Our Future: Where to from here?

Hie guys. This is our first blog post. Expect more from our team in due time. We will be posting a lot on current affairs in Zimbabwe, Africa and other parts of the world, particularly with direct (or sometimes perceived indirect) links to Africa. This platform was mainly created to facilitate deliberative democracy and to map out the future for our nations and continents, for our generation and those that are coming. As the African saying goes, we owe our future to our children, if we do not act and speak out now we are doomed to not only repeat, but live in history.

One of the recurrent and guiding principles and themes in contemporary sociopolitical and economic life is globalisation. We are living in an increasingly interlinked society where space and time have become as compressed as never before. Leisure (football being a major example), politics, fashion, economics, education and religion among other things have become shared, collaborative or competitive phenomenon on a global scale. No sensible human being can, in this age, claim ignorance of the importance of “the neighbour” whether far or near. Cavemen mentality of isolation can no longer be entertained if we are to be anything. Globalisation, like any other phenomenon existent, has its good, bad and ugly but it is imperative to argue for ways to make it work rather than hiding from reality. Africa has so far been regressing, in my view, towards history and sometimes unwarranted paranoia. We do not deny the evils of global political and economic inequalities but it is important to find ways to compete in such a world rather than reinforce our imaginary carapaces so that we can hide, while imprisoning our future in the process. These debates will be developed more in our coming blogs and publication. Virtual Planet Digest, published on Isuu which will be available from August 2017. We look forward to an active participation of African youth.

It is our belief that shared ideas can help shape the future. We have a lot of sharp minds in Africa who could make a positive impact on society but whose voices are muffled by the political realities of the day. We decided to name our ‘movement’ Virtual Planet because we regard ourselves as “liquid”, fluid in the sense that we are not restricted by structures. especially with the ugly truth that political and social participation in Africa is usually a reserve for the old who are influenced by ghosts of the past in their decision making or who want to stay in power forever. Join us, therefore, as we put heads together in order to free our future as a continent.

The blogs posted here will be sometimes country-specific, issue-specific, theoretical or philosophical. We will look at a variety of issues that directly impact on the future of Africa and its youths.

The future is bright

“Wheresoever its members are assembled, there is the National Assembly”: Centrality of Activism and fluid insurgent politics in an age of globalisation.

In France, in 1789, the King was faced with direct opposition for the first time since his ascension to power in 1774. The ordinary people in the Third Estate had finally decided to make a claim for the establishment of a parliament, the National Assembly. On June 17 1789 they declared that France was to be run by the National Assembly, which subsequently would alter the whole political and social system in France. Louis XVI, recognising the impact the action had on his and the privileged classes’ status, BANISHED the Third Estate from the Estates General meeting place. A striking aspect of this event is the reaction of the Third Estate. They vowed “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established” and that “wheresoever its members are assembled, there is the National Assembly”

Tennis Court Oath
Tennis Court Oath

This was a turning point in the history of insurgent politics. It does not have to be in government buildings that a political system functions. Politics is both personal and inescapable. Since the beginning of modernity, when politics was divorced from religion, it has become essential to have parallel systems of checks and balances. Thinkers from Cicero (societas civilas), Aristotle (koinōnia politikē), Locke (civil government), Hegel (the ethical roots of society), Kant (moral universalism), Marx (socialism), Weber (rationality and rationalisation of society) to Gramsci (civil society and hegemony), Habermas (communicative action and deliberative democracy), Manuel Castells (communication power and insurgent politics) and Zygmunt Bauman (liquid modernity); all recognised the importance of alternative structures (in different forms) to the state. The systematic design of government structures is essential but in those structures there should be enough space for Civil Society and cultural systems that are independent of government control.

