The “African Renaissance”

As crises wrought havoc in a divided Côte d’Ivoir, Sudan’s Darfur region and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) late in 2004, Africa was replete with ammunition for rogue armies, and Afro-pessimists.

French citizens fled Abidjan, refugees languished in Al Fasher, and allegations mounted of Rwandan incursions in the eastern DRC.

In Naivasha, Kenya, the Sudanese government and southern SPLA rebels signed peace deals on New Year’s Eve that hold out new hope for an end to Africa’s most stubborn civil war. In January, the African Union, successor to the much-maligned Organisation of African Unity, prepared to intervene in Haiti, and South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki negotiated with warring parties in both Côte d’Ivoire and the DRC, backed by mandates from the AU.

There was progress at the ballot box too. Fairly orderly elections last year in Algeria, Botswana, Cameroon, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger and Tunisia showed that the ‘wave’ of democratisation sweeping Africa in the early 1990s was often followed by attempts to consolidate democratic rule and improve political governance. To this effect, the 13 member countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) adopted in August a set of ‘principles and guidelines governing democratic elections’, vowing to monitor compliance. Zimbabwe was a notable if problematic signatory.

Africa’s resolve to find negotiated solutions to long-standing conflicts, send its own troops to enforce peace, and institutionalise norms of democracy and good governance is born out of both negative and positive imperatives. Western donors have for decades called for reform in terms of notorious ‘political conditionality’ regimes. Today, the force that drives reform in Africa has gone beyond the fear of an external penalty. Instead, it revolves around a grand ideology of renewal that is indigenously engineered – the African Renaissance.

This idea of African rebirth has roots that stretch back a century. Its optimism about Africa’s future and its commitment to independence, progress and continental solidarity echo some of the central messages of Pan-African thought, and the words of men such as Marcus Garvey and Dr. W.E.B. du Bois.

Today, however, the primary prophet of renewal ideology is the South African president, Thabo Mbeki. As deputy to Nelson Mandela in 1997, Thabo articulated a vision of an African Renaissance and adopted it as a South African foreign policy doctrine. A year earlier, notes Eddy Maloka of South Africa’s Africa Institute, a conference was held in Dakar, Senegal, honouring the late Senegalese intellectual Sheik anta Diop, with the theme: ‘An African Renaissance at the Dawn of the Third Millennium.’

It was Thabo who sold the African Renaissance to a wider international audience by spearheading the design of a concrete development plan based on the ‘values’ of the African Renaissance – the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad). Adopted by all Africa’s leaders in October 2001 in Abuja, Nigeria, Nepad is a quid pro quo between Africa and the West: a ‘new’ commitment to good governance and democracy in exchange for increased capital flows and a renegotiation of Africa’s marginal position in the world economy.

Nepad quickly won the backing of the Group of Eight industrialised countries (G8), who promised ‘enhanced partnerships’ with those African countries that commit to its values of democratic reform, and sign up to a system of political and economic ‘peer review’ based loosely on the review regime of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Europe.

Today, under the Nepad banner, bridges, dams and electricity grids are being built and 24 countries have signed up to be ‘reviewed’ (it remains to be seen whether rogue governments like Zimbabwe’s will sign up and, if they do, whether African peers will have the guts to criticize their transgressions openly and honestly).

Nepad is part of a bigger movement, which draws sustenance from Thabo Mbeki’s vision for the continent. His former political adviser, Vusi Mavimbela, wrote in 1997 that whereas decolonisation and the 1990s ‘wave’ of democratisation represent the ‘first and second moments’ of Africa’s post-colonial history, the African Renaissance is the ‘third moment.’ The Renaissance will be significant not only if it can be shown to lead to rapid change and wealth creation; it is already significant because it has redirected political discourse in Africa.

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