Ever since the dawn of independence in the 1960s, African countries barely finish an argument without mentioning something to the effect that their sovereignty has to be respected. Photo: Pascal Laurent/Pixabay
Ever since the dawn of independence in the 1960s, African countries barely finish an argument without mentioning something to the effect that their sovereignty has to be respected. Photo: Pascal Laurent/Pixabay

Distorted economic priorities in Africa are a serious letdown

By Siyabonga Hadebe Time of article published Mar 25, 2020

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PRETORIA – The notion of sovereignty, especially in the African context, usually becomes relevant when external relations with other states or entities are concerned. There is no region in the world that abuses this concept like the African continent. Ever since the dawn of independence in the 1960s, African countries barely finish an argument without mentioning something to the effect that their sovereignty has to be respected. Yet, foreign intervention in unstable countries is the norm.

For African states, however, sovereignty is not divisible and therefore cannot be challenged. Nonetheless, their capacity to deal with tough circumstances including diseases, hurricanes, poverty and so on posing more questions about the strength of sovereignty in Africa. 

Again, the African state is falling behind its overseas counterparts such as Germany, the US and New Zealand in terms of protecting its populace from the coronavirus. It is not a matter of wealth but distorted economic priorities that are responsible for the sluggish economic response to the Covid-19 pandemic. With about 34 African countries currently with recorded cases, there is little or no hope that Africa has a solution.

The state in Africa appears to be at its weakest in all respects. Nigerian economist Adeyemi Dipeolu reasons that African policymakers are “hesitant to take alternative policies for fear of dictates and conditionalities of the West”. Any thinking that seeks to uplift people is vehemently opposed. As a result, the African economy doesn’t exist in the eyes of the people as it fails to even deal with threats and disasters facing countries and their populations.

Thus, an argument is made that the African state is susceptible to external control since it lacks capability and strength to behave as an authority resilient enough to solve its own problems and to determine its desired destination. This therefore calls for a question: does an African state really exist after all? To deal with this question, a historical context of how the African state came to being and also how it continues to disappoint needs to be outlined. This will hopefully provide clarity on why the African state operates on leased (economic) sovereignty compared to other parts of the world.

⦁ Sovereignty and the duty to protect 

The emergence of a Westphalian state in the seventeenth century following religious wars in Europe established the key principle of modern statehood, or 

Political theory sheds light in terms of what the state is and what it is not. For example, a government is not a state but it only exists temporarily to direct state power. Although legal the idea of a state tends to be quite abstract. The closest tangible aspect of a state is a government, which through its ideological values gives a glimpse of how a state ‘behaves’. Other observable characteristics of a state include geographical borders, 

⦁ External sovereignty versus internal sovereignty

In terms of international law, sovereignty has two main components, namely ‘external sovereignty’ and ‘internal sovereignty’. The former refers to the sate’s legal status and recognition. This aspect of sovereignty is highly challenged because it insists that larger and wealthier states the such USA, China and Germany have equal status as smaller or poor states such as Lesotho, Haiti and Tonga. The gripe is that sizes of states in terms of geography, population, wealth and political influence make the assertion that states ‘equal’ debatable. However, that is what the law prescribes and the vote for the US and Mauritius at the United Nations (UN) meetings, for instance, carries exactly the equal weight. World powers have devised means to at least elevate themselves above the rest, see the permanent members of the UN Security Council, states of chief industrial importance (International Labour Organization), special drawing rights (International Monetary Fund), etc.

The most problematic application of sovereignty, by African states in particular, pertains to ‘internal sovereignty’ and this is essentially the heart of this opinion piece. Internal sovereignty has two elements, namely ‘legal’ and ‘practical’ sovereignty. Legal sovereignty “encapsulates the right of a state to be the only law-making body for the population inhabiting a given territory.” By virtue of being the only body to make and apply the law, African governments tend to be reckless and inconsiderate especially as far as economic and other policies are concerned. Much of the internal instability results from intolerance and harsh enforcement of the law, whether citizens agree or not. State behaviour is therefore observable through its treatment of its citizens.

Legal sovereignty also determines if a state can “ensure its writ runs within its territory and that it will be able to defend and advance its interests abroad.” This is sometimes called state capacity to exercise power within its territory, and how it is regarded by fellow states. A weak state can fail to do what it is expected to do, yet still, maintain external sovereignty (recognition in terms of the law). Political illegitimacy emanates either from gross abuse of power (exceeding what citizens consider as a reasonable application of legal sovereignty), or its lack of effectiveness. Economic struggles weaken any state’s effectiveness because it implies that it cannot provide critical goods and services to its population. Hence, many Africans are economic refugees all over the world mainly as a result of their states’ failure to provide for them.

It is important to emphasise that state sovereignty is not just a legal concept.

A state is said to be self-serving when it selfishly increases its power beyond the remit of politics, or its power gets transferred to powerful interest groups. Bridget Siebert argues that African states have lost their sovereignty. She adds, “African presidents no longer have the power to rule their countries, as international rating agencies are the ones that call the shots.” The states are even told who to appoint as finance ministers. In any way, it is known that Africa has a troubled history of failing “to implement economic policies that would have made [them] independent economically.” It is, therefore, possible that those who lead economic policy and its implementation have their loyalties elsewhere other than serving the interests of the state and its people. The lacklustre response to exigencies of diseases and disasters is possibly not a function of lack of resources but that of distorted priorities.

