Africa, Democracy, Systemic Conflicts and the Emerging Global Order

Ademola Araoye


Ademola Araoye

Ademola Araoye

Structure refers to a set of overarching principles, rules, roles, and constraints that bind actors together into a larger system. The structure of the international system is organized around the distribution of the coercive capacity, or power, to compel obeisance of other state members within the universe of states. While domestic politics implies decisions on who gets what and when by the monistic center of power within the polity, international politics, operating on the recognition of differential capacities to project power by numeraous pivots of power within the system, is about the deployment of power to ultimately compel who is allowed or disallowed to do or get or denied what by the dominant or elite members of the system. Elements of power include the relative positions of strength, wealth, influence, and status of member states of the system.Thus force remains the ultima ratio in the transactions between states within the inter-state system. In the understandings of classical realists the likes of Henry Kissinger and neo-realist Kenneth Waltz, in assuring the survival of states, the various powers across the universe may bandy themselves into alliance blocs to cancel out threats from rival force aggregations as was witnessed during the Cold War when the Communist block or Warsaw Pact states confronted the North Atlantic Treaty states in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Yet, alternative realist framework of structural causes of war also suggest that elite members of the system often seek hegemonic status to facilitate unrivalled domination of the system rather than a balance of forces as classical realist analysts believe. In this permutation of the Power Transition school, a balance of coercive capacity among forces, either in a bilateral setting or multilaterally aligned, is understood as an unstable transition between the hegemon and a challenger that has attained power parity with the hegemon. In this permutation balance of coercive capacity portends great potential for systemic instability and war. This contrasts with when there is a clear hegemon in control and who is responsible for the distribution of perks and privileges among elite states of the system. This scenario of a hegemon dominating the system is proposed as leading to peace. Of course, there is a hierarchy of elite powers in the calculus of transactions within the system dispensation. Such thinkers as A.F. K Organski and Jacek Kugler and their cohorts in the Power Transition school of the realist tradition suggest that there is always a hierarchy of power, often led by a hegemon, such as the United States of America within the NATO. Organski had long been preoccupied with the implications of the rise of China for continued American leadership. Over sixty years ago he had wondered if the rise of China inexorably implied the onset of global instability or even a great power war.Today, that hypothetical exploration is the burning reality for policy analysts on warding off challenges to American global leadership.Yet, in another vein,in Modelski’s cyclical theory of war, a cyclical wave, in the manner of Kondratiev price waves,inevitably assures systemic conflagration every so often. In this framework, no causative is adduced for system collapse in cyclical waves. Whatever conceptual perspective for systemic instability is adopted however, the psychology of the human agency is a critical element in the calculus of war and peace. The basic logic of action by which the behavior of leaders is shaped is crucial. This refers specifically to the extent that the dominant sovereigns on opposite sides are risk acceptant or risk averse. The danger of war becomes rather high in situations where risk acceptant leaders confront difficult challenges. Risk averse leadership are more amenable to negotiated settlements. The volatile former, the face off of risk acceptant leaders, seem to be the scenario with Russia and a NATO backed Ukraine. The outcome of the Russo-Ukrainian war is a major piece in the puzzle to realign the international order. The structure of the post-Soviet global system is at stake.


Notwithstanding the 2008 Russo “peace-enforcement”-Georgian Warbetween Georgia, on one side, and Russia and the Russian-backed self-proclaimed republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, on the other, relative peace ensued in the constituent regions of the old Soviet Union.Western Europe and NATO however tersely watched the trepidations of the peoples in the Baltic regions and its neighborhood.Although some regard the Russo-Georgian war as the first European war of the 21st century,the interregnum of relative stability of the international system in the post-Soviet era effectively came to end on 24 February 2022. That day was when Russian forces, after western intelligence based speculations in the West, invaded and occupied parts of Ukraine. Dubbed by the Kremlin as a special military operation, the Russian offensive ostensibly was to affirm its perceived historical territorial claims in Ukraine. Analysts however also recognize that the invasion was a step to contain the incremental expansion of NATO into Russia’s declared inviolable sphere of influence. This February 2022 major escalation of the confrontation that had simmered between Russia and the Western military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since the end of the Cold War was thus not unexpected. Long before the military incursion by Russia, the domestic political schisms lasting over a decade that buffeted Ukraine reflected the ebb and flow of the clash between opposing proxies of NATO and those of a Moscow determined to protect its western flank. Moscow’s perspective is reminiscent of the Monroe doctrine proclaimed to the United States Congress by President James Monroe on December 2, 1823.


