Misreading the importance of the Africa relationship

In 1958 Canada welcomed Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana to Ottawa as the first leader from independent “black” Africa. After Nkrumah’s address to a joint session of Parliament, the Speaker (later Governor General) Roland Michener acknowledged, “the darkest thing about Africa has been our ignorance of it.”

Although never a top priority, Commonwealth and francophone Africa gradually became areas where Canada built up a strong presence and reputation: Africa provided room to manoeuvre for a “regional power without a region.” By the 1970s African states made up over a quarter of UN seats, and still do (53 of 192). Canada provided non-aligned African states a trusted Western alliance partner during the Cold War years, and Canadian peacekeepers and observers deployed to Egypt, Congo, Namibia, Rwanda, Somalia and other African missions through five decades. Canadian volunteers, aid professionals, and technical experts dotted the African landscape, with increasing numbers of African students and immigrants coming the other way.

Comparatively, Portugal until 1974 was considered a venal presence in Africa, the last European imperial holdout. A generation later, however, Portugal, not Canada, garnered sufficient African backing to win a non-permanent seat on the Security Council last October. Debt-ridden Portugal campaigned on the basis of its re-kindled, albeit much more benign, interest in Africa, its own identity as a small state, and leveraged its strong cultural ties with Lusophone Africa.

Portugal’s win, however, cannot be attributed solely to these factors or to a better orchestrated, behind-the-scenes diplomatic campaign. The roots of defeat can be found in both deeper and more recent manifestations of policymakers’ complete misreading of the importance of the Canada-Africa relationship. (This is not to say that our Africa policy, or lack of it, predetermined our fate, but it played a conspicuous part.)

Distorted perceptions about Africa continue to obscure positive trends. Canada played a pivotal role bilaterally and multilaterally during the 1990s to foster difficult but positive changes and later to keep Africa on the global agenda as the war on terror intensified after 9/11. While development assistance budgets increased, foreign direct investment (FDI) shot up much faster due to lessened conflict and better economic management and governance.

Today, Canadian FDI in the mining and energy sectors across Africa (at least $25 billion) is ten times our aid budget. BlackBerries and Bombardier aircraft garner considerable export success. Our engineering firms win mega-projects; educational institutions recruit highly motivated students. Africa is more intrinsically important to Canada than at any previous time. But policymakers, stuck with old perceptions, feel free to treat Africa as a marginal annoyance. Canadians engage Africa even as the government retreats.

The current minority government publicly replaced Africa with Latin America as a foreign policy priority in 2007 for political, not practical, reasons. Frozen development budgets and the removal of a number of mostly francophone countries from our list of development partners followed. This has not gone unnoticed in African capitals, nor in places like Beijing.

But a litany of practical obstacles beset Canada-Africa relations before this government: the difficulty that Africans from all walks of life face when they attempt to obtain a visa to visit Canada; the lack of invitations to African leaders to visit Ottawa; the repeated cuts to Canadian diplomatic and consular offices, with more looming; the lack of support Canadian firms and NGOs receive in Africa compared to their OECD and BRIC competitors; and the lack of Canadian content in CIDA development assistance to Africa.

Our African aid has been, for the last few years, completely untied. Kudos, many say. But while aid may be up, it has no Canadian character and, as we’ve seen recently in the case of the Zambian health ministry financial scandal, even less accountability.

In addition, Canada has turned its back on the UN. Over half of Security Council business is devoted to African issues. But Portugal deploys more police and troops on UN missions than Canada. So does most of the rest of the world. Canada declined, twice, to take leadership of the UN mission in the DR Congo. While our financial contributions remain high, the heavy, public lifting in Africa is done by the developing world and, increasingly, China. As we’ve seen on the development front, writing cheques is not the same as leading, shaping, planning, organizing, investing or implementing.

What the failure to win a seat should signal to Canadians is that the world requires more of Canada, not less. In fact, a Canada acting more forcefully in its own interests and in tune with its own values about world order would be appreciated across most of the developing world, including Africa. What the past few years illustrate, unfortunately, is that 50 years later the darkest thing about Africa remains our leaders’ lingering ignorance of it.

Chris W.J. Roberts is a PhD student (political science) at the University of Alberta and has worked on African business and policy issues for over 15 years.

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