⦁ Absence of sovereign duty in Africa’s economic response to Covid-19

American constitutional expert KrisAnne Hall introduces the interesting terminology of sovereign duty. She argues that it is the states' sovereign duty to guard their powers and responsibilities under a legal document such as the constitution as well as “to hold the government powers and overreach in check.” Too much power and overreach are as dangerous as outsourcing state responsibilities to external groups. What is now called state capture basically exists when a ‘shadow government’ takes over the affairs of the state. In SA, the powerful Gupta family from India was accused of influencing government decisions during the reign of ex-president Jacob Zuma. A commission of enquiry was set up as a result to investigate the extent of capture of the state.

However, the influence of external groups appears to be an increasing phenomenon all over the world. For example, African states rely on technical assistance and funding from international organizations and foreign governments. In other countries capital appears to be embedded in political systems as in the United States. But SA is not very far behind, political party funding is a very sensitive matter that divides the country each time it is raised. The most relevant case concerns the elective conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in 2017, wherein businessman Tokyo Sexwale, among others, alleges that money was used to influence the outcome of the conference. However, these claims are not limited to the party. There are reports that individual funders are preferred when contracts are awarded in departments and other state entities. In addition, there are allegations that members of the judiciary were also given money.

With the spread of the coronavirus pandemic reaching dangerous levels, many governments across the world have proudly exercised their sovereign duty by announcing plans and massive financial bailouts. These interventions are aimed at minimizing or cushioning citizens and economies from the impact of the coronavirus. The USA released USD1tn emergency stimulus and each citizen will be paid about USD1,000. The UK announced a £330bn business loan package. Germany and Canada have put in place bold stimulus economic packages of USD600bn and C$20bn, respectively. In addition to these measures, countries such as Italy, France and New Zealand have gone further to exempt businesses from paying bills (e.g. rent, gas, water and electricity). And billions of dollars will be paid to affected workers and vulnerable groups. Inaction by African states is noticeable.

⦁ African states plead poverty instead of providing for its citizens: Covid-19 response is rather disappointing

When it comes to African states, such comprehensive interventions are glaringly absent and governments have been rather mute. This failure to exercise sovereign duty is a common occurrence in Africa as states declare poverty. They await for assistance from abroad as usual. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma has responded by donating 4 million masks, 1.08 million testing kits, 40,000 protective suits and 60,000 protective masks. Jack Ma also donated to Europe and the US. However, it is unlikely that anyone will come with billions to donate to African economies. Even the mightier states such as Nigeria and SA have been rather disappointing. In SA, for example, sovereign duty is obnoxiously handed to private corporations to provide money to fight the economic impact resultant from the rapidly spreading Covid-19 virus. Disappointingly, the fiscal and monetary policies are de-activated in this great time of need, which raises a concern about whose interests they serve if not the people who will be buried in houses for close to a month.

A three-week shutdown to contain the coronavirus is set to begin in the early hours of Friday, 27 March 2020. What is concerning is that the economy will be shut with the exception of the large corporations. It is a known fact that the SA economy is dominated by few monopolies and is also heavily capitalized which gives too much power to the financial sector and banks to direct future outcomes. Therefore, ‬the 21 days marks a true lockdown by these monopolies in the name of coronavirus. They will not just be the only ones operating but they will also be above the law. The monopolies will be much more richer and dominant at the end of the lockdown. Deliberate or not, the outcome is going to reverse whatever little attempt made to deal with this situation in the past 26 years.

It isn’t clear how the power of these monopolies will be curtailed as a result of the advantageous economic position they have been given. ‬The corporations are linked to wealthy families that pledged a whopping R2bn towards fighting the coronavirus. It is said that the ‘donation’ will assist small businesses and their employees affected by the pandemic. In other countries, it is predominantly a state’s role to buoy their economies. The larger than life role given to billionaires and their companies during the coronavirus lockdown could be seen as a handover of sovereign duty to non-parties. As a result, SAFTU’s Zwelenzima Vavi contends, “fiscal stinginess and tight monetary policy risk a rebellion born of extreme desperation.” Private money has therefore filled the void left by both the treasury and the central bank. The catch probably lies a few days, weeks or years ahead.

In conclusion, African states continue to misuse the concept of sovereignty. Their flawed understanding and application of sovereignty are only important to justify their existence and abuse of power. But when it comes to sovereign duty which demands states to provide for and protect their citizens, African states are rather nowhere to be seen. Pleading poverty and providing excuses define the African state which is still chaotic and lethargic as it was at independence. The Covid-19 crisis exposes the African state as an apathetic player in the lives of its population. Hence, there is room for clandestine groups and personal interests to reign supreme. And, African states appear to be the only ones willing to trade their economic sovereignty while the rest of the world puts value to it, because without it they will never to provide for their populations.

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