Why am I taking time concentrating on the centrality of Civil Society? Because the socio-political scape has transformed remarkably in the past two decades that if we do not locate where our alternate political structures are, we run the risk of recycling the dictatorships that have dominated the global political arena, especially in the global south, for the past three or so decades. In Africa we have had the unfortunate experience of colonialism which has tarnished and distorted our legacies and hampered our lifeworlds. The evils of colonialism can never be denied, anyone who does is either mentally unstable or sadistic. However, those who went into power after the colonialism have adopted a wrong ideology and a paranoia that is unwarranted at best and mostly exaggerated for effect. Concepts like Civil Society and ‘democracy’ are unwelcome in African governments and political systems. People who want to engraft these ideas into African politics are deemed as traitors and puppets of the West. To address these notions, let us turn our attention to two questions: 1) What (or who) is the West and what (who) is the South? and 2) What is the best system of government?

Why the divide? What the South and West are and are not

The global West, as it is known, is a geopolitical sphere that is acknowledged to be economically better than the global South. The West, consisting of the USA and European countries, because of its economic advantage over the West (Africa) and the East (which is no longer the case), has a hegemonic advantage; they are politically privileged. This has prompted realists in global governance to call for the control of the global structure and global problems to be solved by the ‘powerful’ nations.  Under the same token, African governments have become mostly reactionary, labelling anything that questions or discredits their hold to power as Western. The Judiciary in most African countries is never independent. Even in South Africa, who are regarded as a developed democracy on the continent, the Judiciary could not complement the efforts by the International Criminal Court of Justice (ICCJ) to apprehend Omar Al-Bashir because the government was in ‘solidarity’ with the African people against Western hegemony.

As it stands, Civil Society and opposition parties are viewed by African political elites, especially those who survived the colonial era, as Europeans in ‘African skin’. They are, for these revolutionaries, simply  puppets of Westerners and sell-outs of the African values.  President Mugabe, one of the longest ‘serving’ African leaders, voiced that democracy in Africa is a difficult concept. We ask therefore, what kind of system would we want? Ok more of that later. Let us ask first; is it necessary to label everything as black or white, or West or South or East? Are we not capable of equal cooperation? Are we not dwelling too much in history, fearing to delve into the future.

The problem with African political systems is that the leaders’ point of reference for everything is always in the past. We have shared the same education with he ‘West’ for the past century and yet we continue clamouring and holding on to tradition. I should make it clear that the concept of ‘culture’ is grossly abused by African politicians. Culture is something that changes over time, something capable of creating tradition. if culture does not change then we do not have a living society. African politicians try to fight against the Westernisation of African culture.  The problem is, rather than trying to negotiate the norms and values that govern morality and behaviour on our continent, we concentrate on imposing tradition, cultural residues that governed behaviour in a different epoch, under completely different circumstances.  This is a topic for discussion on its own but I have devoted space to it here because it is this contemporary negotiated culture that informs political culture. We have unprecedented corruption in Africa because of the gerontocratic and aristocratic beliefs that dominated traditional society. The wealth of Kingdoms was concentrated in the hands of a few people who controlled everyone and the people did not own anything. Julius Nyerere rightly observed that the concept of capitalism and private property did not exist in pre-colonial Africa. The only problem with that analysis is that it ignored royalty, who had access to anything produced by a Kingdom. Nyerere’s principles of Ujamaa could only work if the ruling elites adhered to the principles of the generality of the people too. This, even Mwalimu himself acknowledged, is democracy.

Our interpretation of things is determined by our position and trajectory in life. Those who gain power in Africa define culture as ‘respect’, but unfortunately the respect is only for those in power and not reciprocal. They demand a virtually blind and unquestioning following when they run Africa into the ground. Anyone who dares to think that the people have the right to contribute to the running of the government is deemed a traitor. The African public, not because of the West, want to take part in government and to have new ideas in the development and progression of the continent. We have had only a few visionaries in Africa who recognised the importance of the future. Leaders like the aforementioned Julius Nyerere, Salim Ahmed Salim, Amilcar Cabral, Seretse Khama, and Nelson Mandela among others have had more far-reaching visions for Africa, recognising the importance of the future, education and the youth. These leaders did not want to take all their efforts blaming the West but tried to design systems that could work for their countries, albeit with different successes and results. Based on this evidence we are forced to argue that there are a few good people who can bring real change to Africa. Do we have then to say democracy is Western?

