The time to act is now

A letter from more than 90 African intellectuals to African leaders about the continent’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Image credit Renato Gizzi via Flickr CC.

The coronavirus pandemic lays bare that which well-to-do middle classes in African cities have so far refused to confront. In the past 10 years, various media, intellectuals, politicians and international financial institutions have clung to an idea of an Africa on the move, of Africa as the new frontier of capitalist expansion; an Africa on the path to “emerging” with growth rates that are the envy of northern countries. Such a representation, repeated at will to the point of becoming a received truth, has been torn apart by a crisis that has not entirely revealed the extent of its destructive potential. At the same time, any prospect of an inclusive multilateralism—ostensibly kept alive by years of treaty-making—is forbidding. The global order is disintegrating before our very eyes, giving way to a vicious geopolitical tussle. The new context of economic disaster leaves countries of the global South stranded. Once again, we are reminded of their perennial status in the world order in-the-making: that of docile spectators.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to shatter the foundations of states and institutions whose profound failings have been ignored for too long. It is impossible to list these, suffice it to mention chronic under-investment in public health and fundamental research, limited achievements in food self-sufficiency, the mismanagement of public finances, and the prioritization of road and airport infrastructures at the expense of human well-being. All of this has in fact been the object of abundant specialized research, except that it seems to have escaped attention in spheres of governance on the continent. The management of the ongoing crisis constitutes the most glaring evidence of this gap.

On the necessity to govern with compassion

Adopting the all-securitarian model of “containment” of northern countries—often without much care to specific contexts—many African countries have imposed a brutal lockdown upon their populations; here and there, violation of curfew measures has been met with police violence. If such containment measures have appeased the middle classes shielded from crowded living conditions with some having the possibility to work from home, they have proved punitive and disruptive for those whose survival depends on informal activities.

Let’s be clear: we are not advocating an impossible choice between economic security vs. health security but we wish to insist on the necessity for African governments to take into account the chronic precarity that characterizes the majority of their populations. Yet, as a continent that is familiar with pandemic outbreaks, Africa has a head start in the management of a large-scale health crisis. However, it should gird itself against complacency.

Here and there, civil society organizations have shown tremendous solidarity and creativity. Despite the great dynamism of individual actors, these initiatives can in no way make up for the chronic unpreparedness and the structural deficiencies that states themselves will have to mitigate. Rather than sit idle and wait for better fortune, we must endeavor to rethink the basis of our common destiny from our own specific historical and social context and the resources we have.

Our belief is that “emergency” cannot, and should not, constitute a mode of governance. We must instead be seized by the real urgency, which is to reform public policy to work in favor of African populations and according to African priorities. In short, it is imperative to put forth the value of every human being regardless of status, over and beyond any logic of profit-making, domination or power capture.

Beyond the state of emergency

African leaders can and should propose to their societies a new political idea of Africa. For this is a question of survival and not a matter of rhetorical flourish. Serious reflections are needed about the functioning of state institutions, the function of a state and the place of juridical norms in the distribution and the balancing of power. This is best achieved on the basis of ideas adapted to realities across the continent. The realization of the second wave of our political independence will depend on political creativity as well as our capacity to take charge of our common destiny. Once again, various isolated efforts are already bearing fruit. They deserve to be heeded, debated and amply encouraged.

Furthermore, pan-Africanism also needs a new lease of life. It has to be reconciled with its original inspiration following decades of shortcomings. If progress on continental integration has been slow, the reason has much to do with an orientation informed by the orthodoxy of market liberalism. In consequence, the coronavirus pandemic reveals the deficit of a collective continental response, both in public health and other sectors. More than ever, we call upon leaders to ponder the necessity to adopt a concerted approach to governance sectors related to public health, fundamental research in all disciplines and to public policy. In the same vein, health has to be conceived as an essential public good, the status of health workers needs to be enhanced, and hospital infrastructure needs to be upgraded to a level that allows everybody, including leaders themselves, to receive adequate treatment in Africa. Failure to implement these reforms would be cataclysmic.

The African continent must take its destiny back into its own hands. For it is in the most trying moments that new and innovative orientations must be explored and lasting solutions adopted.

We write this to leaders of all walks of life; to the people of Africa and to all those that are committed to re-thinking the continent. We invite them to seize the opportunity of the coronavirus crisis to join efforts in re-thinking an African state in the service of the well-being of its people, to break with a model of development based on the vicious cycle of indebtedness, to break with the orthodox vision of growth for the sake of growth, and of profit for the sake of profit.

In fact, the announced external debt relief will be of limited effect as debt is not a primary cause, but rather a symptom of a mode of development that reflects deep asymmetries within the global economy. The partial cancellation of external debt every 20 years or so is thus the manifestation of a perverse integration of African economies in the global market. It seems to us that there can be no lasting solution to the “third world debt” problem without a radical reform of the global economic system in the direction of allowing countries to become more economically and financially self-sufficient. African governments also have to be more transparent and accountable on the conditions under which they borrow external funds.

The challenge for Africa is no less than the restoration of its intellectual freedom and a capacity to create—without which no sovereignty is conceivable. It is to break with the outsourcing of our sovereign prerogatives, to reconnect with local configurations, to break with sterile imitation, to adapt science, technology and research to our context, to elaborate institutions on the basis of our specificities and our resources, to adopt an inclusive governance framework and endogenous development, and to create value in Africa in order to reduce our systemic dependence. More crucially, the restoration of African sovereignty presupposes a reconceptualization of the African citizen as a fully-fledged legal subject and the beneficiary of public policy.

It is also essential to remember that Africa has sufficient material and human resources to build a shared prosperity on an egalitarian basis and in respect of the dignity of all people. The dearth of political will and the extractive practices of external actors can no longer be used as excuses for inaction. We no longer have a choice: we need a radical change in direction. Now is the time!

This is an edited version of a letter the authors wrote and has been signed by over 90 African intellectuals, including Wole Soyinka, Cheikh Hamidou Kane, Iva Cabral, Makhily Gassama, Siba N’Zatioula Grovogui, Djibril Tamsir Niane, Véronique Tadjo, Boubacar Boris Diop, Yolanda Bouka, among others. The original letter can be read in English or French.

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