Anna Khomina highlights that Monroe Doctrinedeclared that the United States would not meddle in European affairs, and warned European powers not to interfere in the Western Hemisphere. From then on, a European attempt to assert control over any territory in the Western Hemisphere, through attack, colonization, or puppet monarchs, would be viewed as a threat to America as well. The turbulence across Russia’s declared spheres of high strategic interests in the sub-region following the dismemberment of the Soviet empire also bore the imprint of the conflict arising from attempts at the extension of the influence of NATO into the immediate neighborhood of Russia and the latter’s resistance to such strategic siege of its western border. For both Russia and the NATO alliance, control of Ukraine was perceived to be a high stake strategic objective. The US State department sources propound that that Ukraine has long played an important, yet sometimes overlooked, role in the global security order. In its war with Russia, Ukraine is perceived as being on the front lines of a renewed great-power rivalry that many analysts say will dominate international relations in the decades ahead. Further, the United States advances that Ukraine is rich in resources, including agricultural produce, critical raw materials, energy sources, and human capital. It is further observed by sources in the United States that some of the aforementioned resources are indispensable to the rest of the world and all of which would become more accessible again with a Ukrainian victory. States across the globe are caught in a quandary. The conflict in Ukraine has become emblematic of the direction loyalties of state actors in the evolving configuration of the global system. Such is the importance of victory in Ukraine for the Western alliance that the war in Ukraine provides a definitive prism, even if imperfect, to identify the line of sympathies on the sharp divide between the Russo-China bloc (including India, South Africa, Iran, South Africa) and the NATO aisle. Navigating this labyrinthine maze may prove challenging to most fragile African states in diverse ways.


Meanwhile, analysts also note that following the disappearance of the main ideologically fuelled antagonisms in the post-Soviet era, NATO stood the risk of becoming an obsolete mammoth relic of the Cold War. Accordingly, a rationale had to be manufactured to legitimize the continuity of the military alliance. The Cold War mindset had to be burnished and rationalized in the form of a bogey man staring down the West. Such anachronistic orientation in the West in the post-Soviet era was required to sustain three critical imperatives: a continuity of a political economy of war that had proven very profitable to its Western members; the common interests of retaining the preeminence of military establishments in various member states and advancing the careers of commanding officers that was associated with a continued salience of NATO for security across Western Europe; and, thirdly, critically strengthening the strategic tie of the security of Western Europe to flailing leadership and threats of diminishing financial inputs of a fatigued and uncertain United States in the unstable security template of European NATO states.


The reordering of the equilibrium of the global system in the post-Cold War era was inevitable in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The process that began in subtle and incremental motions had by 2023 acquired a furious momentum that is historically typical of such seismic changes in the international order. War is often on the cards. Strategic realignments of the major powers in the interstate system follows neither a linear direction nor is it predictably certain nor a definitive evolution. It is definitively a robustly interactive, meandering, path-dependent trajectory that may proceed in multiple tentative equilibria and simultaneously in more than one theatre that are phased over a long period. These phased equilibria in the longue duree may reflect the interactions of endogenous transformations of interests, identities, and resource capacities as well as the impact of exogenous factors. Accordingly,paradoxes abound even as irreconcilable contradictions are integral and perennial outliers to the main directions of the dynamic process. That holds even in the face of clearly discernible trends and tendencies that provide strong indicators of the emerging systemic configurations.


The demise of the Soviet Union set off a new dynamic aimed at the realignment of the powers of the major nations in the system, including the political economy of the globe. Confronted by the clashing demands from political reformers demanding the opening up of the democratic space and the resolve of hard line communists to salvage the communist status quo, Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to transform the one party state and his assent to the introduction of multi-party system and create a presidency for the Soviet Union began a slow process of democratization. The democratic impetus, including Gorbachev’s informally negotiated protocols of restraint with major western powers, in particular the United States, eventually led to the widening of the democratic latitude in the Soviet Union that overwhelmed the control of the Communist party. Democratization had gone awry beyond its intended limits. Some aver that NATO leaders in 1990 had secretly offered “categorical assurances,” “solemn pledges,” and “binding commitments” that no former Warsaw Pact countries would be integrated into western alliance. The impact of the destabilized Soviet Union was to lead to rapid changes in the political situation in the satellite states in Eastern Europe, especially with Gorbachev’s decision to loosen the Soviet control on the countries of Eastern Europe. The new found quasi autonomy in the regions fuelled a momentum for total independence that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.