The West has become a figment in the minds of the African elite who want to stay in power. The South is also their way of projecting self-pity and inverted racism. We have to know that whoever takes time to always blame some external force for their failure is both lazy and inhumane. We have to solve our problems in a contextual manner and give the young blood of our nations the chance to bring new ideas for us to realise efficient and progressive political systems. The only new ideas that are accepted by African leaders are those from youths who have been trained by the revolutionaries, who do not have a brain of their own and who have gobbled the political agitprop fed to them to the brim. If we are to move forward, we have to embrace globalisation and make it work for our own good.

What is the best system of government?

The simple answer to this is: there is no best system of government. As we have seen above, Africans have had problems since independence from colonialism with democracy. It is not plausible to take another country’s political system and plagiarise it as your own. We have to find what works best for us. But, does that principle work when people assume office only for ‘power’ or benefits? Most leaders in Africa believe in what is known as ‘prebendalism’ – the belief that leaders have to benefit more than anyone else when they go into politics because they work more. But does their work merit applause and beneficiation? Can these people lay a foundation on which we can all work, on which future generations can develop? That is the fundamental question. Their failure is perhaps understandable because they have the scourges of colonialism as their point of reference for government but they are responsible for at least moving away from, not opening, doors for others to have access to their own destiny and for the good of society.

Salim Ahmed Salim at the 26th OAU Summit in 1990 said that “Africa could not ignore the global consensus on the value of democracy; but democracy must be home-grown”. This is a fundamental point if we need to move forward. At any rate, democracy is and should be contextual and changeable. It has to be a negotiated affair. It is true that democracy has its own problems, but it is still the best form of government.  On 11 November 1947 Winston Churchill remarked in the House of Commons that ” No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”  You cannot surely tell me that dictatorship is the best, not to say good, form of government. Socialism in all forms failed. The protectionism of African elites against the loss of political office is simply appalling.


The Importance of parallel structures to the state

When governments think they know everything that is happening “on the ground” they are most likely to be mistaken. The importance of civil society cannot be over-emphasised. I would like to make a point here for the various forms of opposition and contribution. I have started this article with an event from the French Revolution to show how the government can be run outside the dominant structures if they cannot listen to the people. The ability  of a political system to maintain the Repressive and Ideological State Apparatuses only run in as much as the people have at least minimal stake in government. As they grow detached from the government any insurgency can lead to implosion and subsequent collapse of a system. If the government cannot include the ideas of the masses they lose legitimacy, and concomitantly, power.

In Africa the revolutionary parties have maintained their legitimacy through enticing the rural and old electorate through ideas of ‘culture’ and have created regimes of fear through colonial and war imagery. This has worked for the past few decades but it will definitely not work with the emergence of the internet generation. The young generations are the most affected by the ineptitude  of the current crop of leaders in Africa. The uncertainty created by the current leaders has adverse effects for our future.Bauman-youth-DD

We have a generation facing the prospect of wasted lives, who do not know what tomorrow holds for them. The only thing we are sure of as youths under the revolutionary regimes is history and we are told we have no way of freeing ourselves from it. We are told not to take opportunities and to think for ourselves unless under the prescription of the failed elders. As highlighted above, one’s position and trajectory influences interpretation. What the political elites see in youths is not a part of African values AT ALL. As one who grew up with elderly people in the rural areas I can confidently claim and ascertain that elderly people in Africa respect youth so much and look forward to our contributing to change in all aspects of life and to bring new ideas to the table. The belief that African political elites have is unAfrican. They believe that ‘if they are not my children, why should I care?’ Most of them have invested heavily for the futures of their children in sheer disrespect of the people from whom they get their monies.

Way forward?

It is high time African youths came together and raise their voices against the tyrants we are feeding. The existence of politics warrants the existence of counter-politics. It does not mean we have to oppose for the sake of opposition but we have to contribute to our own futures.  The catch is that wherever you are, there the government is. You are the parliament on your own. With the internet at our disposal, we have found our Tennis Court where we can map the direction of our countries and our continent. It is high time we ditch our petty differences as try to forge a clear way forward, asking the question “what kind of continent do we want?”


