively. A common denominator of these philosophies is that they emphasize collectivism as opposed to the Western notion of the primacy of individualism and a realistic international order.
Nigeria’s soft power includes the continental and global footprints of Nollywood (film industry), Afrobeats (music industry), multinational corporations and mega churches; promotion of democracy, technical assistance, peacemaking and peacekeeping and its role in international organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), African Union (AU) and United Nations (UN).
Beyond philosophies, I have noted other impressive sources of soft power from selected African states. Nigeria’s soft power includes the continental and global footprints of Nollywood (film industry), Afrobeats (music industry), multinational corporations and mega churches; promotion of democracy, technical assistance, peacemaking and peacekeeping and its role in international organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), African Union (AU) and United Nations (UN). Concretely, Nollywood and Afrobeats promoted Nigerian culture and challenged global anti-Niger sentiments. Abuja has implemented its foreign policy of promoting democracy in states such as Sierra Leone, São Tomé and Príncipe and Togo, and of restoring and maintaining peace in Liberia and Sierra Leone, providing 80 percent troops and 90 percent of the funding in the process. These soft power gains are however limited by political corruption, a democratic deficit, the country’s image crisis and Boko Haram terrorism.
South Africa’s soft power comes from a variety of sources, including its normal entrepreneurial spirit, evident in its voluntary nuclear disarmament and acting as a pioneer of organizations such as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. (NEPAD) and the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM); its hosting of sporting events and educational exchanges; peace diplomacy and the promotion of democracy in places like Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); the liberal constitution of the state and the ideas of its charismatic leaders; and the reach and influence of business and civil society in the country.
The tangible benefits of these sources of soft power include the bidding and hosting of the first (and only) FIFA World Cup in Africa, the attractiveness of South African universities to African students, ideas of former President Thabo Mbeki that are rooted in key African institutions such as NEPAD and the country’s reputation as the only African member of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the G20. Equally relevant is the restoration of peace from Pretoria to Burundi and the DRC. This display of soft power elevated South Africa’s image, prompting scholars to describe the country, using nicknames such as “a great peacemaker” and “symbolic representativeness”. South Africa’s soft power is however undermined by the triple challenge of poverty, inequality and unemployment; as well as political corruption; double standards on human rights and xenophobia.
Kenya can claim a soft power in the cultural realm, evident in its booming fashion industry, success in athletics and tourist attractions. This is complemented by its peace diplomacy, economic diplomacy and the success of its multilateral foreign policy. The dominance of Kenyans in athletics competitions raised their profile and they, in turn, provided a rich reservoir for sports diplomacy, seen at the intersection of sport, politics and diplomacy. For example, Tegla Leroupe was an envoy for peace in conflicts in northern Uganda and Darfur, and was later appointed United Nations Ambassador for Sport by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2006 In terms of economic diplomacy, the seaport of Mombasa is an important soft power resource in that it strengthens Kenya’s profile as a gateway to East Africa, as landlocked states such as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan depend on Kenya for their goods. Nonetheless, Nairobi’s pulling power is undermined by relentless electoral violence, ethnic politics and rampant corruption.
… Professor Madonsela pointed out that the book reinforces the fact that Africa can be seen beyond the prism of Western epistemology, emphasizing the role of South Africa Ubuntu which embodies the sharing we have witnessed during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Nigerian Nollywood which promotes core values such as integrity and honesty.
Egypt draws its soft power from its skilled workers, the Mo Salah effect and pan-Arabism. Mo Salah is an important individual of soft power due to his remarkable success at Liverpool, such as his emergence as the English Premiership’s top scorer in 2018 and 2019. His contribution to the team helped Liverpool win UEFA. Champions League and the English Premiership. titles in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Salah’s soft power is visible in his commitment to Islamic practice on the playing field, which has reduced Islamophobia in England and possibly beyond. Egyptian skilled workers, especially in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, have become an important source of symbolic nation-building and public diplomacy, as the Egyptian government often adopts rhetoric such as “Sons of Egypt Abroad ”to celebrate their success. Cairo’s pulling power declined dramatically after the Arab Spring due to political instability, human rights abuses and economic challenges, especially the high levels of poverty and unemployment which combined for thwart the execution of Cairo’s foreign policy.
The first panelist, Professor Kagwanja, noted that the book’s focus on Africa’s soft power means that the continent can be seen in the same way as other key states such as the United States, China, Germany and Brazil which wield power in international affairs. He added that this shows that Africa has influenced other regions through the instruments, mechanisms and philosophies of its soft power. Professor Isike, the second panelist, argued that the de-Americanization and Africanization of the concept of soft power is essential for the development of soft power studies in Africa. The book makes an important contribution by presenting Africa as a model of soft power and by debunking negative stereotypes that have hampered Africa’s development.
In his concluding remarks, Prof Madonsela pointed out that the book reinforces the fact that Africa can be seen beyond the prism of Western epistemology, emphasizing the role of South Africa Ubuntu which embodies the sharing we have witnessed during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and Nigerian Nollywood which promotes core values such as integrity and honesty.
Oluwaseun Tella is Director, The Future of Diplomacy at the Institute for the Future of Knowledge at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.
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