I watched Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration on television as the sun began to dip over the Indian Ocean in South Africa. For all its signals of a changed world, though, the ceremony might have been unfolding in a different galaxy altogether, in which the vast continent stretching to the north of me had been airbrushed out of the debate.
Flying into Brexit-bound London a few days later, the same impression was overwhelming.
Never high on recent Western agendas, sub-Saharan Africa’s intractable tribulations now seem to have slipped yet further back.
The Western world, seized with talk of populist renewal, has little time, interest or appetite for the travails of its former playgrounds. In this age of self-interest, protectionism and transactional politics, where the hard-nosed emphasis on ‘the deal’ is paramount, why should anyone bother?
Yet the shifts and transitions that are looming – from Kinshasa to Harare to Pretoria – could be as earth-shaking as anything produced by the disgruntled voters who have already spoken in Britain and the United States, and who will make their voices heard again in France, the Netherlands and Germany.
Most certainly, Africa’s contortions will play into a broader geopolitical game with consequences far beyond its shores.
For years now, the West has ceded ground and influence. China, in particular, has led a drive for access to arable land, investment and the mineral riches of African countries, supplanting the one-time influence that grew from centuries of Western colonialism, Christianity and commerce.
The yuan, the Chinese currency, is now official tender in cash-strapped Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe’s hold on power has created a warped land of rich elites and a populace denied all the promises of independence in 1980.
Russia, too, has made inroads. In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC), led by Jacob Zuma and under challenge at the polls, has seemed increasingly ready to fall back on its apartheid-era ties with Moscow. Then, the Kremlin was its main backer in the underground war against white rule. Like Vladimir Putin, Zuma is a former denizen of the dark world of Cold War espionage.
As head of intelligence in the ANC’s exiled liberation movement, he trained in Moscow. A couple of years back, when the South African president suspected that he had been poisoned, he flew to Moscow for treatment – a voyage that might have seemed grimly ironic given Russia’s role in the polonium poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.
More recently, there has been persistent speculation that the secretive relationship between Putin and Zuma is nudging South Africa closer to a contentious agreement with Russia to build a string of nuclear power stations – a multibillion-dollar transaction heavy with potential for vast amounts of money to go astray.
In the big picture, as seen from the West, does any of this matter? A leaked document listing 14 questions about future Africa policy suggested that the Trump administration is deeply skeptical about continued development aid and reluctant to pour money into the pockets of corrupt leaders and their acolytes.
More broadly, the questions seemed to signal a policy switch from Washington’s traditional humanitarianism to Trump’s familiar preoccupations with the bottom line and the challenges of terrorism. “How does US business compete with other nations in Africa? Are we losing out to the Chinese?” one section asked. “We’ve been fighting Al-Shabaab for a decade,” another said, referring to the Islamist militants based in Somalia. “Why haven’t we won?”
This is hardly, though, the time to walk away. Western influence – depicted by former liberation movements as the heir to the imperialism they once fought against – is admittedly limited. But, as Britain quests for post-Brexit economic partners, it should not ignore the mineral riches and the human potential of its onetime possessions in Southern Africa and elsewhere.
It is unfashionable, perhaps, to talk about governance in a region whose leaders seem increasingly ready to resist accountability. But it is indisputable that corrupt, morally bankrupt and autocratic regimes offer possibly the biggest obstacles to unleashing the potential of new generations desperate to compete in an era of rapid technological advance and economic innovation.
At a time of opportunity, many African countries are falling behind as their leaders scramble over the dwindling spoils.
Later this year, the ANC will hold its elective congress to choose a replacement for Zuma.
In Zimbabwe, plots and counter-plots over Mugabe’s succession could well turn bloody. In Gambia, far to the north, it took the threat of military intervention by West African troops to dislodge the long-serving and dictatorial president Yahya Jammeh in January, after he lost an election in December. And, when he finally went into exile in equally despotic Equatorial Guinea, he took the plunder of his 22-year rule – including two Rolls-Royces – with him.
Watching the inauguration in Washington, I pondered for a moment on what lessons Western leaders might offer, and came to a sobering conclusion.
In South Africa, Zuma is maneuvering to permit his former spouse, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to replace him. In Zimbabwe, Grace Mugabe, the president’s spendthrift second wife, is seeking to become her husband’s successor. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, President Joseph Kabila is bent on holding onto the power he inherited from his father. Family ties have built legacies of power in Botswana, Kenya, Gabon and elsewhere.
Yet Africa does not have an exclusive hold on such bequests. On the podium in Washington, Trump was flanked by a clan including his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, set to be a key aide in the White House. Behind him, George W. Bush represented the lineage whose patriarch, George H. W. Bush, had – like Zuma and Putin – been an intelligence chief and a country’s leader. Hillary Clinton stood alongside her husband, smarting with the defeat of her bid to install a second Clinton in the Oval Office.
For years, Western leaders have chided their African counterparts on their ways with power. But in the magnetic appeal of family dynasties, it seems, there is little either side can learn from – or teach – the other.
Alan Cowell is the Author of Permanent Removal (a novel set in post-apartheid South Africa, published by Jacana Media) and former foreign correspondent for The New York Times