Written By:

Ishmael Bhila

University of Portsmouth, Graduate Student in the Department of  History, Politics and Social Studies.

Why elections matter for democracy in Africa. The cases of Kenya and Rwanda

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Rwandan presidential candidate, Frank Habineza, waves to supporters.
Reuters/Jean Bizimana

Sarah Logan, International Growth Centre

Critical elections are being held in Rwanda and Kenya. In Rwanda, the incumbent Paul Kagame will face Frank Habineza, of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda and independent candidate Philippe Mpanyimana.

In Kenya, Raila Odinga, representing an umbrella opposition party, the National Super Alliance, will challenge incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Party.

Some controversy already mars both polls. Victoire Ingabire, considered the strongest opposition leader in Rwanda, remains jailed for threatening state security. The Rwandan constitution was also recently amended to allow Kagame to run for a third term and to potentially rule until 2034.

In Kenya, there’s been considerable criticism of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, the body running the election. Issues have included the reliability of the technology being used and the alleged partiality of the commission’s former leadership. And the recent printing of 1.2 million extra ballot papers has raised suspicions of planned vote rigging. The torture and murder of Christopher Msando, the commission’s head of information and technology, has further increased concerns.

With their frequent irregularities, it’s easy to become cynical about elections in Africa. But we must fight our scepticism and indifference because elections continue to be an extremely important component of the continent’s growing democracy.

Elections and democracy

While elections alone are insufficient for democracy, they are nevertheless a prerequisite. This is because they promote political participation and competition needed for democracy. It’s the failure or absence of elections that largely defines dictatorships.

Other prerequisites for democracy include:

  • checks on executive power,
  • civilian control of the military,
  • civil rights and due process, and
  • an independent media and active civil society.

Since the early 1990s, elections in Africa have, on the whole, become increasingly free and fair. A number of factors have contributed to this. The effectiveness of electoral governance – institutions and regulatory norms – has been the most important. The legitimacy of elections depends on clear procedural rules.

Studies have found that the electoral management boards are the most significant indicators of the quality of electoral governance. In particular, whether a board is autonomous of government is crucial. Very few African countries inherited autonomous electoral management boards at independence. But, in line with global trends, their prevalence has been rising.

By 2002 more than half of African electoral management boards were fully autonomous, 29% were semi-autonomous, and only 20% weren’t autonomous.

International election observation has also contributed to elections becoming more free and fair. Their presence can reduce fraud and increase domestic confidence in the process. Inviting international observers to monitor an election has now become a necessary condition for an election to be considered internationally legitimate. Refusal to do so is almost akin to admitting electoral fraud.

Long-term observers begin work months ahead of an election. This is because free and fair elections depend a great deal on what happens before voting day. In fact, vote buying and political intimidation before polling day are more common than disputes over vote counting or polling procedures.

Kenyan opposition leader and presidential candidate Raila Odinga addressing a rally.
Reuters/Baz Ratner

Free media and active citizens

A free media and active civil society continue to play an indispensable oversight role. This includes keeping institutions honest and keeping people informed.

A study in Sierra Leone showed that election debates between parliamentary candidates were very effective. Recorded debates between local parliamentary candidates were shown in numerous villages.

An evaluation of their impact showed that watching the election debates substantially increased viewers’ political knowledge. It also made it more likely that they would vote along policy (rather than ethnic) lines. Elected politicians who had been involved in the debates also tended to invest more in their constituencies, and to visit them more often.

Civil society

Civil society has a particular role in promoting a peaceful electoral environment. Its role is particularly crucial where tensions are high. Non-partisan citizen observers and monitoring groups, such as the West Africa Election Observers Network, are increasingly involved in election monitoring. Some of the results have been impressive. For example, a coalition of observers in Ghana trained and deployed about 4000 people to cover the 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections.

