OPINION: Africa, the new world order and the politics of relevance - CNBC Africa

OPINION: Africa, the new world order and the politics of relevance

Special Report

by David S. Levin, Managing Partner, Nexus Capital Markets 0

Picture: Wikipedia

We’re at the dawning of a new era and it’s flickering right up there on the giant movie screen like a new blockbuster hit - and you’re in it.

Actually, so are all of the other 7.4 billion people on earth.

There is little doubt, as Malcolm Gladwell said, that we’ve reached a tipping point, but this one is on a global and historical scale - and it’s reshuffling the entire card deck of humanity. Jokers and all.

I don’t know about you, but seems obvious to me that we’ve been dealt a pretty lousy hand at the poker table. Let’s face it, to put it simply, things are bad all over. The whole world’s been swept down a raging river by a highly charged emotional current that is just too strong to fight anymore.

And with most of civilization praying with their thumbs to the social media Gods that reside on their smartphones - everyone, everywhere is as mad as hell . . . and they’re broadcasting it live and in color for you to see.

It’s like a worldwide digital riot.

But now our collective fury is revealing itself in our cities in the form of unrelenting, no-holds barred terrorism and mass domestic killings. The daily news cycle usually leads with an unbelievable atrocity where dozens if not hundreds of people are killed in a nightclub bombing or shopping mall attack. In 2015, there were 11,774 terror attacks killing 28,328 people around the world according to the U.S. State Department. And the birth of the “lone wolf terrorist” and the “soft target” has delivered this depravity like a FedEx package right to your front door. Now we’re all just waiting for the big one to hit. And it will.

In all honestly, I just don’t see how we can get the genie back into the bottle anymore.

This is why I am worried for Africa. The world is imploding all around her. One country after the other is struggling to balance a full plate of foreign policy crises in nearly every corner of the planet. National self-interest and self-preservation has hijacked a frightened Western mindshare as governments are trying - and failing - to protect their countries and its citizens. The prospect of getting blown up or caught in a mass shooting while you’re shopping for your dinner is now the “new normal”.

So I have to wonder, if things continue to spin out of control will Africa become an afterthought? A lonely asterisk residing in the footnotes at the bottom of the page? Will she be able to stay relevant within the broader dialogue?

In all honesty, it seems odd to me that African leaders and governments have somehow missed this very relevant subtlety as we sink deeper into this ever expanding quicksand. The world’s balance of power is shifting. And who your allies were, might not be who your allies are 5 or 10 years from now as countries adjust to a new world order and new foreign policy priorities. We’re all getting new dance partners. And who you hit the dance floor with will all depend on just how valuable you are to them. Or put another way, what do you have that they need?

So just In case you’ve somehow managed to nap through the last 7 or 8 years, let me give you a quick snapshot of the world you are now waking up into why it could ultimately have a dramatic impact on many of the countries in Africa.

I suppose the easiest thing to do is just pick a day and look at the newspaper. Unfortunately, it reads more like a Stephen King novel than journalism.

For starters, we’re killing each other in extraordinary numbers around the world over ancient religious beliefs that have been barbarically perverted and distorted. But instead of hardened armies on horseback and catapults launching flaming boulders, our enemies now use sophisticated internet technology, state of the art fire power and the specter of obtaining black market nuclear weapons, one of which will no doubt slip through the cracks sooner or later.

And make no mistake, folks. That’s the ultimate end game here.

Our weaponry has evolved a hundred fold but is now alarmingly coupled with a violent jihadist fervor straight out of the dark ages. And just for good measure, they’ve upped the ante and brought the battle directly to your neighborhood. The new “front” is your front yard. Your mall. Your movie theater. The corner bistro.


But you need to consider the backdrop to this global theatre of the absurd to fully comprehend the transformation underway. One that will likely relegate Africa to a cheap balcony seat in the back of the audience where all she can do is watch.

Let’s start with the United States. America is undergoing a massive ideological shift that is shaking the country to its core. But it’s not like in the 1960’s. This time it’s different. This is faster, more severe. Sharper. This one is tech-driven and is blinking and beeping at you all day long on your smartphone. And if you can imagine this, the U.S. is so divided politically that we are actually moving to both the left and the right simultaneously. The once highly prized “center” of the political spectrum is dissolving as our demographics undergo a grinding metamorphosis that would make Kafka’s cockroach pale in comparison.

Internationally, the U.S. has essentially excused itself from the dinner table under Barack Obama and never quite returned from the restroom. As a result, an emboldened Russia has taken our seat at the dais and is aggressively reasserting itself again on the world stage as it takes advantage of a weakened - and largely disinterested - United States. Putin will no doubt miss Obama.

The Middle East has given birth to a pair of grossly disfigured children named ISIS and Al Qaeda that are in an outright frenzy blowing up and beheading anyone they can find that doesn’t believe what they believe.

And I hate to tell you this, but it’s not going to just magically end one day.

Angry ideologies don’t stop. They’re immortal.

Then you have Iran; the big, bad pugnacious bully in the classroom that has bamboozled the entire international community largely because most countries are afraid they’ll get beaten up by them one day in the schoolyard.

Meanwhile, while nobody was watching, China began constructing faux-islands in the middle of the Pacific to further solidify their position as the proverbial 800 pound gorilla in the room. Something tells me that no one wants to pick a fight with the Chinese and their military of 3,500,000 fighters.