The unintended consequence of the internal confrontations was the disintegration of the Soviet Union into twelve republics. As the Soviet Union collapsed from mid-1990, all fifteen republics of the former Soviet Union followed Russia’s lead in pronouncing its independence, as they declared themselves to be autonomous states. The new sovereign republics included Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Russia. The Russian Federation, around which the Soviet Union had revolved, became the successor state of the Soviet empire.


The collapse of the Soviet Union set off a whole chain of reactions, responses and consequences both in the immediate sub region of Russia, including a historic obsolescence of the bi-polar structure of the international system that had subsisted since the end of World War II in 1945. The international structure became fluid, even as permutations on the implications of the fluidity for the strategic interests of the major nations began in various capitals across the world. In Africa, the consequences of the dissolution and removal of the Soviet Union from the global scene were manifest in the de-validation of the existing paradigms of governing. A main expression of this was the de-legitimation and in some cases the collapse of the One Man State/One Party State (OMS/OPS), in particular francophone Africa. Kathryn Nwajiaku observes that as many as seven Conférences nationales (CNs) took place in French-speaking Africa between February 1990 and January 1993, all against the background of the apparent ‘wind of change’ supposedly sweeping across the continent where democratic governance eventually replaced authoritarian rule. In Benin, Mali, Guinea, Congo (Brazzaville), among others, through sovereign national conferences the ouster of such dinosaur autocratic establishments as in Mobutu Sese Seko’s Zaire was made possible. Zaire has then reverted to its former name of Democratic Republic of Congo that it bore at independence. Just as in the Soviet Union, in Africa the radical impacts of the sovereign conferences were unintended. In the view of the various establishments, these were to be mere reforms to revalidate the status quo in the evolving democratic dispensation.
In Benin, a conference constituted by participants who declared themselves as representing all segments of national society-toutes les forces vivre de la nation-against the will and expectation of General Mathieu Kerekou opened up the democratic space. Pearl T. Robinson notes that General Kerekou was a reluctant reformer forced to convene the conference pushed by President Francois Mitterand of France to accept the inevitability of political and economic liberalization. Within ten days, the conference had suspended the Constitution; dissolved the National Assembly; adopted plans for multi-party elections and appointed a leader direct the transition to a multi-party democratic era. However, some autocratic leaders successfully resisted the attempt at uncontrolled democratic openings largely due to the balance of political forces, in particular the ethnic construction of the state. Such an instance was the case in Togo where General Gnassingbe Eyadéma, from a minority Kabye ethnic group, was able to reject the sovereignty claimed by the National Conference that held from 8 July to 28 August 1991. The balance of power through the dominance of his tribe in the military and within the political forces was firmly in his favour.At the time of his death, Eyadéma was the longest-serving ruler in Africa. Even though in personalized authoritarian systems, the death of a leader poses a serious challenge to regime survival. Togo, however, belongs to a small number of countries in which regime collapse has been avoided by the transfer of power to the deceased ruler’s son.


The demise of the Soviet Union and the developments that it set in motion in Africa tangentially impacted relations of the continent with the major powers of the global system. A generation after, endogenous transformations within states in Africa seem to be fuelling a new found self-assuredness of a number of African states that are pursuing radical policies that essentially repudiate the historic exploitative relations with a hegemonic West-western Europe and the United States of America. This seemed immovable until now. Africa is thus scrambling for a legitimate space in the international order through explicit indifference to panicky old Euro-American hegemons, unambiguous partisan sympathy for emerging new global partners, including minor steps in participation in strategic groupings of major nations across the globe. The differential postures on the war in Ukraine as well as enthusiasm around the potential emergence of a new currency floated by the BRICS nations to challenge the dollar as the main currency for international transactions reflect this realignment of African states in relation to the restructuring of the global order. This process contrasts visions of a new scramble for Africa by old forces.


The revolutionary orientation spreading within Africa, including challenges emerging on the dominant western control of the management of the global economy, portends significant implications for continued internal cohesion within the continent as the West reinvigorates its incentives and deploy its old tools of hegemonic control to consolidate control over pliable African regimes. And there are many states and regimes, such as Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d’Ivoire whose internal circumstances may be exploited by the West to further their global strategic interests that may not be in sync with the long term interests of the exploited African nation. The adoption of such a new strategy by the West in Africa however opens the gate to further internal turmoil that may be harnessed by opposing major external forces with the support and connivance of radical African states. Revolutionary African regimes are implicitly risk acceptant visionaries. In that scenario, the entrenchment of the practice of democracy would fall off the hierarchy of strategic priorities for all external forces operating in Africa. That would unmask the pretentiousness of the West in Africa.