Regional blocs have also been important in strengthening democracy by enforcing electoral outcomes. A good example was when the Economic Community of West African States stepped in after the Gambian president Yahya Jammeh refused to leave office after losing the 2016 election. The regional body’s commitment to remove him by force if necessary was highly commendable.

Its influence can also be seen in the fact that 14 out of its 15 member states have presidents who have been in office for less than two terms. The Economic Community of West African States should serve as a model to other regional blocs.

Making Africans polls free and fair

A great deal of progress has been made on improving political participation across the continent. But genuine political competition in elections remains a challenge. More work is still needed to remove biases in favour of incumbents. Another area that needs work is lifting restrictions on access to state-controlled media by opposition parties.

The ConversationAnd for democracy to be strengthened further a number of players have to take an active role. This includes governments, opposition parties, the media, citizens, civil society and the international community.

Sarah Logan, Economist, International Growth Centre

Promoting Deliberative Democracy and Open Society through Technological and Unrestricted Youth Education and Engagement in Zimbabwe

Ishmael Bhila, University of Portsmouth


Freedom of expression in Zimbabwe is a scarce resource. Censorship has been present in Zimbabwe since the colonial period (Patel, 1997). Zimbabwe has a network of formal legislation that prevents freedom of expression ranging from the 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the Official Secrets Act, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act. All this legislation does not only limit the free circulation of information and impinge on individual human rights but also dissuade youths from accessing information and engaging in political dialogue. The Communications Act and the Zimbabwe National ICT Policy. Access to the internet in Zimbabwe is limited due to high costs (Freedomhouse, 2013[1]) which makes it difficult for youths to engage in ‘liquid’ dialogue (flexible and unrestricted democratic engagement). The Zimbabwe National ICT Policy (2015) makes it clear that it discourages the use of the internet as a platform for political dialogue and encourages the “availability of local capacity to snuff out undesirable social content” (Article 18: 1(c)). The Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill of 2016 considers political use of social media as ‘abuse’ which warrants 5 years in jail (Thornycroft, 2016[2], McCorley, 2016[3]). However, as McCorley (2016) puts it, the fluidity of such activities makes it hard for government to pin down internet activities. Our own objective is not merely to initiate internet activism but to expose youths to a world of information, a world where global events and governmental systems are appreciated, to expose youths to power through access to information and through discussion prompted by such information. To give youths an outlook of various government systems across the globe and make them see blueprints with which they can work, because they are the future leaders.

Secondly, there is no academic freedom in Zimbabwe. Public debate, free inquiry and freedom of expression in publications have suffered since 2000 (Moyo, 2009[4]). The educational institutions are not autonomous from the government (Mushawatu, 2016[5]) hence the ideas that are taught and those that are expressed in publications, and most importantly in seminar style lectures where ideas are exchanged, are never free. The Zimbabwean government introduced the National Pledge and a whole lot of ideological instruments to control the thinking of youths in schools and to blinker students’ minds. These restrictions have for so long discouraged student participation in political dialogue.

The lack of participation of youths in national politics is also disturbing. The political environment is saturated by old people who assumed political office before independence in 1980. The few youths who have been incorporated are either closely related to politicians (ruling or opposition) or the very few brave students who risk being killed or jailed (Mushawatu, 2011[6]). We believe that the setting up of politically autonomous platforms for discussion among students can contribute immensely to the democratic transition of our country in future. Most Zimbabweans are aware that a new phase of political and social reality are coming into existence in the near future, and Virtual Planet as an organisation wants to ensure that the future is built on a clean foundation based on deliberative democracy and a constitution that cannot be manipulated by political office bearers.

As a result of the above mentioned problems, youths have been alienated from each other, from information and from any platforms where they can air out their political views (Dombo, Alex Mukamba and Tembinkosi Rushwaya who protested at the 2016 University of Zimbabwe graduation ceremony were denied certificates and detained[7]). To our knowledge, our initiative is be the first in the country to involve open academic dialogue (deliberative democracy) among students independent of political parties, whom we believe are more interested in politics and the gains involved than the future of the country. Access to the internet and information has been very limited to the youths in Zimbabwe but we aim to fuse the access of this information with both online and offline discussion.


