An African Renaissance perspective on EU-Africa relations

by Valentina Brogna

In this blog Valentina Brogna explores how the concept of African Renaissance (AR) may reshape the relations between the European Union (EU) and Africa. Partly building on African and diasporic perspectives, she argues that EU-Africa relations are still imbued with coloniality, that there is unclarity as to what delinking from Western modernity would entail for Africa, and that the EU should first and foremost listen rather than proactively seek agreements.

This contribution is part of a blog series seeking to explore how postdevelopment approaches can inform, infuse and potentially transform the study of EU (development) policies and relationships with the Global South.

Seen from Brussels, ‘the EU’, ‘Africa’ and ‘development’ are terms going well hand in hand. The link reads as: “the EU helps/supports Africa develop itself” (through technical tools, policies and financial means). This simple equation (‘Africa’ + ‘EU support’ = ‘development’) corresponds to a long-lasting commonly accepted discourse of ‘development’, deeply interrelated with concepts of ‘partnership’ and ‘aid’. It is inherently Eurocentric and paternalistic, starting from EU agency and finishing with a ‘need for EU’ in ‘Africa’.

Changing perspective might seem radical, as it questions the role that the EU has been tailoring itself since 1957. Nevertheless, a Post-Development perspective on the EU as a developmental actor means, first of all, to consider ‘development’ not just as a set of technical tools and financial mechanisms but as a political means: in this case one of foreign policy. Reading ‘development cooperation’ as foreign policy allows to shed light on the transition from European colonial empires to the ‘developmental era’ and to dynamics of ‘coloniality’ still connected to it.

If the work to decolonise mentalities is long overdue, focusing on African and diasporic perspectives is a first, although certainly not sufficient, step to begin with. Taking the principle of ‘ownership’ of development policies rigorously entails an epistemological interest in theoretical productions from concerned regions, in this case the Africas.

One critical view about ‘development’ and ‘development cooperation’ coming from the Africas and the diaspora is expressed through the concept of African Renaissance (AR) (Diop, Nabudere, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Do Nascimento, Ndlovu-Gatsheni). According to a Brussels-based Pan-Africanist activist, “AR aims for Africans to re-appropriate their own historic, scientific, economic, political and cultural traditions and innovate based on those African cultural values, in order to rethink an endogenous development and reconstruct their own destiny”. Two inter-connected dimensions emerge from authoritative AR scholars: the idea of ‘historicity’ (Cheikh Anta Diop) and the process of ‘re-membering’ (Ngugi wa Thiong’o). Diop exhorted Africans to recover their capacity of historical initiative, their aptitude to analyse their societal, economic, political situations, and to innovate, after a century-long period of regression (both in material terms and through psychological/cultural alienation). Ngugi wa Thiong’o similarly recalls the necessity to address the ‘dismemberment’ of the continent and of Africans, begun with the transatlantic slave trade and ongoing despite political independencies. These processes would lead, in their views, to Africans’ self-confidence, condition of possibility for policies geared towards African populations’ well-being.

Can AR, thus, be understood as part of Post-Development theory? There are elements in favour and against this positioning. AR interpretations have been manifold in the last decades (Do Nascimento, for instance, categorises four main conceptions) and there is a possibility for the concept to become an African interpretation of mainstream development recipes. On the one hand, AR proponents stress the preconditions for African agency in the quest for prosperity: mainly reaffirmed self-confidence and continental unity. They generally claim the need not to follow ‘Western development’ as an exogenous model. On the other, the first practical attempt to materialise AR was the NEPAD, in 2001, initiated by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, key AR supporter and interpreter. Basically fostering ‘insertion in world market’, this institution was harshly criticised by AR scholars for betraying its spirit.

If AR is thus about refusing ‘modernisation’ the Western way – as connected to the belief of ‘historical catching-up’ – it is also about the right and capability for Africans to formulate ‘modernity’ their own ways, restoring their historicity. The central point about what AR policies would concretely look like is not yet prominent in the debate (the focus being still mostly on self-reaffirmation), although scholars like Diop did propose a wide range of measures. According to an authoritative Pan-Africanist activist, such policies would foster self-sufficiency and limit economic extraversion, including through: industrialisation and local value-adding, scientific research financing, and common agricultural policies, under the aegis of a ‘pax africana’ (African solutions to African problems). Continental unity, from this point of view, is instrumental to react to century-long ‘intruding’ by exogenous actors.

Would this mean delinking from growth as means for well-being? Probably yes, although the answer among AR scholars and activists is not so explicit. Clearer definitions of AR policies would depend on what to consider as ‘African values’ upon which to base those innovations.

As Hickel points out, a departure from growth would primarily be a responsibility of the Global North. Matthews’ take about the need to seriously acknowledge a certain ‘desirability of development’ (in the form of material improvements of life conditions, whilst rejecting ‘underdevelopment’ as colonial) is also an important one. She proposes to apply ‘border thinking’ to challenge mainstream development conceptions from within the development system.

In this context, EU-Africa relations are depicted by AR scholars and activists as imbued with coloniality. Association with former colonies, enshrined in the Treaty of Rome, continues today under the form of the Cotonou agreement with the ACP States (under review); it entails Economic Partnership Agreements badly accepted by African countries. The aid system, upon which this ‘partnership’ rests, is often read as a tiny pay-back measure, with conditionalities, for resources flowing, often illicitly, from Africa to Europe. Other structural issues in the framework of global governance, epitomised by EU-Africa relations, include dumping of agricultural products (with EU Common Agricultural Policy negatively impacting African farmers), the effects of the green transition on mining in the Global South (ex: the Democratic Republic of Congo) or the governance of migrations (read as a problem for the Global North rather than a consequence of structural inequalities). In mainstream language, this is called Policy (In)coherence for Sustainable Development.

The Pan-African diaspora in Europe is divided as to whether EU-Africa relations will ever be ‘equal’; some consider the idea of a common destiny fundamentally a narrative fiction. Europeans need to address the elephant in the room: if it is a ‘partnership of equals’ that we want, we must weigh our narrative as donors or partners with facts. Our history, vis-à-vis the Africas, is one of takers, rather than givers. From an AR perspective, our role should be first of all to apply reflexivity and listening, rather than proactively seek agreements. It would require reparation measures and structural changes in the policy architecture. From a realist point of view, we could see such proposals in our enlightened long-term self-interest; from a humanist one, this is a huge issue of global justice.

Valentina Brogna is a PhD researcher at the Research Centre in Political Science (CReSPo), Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles. This blog draws on her ongoing PhD, which compares development narratives and action repertoires by International Development NGOs and Pan-African Diaspora Organisations in Europe vis-à-vis the European Union (EU). Such narratives refer to different development theories, in a spectrum from Sustainable Development to African Renaissance (AR).

 The aim of this blog series is to stimulate thinking about different imaginaries of ‘another Europe’ and alternative role(s) the EU could/should play, inspired by insights from postdevelopment thinkers. The blog series results from various exchanges and discussions between the contributors since early 2019.