In the immediate post-Soviet era, a major change in Euro-African interactions was the dissipation of the ideological prism of the West, inclusive of the United States, that directed its dealings with the continent. But in many ways, as earlier observed, the post-Cold War new wave democracy described by Samuel Huntington as third wave democratic openings remained merely doubly instrumental for purposes not often directly linked to the good of the state or the generality of is people Yet still, instrumental democracy in Africa in the post-Soviet era remains a vital mechanism for continued control of the continent by western forces. Its instrumentality gave a semblance of legitimacy to many regimes that were barely democratic. In cases such as the stalemate in the elections in Cote d’Ivoire, the true winner, incumbent pan-Africanist Laurent Gbagbo was demonized by the French. The narratives of the crisis was accordingly distorted and the revolutionary leader was hauled before the International Criminal Court. President Barrack Obama in the United States cut a deal with France, if the silence of the United States on the French shenanigans in Cote d’Ivoire would inspire changes in France’s policy on Iraq and strengthen collaboration in the western intervention in Afghanistan. France had been categorically opposed to President George W. Bush’s pre-emptive military action in Iraq. France maintained that military intervention in Iraq would be a “material breach” of UN Security Council resolutions and rejected the US assertion of direct linkage between Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) program and military attacks. President Obama had deployed Cote d’Ivoire as a bargaining chip to advance the interests of the United States.


Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court, bewildered at the evidence of the lack of culpability and, positively, the sincerity of Laurent Gbagbo as a leader under difficult circumstances, discharged him with honorable accolades unprecedented in the judgment of the court. By October 2015, just three months before the trial began, it became evident “there is (was) nothing serious against Gbagbo, it’s political pressure coming from France and I can do nothing” ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda admitted. In no time the proxy of France in Abidjan, Allasane Ouatarra, began showing his true colour as he connived with French President Emmanuel Macron to sabotage the long awaited meticulously negotiated Eco as the West African pan-regional currency. With the acquiescence of France, Allasane Ouattara also railroaded an unconstitutional term elongation. A quackery of democracy, amounting to state deconsolidation processes, validated regimes that side tracked substantive tenets of democracy through regime elongation projects that spread across the continent. Unlike the practice in developed democracies, where the tenure of office specified by the constitution is upheld, leadership in African states has been characterized by manipulation in order to elongate the stay of incumbents. Even in the post-Cold War African politics is characterized by sit-tight syndrome. Examples of state cultures of breaches of substantive tenets of democratic practice include Cameroon, Uganda, Zimbabweas well as Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Togo, Kenya, among many others. Hubris and false messianic pretensions, selfish interests, and corruption are major factors encouraging tenure elongation. Beyond these personal considerations, is the struggle for hegemonic control of the state by contending constituent units-from minority groups to main ones. The incumbent is often perceived as a defender of the tribe against all others. The contractual power circle is thus constituted by the ethnic affiliates of the leader. Buhari’s Nigeria perfectly illustrate this tendency. Against this background, in numerous instances, elections are barefacedly fraudulent. A meeting of the African Union in Accra, Ghana was held from 15-17 March 2022, to address the resurgence of unconstitutional changes of government in Africa. The outcome of the Reflection Forum noted that “the Continent is still experiencing increase in the number of Member States which manipulate democratic processes to modify and eliminate constitutional term limits, while others resist efforts to institute term limits in their Constitutions.” A good example of life-long leadership is Cameroun where a visibly senile 90 year old President Paul Biya has ruled the country since 6 November 1982.