[1] Freedomhouse (2013) Zimbabwe: Freedom of Press https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2013/zimbabwe

[2] Thornycroft, P (2016) New Zimbabwe law allows seizure of smartphones and laptops as Mugabe turns on social media http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/07/new-zimbabwe-law-allows-seizure-of-smartphones-and-laptops-as-mu/

[3] McCorley, C. (2016) Converting tweets into feet: can Zimbabwe’s social media activism oust Robert Mugabe? https://theconversation.com/converting-tweets-into-feet-can-zimbabwes-social-media-activism-oust-robert-mugabe-63793

[4] Moyo, J. (2009). Academic Freedom and Human Rights in Zimbabwe. Social Research, 76(2), 611-614. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40972275

[5] Mushawatu, Z. (2016). Of spies, academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Retrieved from http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20161015075250162

[6] Mushawatu, Z. (2011) Spooks stifle academic freedom. http://www.thestandard.co.zw/2011/09/24/spooks-stifle-academic-freedom/

[7] https://www.newsday.co.zw/2016/10/13/uz-denies-certificates-anti-mugabe-protesters/

What the Djibouti military base tells us about China’s growing role in Africa

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Theo Neethling, University of the Free State

China hasn’t been known for establishing military bases in Africa – or even beyond its immediate sphere of influence. This is changing following its decision to build a military base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. The base will be next door to the United States Africa Command.

China will be able to use the base to improve the way it manages its peacekeeping operations and humanitarian efforts in Africa, as well as its regional maritime operations.

How should this be understood in terms of China’s global positioning? And what are the implications of its expanding military footprint in Africa?

The brief answer is that there has not been a sudden change in China’s role and foreign policy profile on the continent. Instead, the change has been gradual and incremental. This is particularly evident from an international peacekeeping perspective.

Beijing’s views and approach towards United Nations peacekeeping have changed significantly since China joined the UN in 1971. A major shift took place after the end of the Cold War and, over the years, it’s gradually taken a more positive stance and indicated a greater willingness to contribute.

Today China contributes peacekeepers in substantial numbers to operations in South Sudan, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In doing so, it’s deliberately sending a message that its rising profile is not a strategic threat to other major powers. Instead, it wants to be regarded as a friend to developing nations and be more responsive to global expectations. This includes the need to reduce tensions and conflicts.

China’s role in Africa can be understood from three broad perspectives: to assert its position as a global power, craft a positive image of itself, and to promote its national interests.

A global player

China increasingly intends to show that it is a global power. The new base in Djibouti should be viewed in this context. It’s in line with China’s views on international peacekeeping. This is that peacekeeping is way of exerting greater influence on international affairs through the UN.

Unlike the US, which has numerous military bases around the world, China has exercised its global presence through peacekeeping operations. As a result, Beijing has emerged as a significant actor in international peacekeeping operations – in Africa and elsewhere.

Its commitment to this can be seen from the fact that it’s the only country that significantly contributes both troops and money to UN peacekeeping operations.

Secondly, China’s expanding role in UN peacekeeping over the last two decades has helped it craft a more positive and constructive global image and reputation. It has used peacekeeping deliberately, and systematically, as a diplomatic instrument aimed at projecting China as a responsible global power. Its approach to peacekeeping has also allowed it to respond more quickly to African requests or challenges. And it’s worked as a confidence building measure with both African governments and the African Union.

Thirdly, China’s emerging role in Africa is part of an evolving and pragmatic reorientation in Chinese policymaking circles, specifically where Beijing’s political interests and related investments are at stake. China is Africa’s largest trading partner, and its strategic and material interests have become more integrated and entangled with African concerns.

Chinese soldiers deployed for UN peacekeeping missions at their military base in Qinyang, Henan province, China. EPA/Michael Reynolds

But its growing involvement in peacekeeping has become more difficult to reconcile with its historical commitment to non-interventionism. This is particularly clear in the case of South Sudan.