And let’s not forget the most colorful Joker in the deck, Kim Jong-un of North Korea. “Dear Leader” as he is known, shows his everlasting love to his people by brainwashing the masses, making them live without electricity in much of the country, and burning his generals to death if they disagree with him. Oh, and don’t forget, he has his jittery little finger on the nuke button at all times. Giving him the nuclear launch codes is like giving a dysfunctional alcoholic the keys to the local bar after closing time.

Europe, as we know it today, is flat out disintegrating and it is anyone’s guess as to what crumbs will be left on the bottom of the plate when all is said and done. Bloody terror attacks and an influx of a million-plus migrants from the Middle East has given rise to a surging nationalism not seen since World War II. It’s like if 100 people from another neighborhood showed up at your house one day and wanted to move in and have you feed them and take care of them for the rest of their lives. Oh, and at your expense.

So that’s the world in 2016 (yes, I know there are good things too).

And that brings me to Africa.

Without the massive amounts of foreign aid, infrastructure investment and military support from Europe, the U.S. and China, there is no telling where Africa would end up. 

Save for commodities and strategic positioning to fight terror, Africa is a giant net importer of assistance from others. In business parlance, it’s a cost center.

Food, medical, humanitarian, and not least of all, military aid are central to Africa’s ability to operate and survive at any level at all. Without it, many of the countries there would essentially malfunction like a car engine with a broken fuel pump. It wouldn’t be able to get out of the driveway. Just to give you an idea of some of the numbers, in 2014 the U.S. gave Kenya $560 million. Tanzania $588 million. Nigeria $703 million. Uganda $489 million. South Africa $490 million. Mozambique $406 million. Ethiopia $489 million. And the DRC $272 million. And that’s just a partial list.

Watching the news every night reminds me of one of those scary, end-of-the-world movies they play at 3AM on television. The U.S, three quarters of the Middle East and a good chunk of Western Europe are all on ideological fire in one way or another. And we are in yet another strategically unclear military conflict in Syria and Iraq with no absolute end in sight. It’s hard to defeat an ideology that is thousands of years old with airstrikes and missiles. It just regroups and reconstitutes like a lizard regenerating its tail.  

So as “Rome burns” and the world’s leaders fiddle like Nero, you have to wonder, what will happen to Africa?  With more and more civilians being killed in terror attacks around the world, ISIS fueling the barbarous wars in Syria and Iraq, and the unending waves of refuges settling in Europe and now the U.S, I’m not sure Africa will be a strategic priority for anyone soon. The human race is grinding and shifting like the earths tectonic plates and Africa’s well-being could ultimately take a back seat to everyone else’s. Frankly, I am not sure they will even be in the conversation.

So is it far-fetched to assume that as more and more countries around the world assume inward-looking protectionist postures, will Africa be relegated to just being a global afterthought? Beyond its abundant commodities and natural resources, will the world even care?

So speaking as a friend of Africa, worrying about their well-being is not an area that is going to garner a lot of mindshare from politicians and leaders around the world as powerful world events continue to reshape international alliances, alter foreign policy priorities and forge new strategic alignments.

From its allies, Africa will get policy-driven lip service, maybe. But not much else. China is just picking away at her commodities like a raven would pick at a dead rabbit in the field. And when it is done eating, China will distance itself. It may have already started. In 2015, China’s commodity imports from Africa were down nearly 40%. And when China catches a cold, Africa gets pneumonia. As for the U.S. and the EU, it seems that they are fighting everyone, everywhere on some level while trying to figure out how to protect their own citizens at home. They’ve all clearly got other concerns.

It’s a tall order for sure, but I am afraid that sooner or later, Africa will have to start doing more for itself and rely less on others. Because at some point in the near future, she risks losing significance among her peers as the world becomes more and more tenuous and as Africa offers little to the overall solution.

As much as I hate to say it, essentially, much of Africa risks losing relevance.

But maybe there is a silver lining in this after all. Maybe, by being forced to carry more of its own weight, Africa can slowly start to wean itself off its ally’s good graces and, over time, develop functioning, well governed nations that can ultimately provide for their people. I know that’s somewhat of a utopian vision but something needs to happen soon. It cannot sustain its present course indefinitely especially as the world around her changes.

There will always be some level of support needed but Africa’s partners today may be very different in the future given the churning waters that we are adrift in. The next 50 years will be nothing like the last 50 years and the economic and military aid dependent models that were used to help see Africa through post-colonialization will simply no longer be applicable.

As the needs of her allies change, so will their relationships. Africa will not be exempt from this.

It’s kind of like when you drop your child off at college. Soon, there comes that moment when you have to drive away. It’s not goodbye forever. But it’s a meaningful separation as your child will now be on their own and have to do things for themselves that they’ve never had to do before. They always had your help. But now, they’ll have to conduct and manage themselves properly and within the law. They’ll need to feed themselves. They’ll have to manage their money and finances properly. And they may even have to defend themselves at some point. Essentially, they will have to grow up.

I think that is what Africa is going to have to do too. She will need to do for herself. Provide for herself. Take responsibility. Govern and conduct herself with dignity. Grow. And you know what? Just like with your son or daughter going off to college, that’s really not a bad thing at all… 

David S. Levin is Managing Partner at Nexus Capital Markets, LLC, New York.