Meanwhile, as a rule, adherence to the substantive tenets of democracy don’t so much matter to external arbiters of the electoral process. This is as long as the outcomes are not perceived to threaten the exploitation of the country by external interested parties. They are insensitive to such regime elongation and a culture of electoral fraud that are further exemplified by Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria. The procedural motions of democracy, however dubious, are just enough. This is especially so in the evolved phase of robust confrontations among major nations on the structure of the international system. The two contesting major groups of state and alliances face the challenge of buoying the numbers of state actors for the western side against the Sino- Russian bloc. In this scenario, rather than the historical process of the scramble for Africa, a changed dynamic has evolved where a number of African states are beginning to take early steps to assert themselves as autonomous players in the maelstrom of international politics. Africa is revving up itself to scramble for space as a legitimate stakeholder in the management of the global system. South Africa is leading the charge. Africa is pushing back on any imaginings of a re-conquest by the West.
Radical affirmations in post-liberation states, strong ideological affinities with the old Soviet Union and China during the liberation struggle, mainly in Southern Africa, and post conflict states, including Uganda, Rwanda, and Eritrea have resulted in major alterations in the calculus of Euro-African relations into a more complex equation. The situation has been exacerbated by the deep penetration of China into the continent in the economic sphere and the incursion of Russia into in the security realm. Post liberation states and post conflict states in Africa would seem to be gravitating and coalescing into a constellation of forces with common strategic orientation that repudiate the dominant Eurocentric exploitative status quo in the continent. Among these radicalized states are former France’s pre-carree such as Mali and Burkina Faso that have broken hitherto historic muscular bonds, even if exploitative relations, with France. Everywhere conflict abounds in Francophone Africa, from the Central African Republic, Cameroun, in Central African Republic, Mali, Burkina Faso and Sudan, Russia, through its Wagner proxy, has been the preferred partner of both establishment and the counter establishment. Russia is thus in demand in Africa, whatever the sentiments of the West. The Russian-owned Wagner Group continues to grow its footprint in parts of Africa, with a presence in Libya, the Central African Republic, Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan and elsewhere. Several African countries now partner closely with Wagner for military support and training.France has been sent packing from these theaters of internal conflict in preference of partnership with Russia.


Countries like the Central African Republic and Cameroun have also entered into bilateral military agreements with Russia. South Africa has famously supplied arms to Russia in its conflict with Ukraine. In the reconfigured dynamic of the Euro-African relations within the context of the flux in the global system, this movement is an epochal development. Indeed, rather than the old scramble for Africa, Africa would, paradoxically, seem to be doing the scrambling for an autonomous room in the systemic space. This is indicative of a fledging self-assuredness of a number of states to move from the tangents into the mainstream of the turpitude of the international system. Otherwise, as usual, most of Africa, bound to the traditional Western hegemonic status quo and unequipped for the unfolding historic challenge, has remained outside of the mainstream of serious discourses on the evolution of structure of the global system. These developments are bound to impact the weak policy environment and coherence within the African Union as radical forces challenge the preeminence of France in the back rooms manipulating the affairs of the continent.In this connection, Peter Fabricius suggests Russia’s invasion of its West-leaning neighbour has revived Cold War fault lines. The consequences of this would reverberate across the continent. But the circumstances have been significantly altered, both in the internal realities of Africa and in the character of coalition faced by the West.


Priyal Singh points out that the war in Ukraine has been sharply divisive in Africa. He notes that the 17 African abstention in the UN General Assembly on the western sponsored draft resolution on March 2 to condemn Russia for its ‘aggression’ and demand a withdrawal from Ukraine, respecting its territorial integrity and sovereignty was suggestive of a disproportionately high threshold of silent support for Russia. Twenty-seven African states voted for the resolution, just one – Eritrea – voted against, while 17 abstained and the rest were absent. The outcome of the vote has seen the United States scrambling into the Africa space to preach democracy and warn against homophobia.
A few take aways then: The international system, specifically the community of states, does not run on the basis of morality or charity. Africa must plot its survival in the harsh global system. Democracy and the parameters of its practices must be home grown and home validated as well as home salient. A thousand jeremaid to hegemonic forces weeping about domestic affairs is of no use. In fact, it is ludicrous coming from a country that is internationally respected for the unparalleled sophistication of its boundless intellectual assets. Such disgusting national puerility is counter-productive to the potential for any constructive forward movements, even as the frail international sovereignty on which the post-colonial state operates is further diminished. It invites external interventions that may not be in sync with the true wishes of the country. It is then tempting for local leaders to cultivate powerful external backers in the fashion of Sese Seko Mobutu who would eventually cede the country to external allies. That is the assured route to Kigali or the Congo of today. International adjudication mechanisms in domestic affairs must be seen for what they truly are-quasi judicial political contrivances that are prone to be instrumentalized by powerful states. Finally, Africa should brace up for rigorous contest between its radical forces against the more pliable conservative establishments determined to exploit the turbulence of the emerging global order to their partisan ends.


Professor Ademola Araoye is a retired official of the United Nations and former Director of Abuja Leadership Center, a TETFUND Center of Excellence in Public Governance and Leadership at the University of Abuja. He is author of Sources of Conflict in the Post- Colonial African State (AWP, 2012).