Strategic interests

Africa’s youngest nation has presented both challenges and opportunities for China. It has had to soften its historical arm’s length approach to facilitate a political solution to the ongoing conflict in South Sudan. But it has also needed to secure its strategic interests, especially the production of oil.

In this volatile and turbulent environment, Beijing felt compelled to make a substantial peacekeeping contribution to the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. This included deploying combat troops.

But it also had to assume a number of new political roles, such as mediating between warring parties and engaging in multilateral peace talks. This put Chinese foreign policy principles under pressure and steered its involvement in international peacekeeping operations in a new direction.

China’s peacekeeping experience in South Sudan suggests that it tacitly recognises that some kind of intervention is sometimes needed to protect its strategic interests.

Although China’s involvement in peacekeeping in South Sudan should not be overstated in terms of its scope and extent, it does seem to signal the beginning of a far more assertive role in Africa’s peace and security issues.

At the same time, as much as China is being forced to adopt high risk strategies in cases of overseas investment, as in South Sudan, its approach can still be defined as being carefully impartial. It remains true that China’s increased involvement in political dynamics in South Sudan doesn’t sit easily with its long held policy of non-intervention.

A new colonialism?

Will China’s presence in Africa – including its military footprint in Djibouti – turn into a new form of colonialism in Africa?

I believe this is highly unlikely. China remains acutely aware of the pitfalls associated with the politics of interventionism, especially in developing nations. It wants developing countries to regard it as a friend in global politics.

But it wouldn’t be surprising if China started to apply at least a measure of military (hard) power alongside diplomatic (soft) power if it believes its economic interests are under threat.

Islamic State: the West must embrace local state ownership of the region’s conflicts

file-20170731-5295-cfgm53Has the Middle East – now beset by inter-nation, inter-Muslim and inter-ethnic conflict – been engulfed in a war without end unleashed by the barbarism and terror of Islamic State (ISIL)?

ISIL murders both other fundamentalist Sunni Muslims as well as Shia Muslims; Saudi Arabia is combating Iran; Turkey belatedly fights ISIL while attacking the Kurds. And the US and Russia, their bombs raining down on Syria, have been sucked into this maelstrom, sometimes in uneasy alliance against ISIL, sometimes supporting their own factions in direct opposition to each other.

The Syrian crisis is apocalyptic – a disaster of biblical proportions, with more than five million refugees. The acts of unspeakable brutality carried out by ISIL are quite deliberate. They help create the myth that it’s omnipotent.

But tragically, headline grabbing British, European and American soundbites over Syria have substituted for a proper understanding of the conflict.

Since 9/11, the West has had a pretty poor success rate for its interventions in Muslim countries. Yet indulging in the fictitious luxury of isolationism — doing nothing in the face of genocide as it shamefully did over Rwanda in 1994 – is indefensible.

Instead, countries like Britain should act carefully and not bombastically. They should make common cause with both Saudi Arabia and Iran to confront a common ISIL enemy. They should also seek to dissuade Turkey from its sectarian role, encouraging a realignment of Middle East politics to overcome its violently corrosive fault lines.

That may be the only way to prevent the continuing war and terror.

Western intervention

Tony Blair’s Labour government was right to intervene and save Sierra Leone from savagery in 2000 and also to prevent the genocide of Muslims in Kosovo in 1999. But very few, even those supporting it at the time, dispute that Blair’s 2003 support of Bush in Iraq has led to disaster.

Now, Britain is helping defend, with – unusually – Iran on the same side, a fledgling Iraqi government. The current Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider Al-Abadi, has promised inclusive Shia-Sunni rule quite different from the Shia sectarianism of his Western backed predecessor Al-Maliki. But he is weak and Sunni-influenced sectarianism remains rife in Iraq.

Nevertheless there is a real danger that, by stepping in at all, western powers risk freeing Middle East governments – and their militia proxies – to pursue other sectarian agendas to the detriment of the anti-ISIL campaign.

