Mbeki and Obasanjo are case studies in the use of soft power to advance Africa’s interests
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By Oluwaseun Tella
The concept of soft power has been part of the parlance of international relations for three decades. Soft power actors use non-coercive and persuasive means to achieve their objectives. Attraction rather than force is their preferred language.
The application of soft power remains focused on states because of their primacy in international politics. But, the increasing influence of non-state actors dictates a need to review this approach. Non-state actors on the international stage include international organisations, NGOs, multinational corporations, terrorist groups and individuals.
It is against this backdrop that I studied the power of attraction of non-state actors. I focused on the soft power credentials of former African presidents – Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria, 1999-2007) and Thabo Mbeki (South Africa, 1999-2008).
The two have made important contributions to the continent this century through promoting peace, democracy, pan-Africanism and regional integration.
The study captures the essence of their soft power. It also engages how it has rubbed off on their respective countries – during and after their presidencies.
I examined Obasanjo’s and Mbeki’s traits, ideas and policies. In particular I focused on their contribution to pan-Africanism and the idea of the African Renaissance. I argue that they successfully used their soft power and international clout to make significant contributions in Africa and beyond.
Obasanjo as a soft power president
After Obasanjo’s civilian administration ended in 2007, he attracted widespread criticism within Nigeria. This is perhaps best captured by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka’s description of him as a “master of hypocrisy”.
But, this underplays some of his accomplishments. The period between 1976 and 1979 when he was the military head of state is lauded by some as the most dynamic era of Nigeria’s foreign policy. And during his civilian administration (1999–2007) Nigeria was catapulted from a pariah state (due to gross human right abuses by successive military regimes) to a significant regional and, to a lesser extent, global player.
Thanks to Obasanjo’s idiosyncratic soft power, Nigeria, once neglected in global affairs, witnessed an influx of high profile visits, including US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Its voice was better heard in such bodies as the Commonwealth, Group of 77 and the Non-Aligned Movement.
Obasanjo was notable for his courage and decisiveness, particularly when it came to colonialism and, later, apartheid. His toughness on these issues, and his promotion of regional integration, had remarkable success.
A foreign policy that embraces genuine promotion of democracy and peacemaking generates soft power.
Obasanjo enhanced his, and by extension Nigeria’s soft power through his successful peacemaking and promotion of democracy. The former, in places such as Liberia and Sierra Leone. The latter, in São Tomé and Príncipe, Togo and Côte d'Ivoire.
In Liberia, he was instrumental in ending the war. Obasanjo also facilitated the resignation of President Charles Taylor who was granted asylum in Nigeria. He played an active role in the transition to democratic rule that ushered in President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson in 2006.
In São Tomé and Príncipe, Obasanjo ensured the reinstatement of President Fradique de Menezes following a military coup in 2003.
His reformist ideas, set out in the Memorandum of Understanding of the Conference on Security, Stability, Development and Cooperation in Africa, was adopted by the African Union summit in 2002.
The memorandum has four cornerstones. These are security, stability, development and cooperation as prerequisites for good governance on which African states would be measured.
It is thus clear that Obasanjo’s towering personality and international stature have enabled Nigeria to shape African institutions. He is thus a wielder of soft power.
Since leaving office, Obasanjo has continued to exhibit this soft power through conflict mediation and humanitarian interventions, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo (2008–2009) and Côte d'Ivoire (2011).
But, a number of shortfalls blot his soft power credentials. These include his unilateral decisions and apparent disdain for the rule of law while in power.
Mbeki was influenced by some of Africa’s great political minds, as well as pan-African thinkers, during his years in exile in the UK.
For example, while studying at Sussex University in England in the mid-1960s, he engaged the ideas of pan-Africanist luminaries Aimé Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, Leopold Senghor and W.E.B. Du Bois. Arguably, all these individuals influenced Mbeki’s views as seen in his pursuit of pan-Africanism and African Renaissance.
Mbeki has often been labelled an “African intellectual” and “African philosopher king”. There is no gainsaying that his administration had the most impact of any post-apartheid government in international affairs – even more so than Nelson Mandela.
This was evident in his push for South-South solidarity and reform of old international institutions such as the UN Security Council. The African Union, despite its weaknesses, provided the platform for him to promote peace and security in Africa.
Exercising his soft power attribute (persuasion), Mbeki used shuttle diplomacy to garner the support of other African states, the Group of Eight and the Association of Southeast Asian States to establish the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the African Peer Review Mechanism. He was noted as a major peacemaker on the continent. This is best shown by his administration’s peacemaking and peacekeeping in Burundi, the DRC and Sudan.
Mbeki was often called upon to mediate and find lasting solutions to conflict in Africa. In 2004, the African Union asked that he proffer a political solution to the conflict in Côte d’Ivoire. He was actively involved in mediation to end conflicts in Comoros, Rwanda, Sudan, Eswatini and Zimbabwe.
Some of the interventions turned out to be a mere plastering of wounds as countries such as the DRC and Sudan remained fragile.
Nevertheless, Mbeki facilitated the Lusaka ceasefire agreement and the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. The accords aimed to end the DRC and Burundi’s conflicts, respectively.
Indeed, the calls for Mbeki’s mediation reflect recognition of his idiosyncratic soft power.
Mbeki’s administration demonstrated remarkable commitment to provide aid to Africa. The African Renaissance Fund was established in 2000 to disburse aid to fellow African states. This offered an alternative to Western aid laced with debilitating conditions.
Mbeki continued to play a significant role after his presidency. He was appointed chair of the African Union’s efforts to bring peace to Sudan and South Sudan in 2009. This culminated in South Sudan’s independence in 2011.
The most significant factors that undermined his credibility were his quiet diplomacy in Zimbabwe and HIV/AIDS denialism.
Due to their soft power resources, Obasanjo and Mbeki made their mark on pan-Africanism and conflict resolution in Africa. Their ideas remain deeply ingrained in the African Union.
* Oluwaseun Tella is Senior Researcher at the Institute for the Future of Knowledge at the University of Johannesburg.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.