The West must be very determined to ensure that there is regional ownership of – and responsibility for – tackling the ISIL problem. Otherwise the conflict becomes the very one ISIL craves: with the “infidels” of the West.

But what is ISIL?

Although in 2014 ISIL seemed to have sprung out of nowhere, its emergence from Al-Qaeda in Iraq came from Syria in 2011 when President Bashar al-Assad unleashed a campaign of butchery against protesters peacefully demanding the democratic values of the Arab Spring.

ISIL contains many foreign fighters from across the Arab and Islamic world. But its leadership included several senior ex-Saddam Hussein army and intelligence officers of legendary cruelty – a powerful mix of extremist ideology and professional military expertise.

Yet within Iraq, the goals of the ex-Saddam Sunni Baathist leadership and ISIL are very different. It was a marriage of convenience which subsequently deteriorated. ISIL’s objective is an Islamic State stretching from Iraq to Syria. By contrast, its Sunni Iraqi allies either wanted to overthrow what is a Shia dominated government to regain the Sunni supremacy they lost when Saddam was removed, or favoured a semi-autonomous region, like the Kurds.

ISIL is medieval both in its barbarism and in its fanatical religious zeal. But, at the same time, it is a product of a deep seated sense of Sunni disenfranchisement from the autocracies in the region. Unless that political malaise is addressed, ISIL – and groups like it – will continue to feed off popular resentment.

ISIL’s members possess a devout belief that the sole truth is possessed by the conservative Wahhabi sect dating from the 18th century within the Sunni strand of Islam. The rise of a new caliphate has long been the stated aim of global Jihadi terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda. But the rigidly extreme Wahhabism specific to ISIL makes them an even more potent threat than Al-Qaeda.

Unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIL have run the necessary trappings of a state in the areas that they have captured – courts, schools and a degree of welfare support. This can bring local people used to an unregulated, chaotic and often violent power vacuum on side.

Aside from being the bloodiest, ISIL was also, allegedly, the world’s richest terrorist organisation. In 2014 it had reserves of over USD$2 billion according to British intelligence.

What makes ISIL so dangerous?

Sunni support for ISIL was encouraged not just by the disastrously anti-Sunni sectarianism of the previous Iraq’s Al-Maliki, a Shia, but by the butchery of Assad, also Shia-aligned.

Because the Al-Maliki regime openly persecuted Sunnis, ISIL’s call to arms resonated with those who normally wouldn’t support its extremism. This is one of the reasons the Iraqi army folded at the sight of the oncoming ISIL hordes in 2014.

Adding to the toxic mix in Iraq has been the presence of up to a million fighters belonging to disparate Shia militias, some directly funded by Iran, of which local Sunnis are deeply suspicious.

There are other groups who would also look favourably on an ISIL-led caliphate spreading their way. These include Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia for example.

What can be done about ISIL?

In proudly publicising its own atrocities ISIL seeks to goad the West into reacting emotionally, not strategically, on the basis of a hypothetical threat when the real threat is in the region.

Yet for all their blood lust, capabilities and wealth, ISIL has been no match for the military, drone, surveillance and intelligence capacities of NATO. Nor Russia’s ferocious air power.

Iran’s de facto, if covert, blessing for Western military strikes against ISIL, especially in Iraq, might have opened an opportunity for future engagement and collaboration. This could be transformative for the whole region, including Israel/Palestine.

But US President Donald Trump’s bitter opposition to the nuclear deal with Tehran, his bellicose rhetoric and his Saudi favouritism, threatens that.

Across the region, Iranians as Shiites sponsor Hezbollah and other militias. Saudis and Qataris as Sunnis sponsor Al Qaeda and other Jihadists – including ISIL – helping unleash a monster.

But, unless the US and Europe are prepared to embrace local state ownership of the region’s conflicts and to put the onus on those states to find a solution, there’s no prospect of peace and stability in the Middle East.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered by Lord Hain, a former British anti-apartheid leader, MP, and cabinet minister. He is now Visiting Adjunct Professor at Wits Business School.