For Africa, the International Community is a Myth

By Dr Foluke Ifejola Ipinyomi, Teaching Associate (University of Bristol Law School).

© Ann Moore
© Ann Moore

This post is based on an article* in which I argue that ignoring African particularity reduces the effectiveness of the international community and almost certainly ensures that international law is never obeyed… except in cases of self-interest.

What is the International Community?

At the sight of any potential cross-border malaise – disease, conflict, terrorism – calls are made to the international community to act. Why do the calls to the international community not go through? Is there a faulty connection? Or have we run out of airtime? The answer is quite simple. We are mostly dialling a wrong number. Depending on who is making the call, calls to ‘the international community’ could be obliquely referring to all states, all humanity, the UN, the US and Europe or states with liberal democracies. This identity crisis almost always results in a lot of buck-passing. As the poem goes ‘Everybody thought that Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.’

Nevertheless, due to the increasing interaction, as well as shared interests and values in the international sphere, widespread multilateral action is desirable. Unilateral action in the face of threats to international security and the global economy may be futile. But the construction of the international community as suggested above, is either powerless or excludes Africa – sub-Saharan Africa particularly. It is suggested that this is because African states do not usually have liberal democracies and/or market economies. This argument is in itself highly circular and is tied to our (mis)understanding of Africa.

What is Africa?

Africa and its states are an integral part of the international landscape. Africa has 54 countries and 1 billion people. The export of African agricultural and mineral products as well as her human resources play a significant role in the global economy. Through historical and contemporary population movements, global cuisine, clothing, folklore, religion, arts, music and language have been influenced by Africa.

Africa is a varied collection of disparate states and ethnolinguistic groups with varied customs, cultures and philosophies. Contrary to popular misconception, ‘Africa is not a country.’ Nevertheless, states in Africa are defined by three things – precolonial ideology, colonial past and present failure. Linking current failure to colonial past and precolonial failure to prevent colonization, suggests that African states are defined solely by colonialism, because they exist as postscripts at the end of colonialism. Transitions were marked by incomplete adoption of the Westphalian nature which decolonisation merely alluded to. Their Westphalianism was never completely developed. Now, we have a weird hybrid of colony, sovereign state and precolonial ideology. Is it any wonder that African states suffer from an identity crisis? According to Kreijen, state attainment in sub-Saharan African was achieved by a ‘legal trick’ which involved the abandonment of ‘effectiveness.’ Therefore according to this theory, sub-Saharan African states were recognized outside the classic method of state creation. This has led to inefficient statehood. The lack of effectiveness that Kreijen adduced to sub-Saharan states is exhibited by the fact that the central government’s authority is weak and doubtful; government is ineffectual and riddled with corruption; and there is segmentation of the community and society into various publics into which political allegiance is divided. Democracy has been called upon as the panacea to Africa’s ills.

Democracy as characterised by elections and practised by post-colonial Africa states involves a system of reward before election rather entry into government via election to carry out favoured policies. The desire and impetus to operate liberal democracies are not evident in the populace, as sub-Saharan Africa has more patrimonial systems that seek pseudo-messianic figures rather than accountable human representatives – Houphouet-Boigny in Cote d’Ivoire, Nkrumah in Ghana, Diori in Niger, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Nyerere in Tanzania and Toure in Guinea etc. The tendency towards saviour-like characters was exacerbated by the repression and domination inherent in colonisation. The new sub-Saharan Africa leaders failed to ‘deliver’ their people, instead they effectively stepped into the role vacated by the colonisers with more visible effects. The results of implementing democracy through elections in sub-Saharan Africa have in many cases been counterproductive, causing conflict, human rights violations and further departure from democratic principles. Is there any hope in precolonial ideology?

Precolonial Ideology/African Philosophy

African philosophy is typified by ‘ancient wisdom’ and legal philosophy usually in the form of oral tradition passed from generation to generation, this ensures that certain values become and remain part of the people. Theories such as ubuntu, ujamaa, umunna bu ike, illustrate African ideological belief in the predominance of the community and the family, the fact that all people within the community should work for the advancement of the community, promote collectivism, and harmony and frown on individualism, focus on interdependence, caring, humanity and show disregard for state boundaries. Menkiti illustrates how this differs from Western society, by pointing out that African community is a fused singular entity. A society is not constituted by individuals, but the society or community constitutes persons. It is an almost collective African belief, that a person attains personhood not by being born, but as a gradual process; personhood involved a continuous state of becoming. Human rights theory is differently understood within African philosophy, calling into question the implementation of international law and the role of the international community.

The Problem with the International Community’s Relationship with Africa

The state recognized by the international community has failed in its Weberian duty but has more external legitimacy than internal. The legal philosophy it is asked to protect differs from the ideology of the individuals it has been called upon to protect. The community to whom the individual has innate allegiance – the community that personifies the individual – has no legal legitimacy to be protected or to protect. International law and the personage of the international community operate on the presumption that all states have the same organic character – there is a presumption that within all states, the relationship between the state and the individual is similar, this disregards the primacy accorded to African community. Further, this presumption attributes characteristics to the post-colonial state which it does not have and was not historically designed to attain. By elevating the sanctity of African states above the human security of African people, international law ignores the African subject in favour of the ‘African project’.

The result of African understanding of community is that the operation of democracy will always fall short; yet any modification of democracy and market economy will be resisted by the international community. Counterintuitively, this permits abuse of liberal democracy by sub-Saharan African leaders as the pure application of an African ideology of community in governance will strip them of their power, but an outward show of liberal democracy will establish their political influence. The international community is thus complicit in human rights abuses in sub-Saharan Africa resulting from institutional failure. Political participation in sub-Saharan Africa is linked to communality, this ensures the entrenchment of ethnic politics, even though liberal democracy wishes to deemphasize the relevance of ethnicity in politics. The adoption of liberal democracy by sub-Saharan Africa to appease the ‘international community’, grants the government of sub-Saharan Africa access to the exclusive club, but denies the people of sub-Saharan Africa admission or protection – ignoring the African subject.

The foregoing ensures that the voices of ordinary people have been ignored. The international community claims to be speaking on their behalf, but they cannot speak what they have not heard. African governments claim to be speaking on behalf of their people, but it is in governments’ self-interest to misconstrue what their people are saying. The possibility of sub-Saharan Africa Post-Colonial states living up to the idyll of ‘Westernisation’ or ‘civilisation’ by becoming textbook market economies or liberal democracies is unlikely, despite international law prescribing this. Alternatively, sub-Saharan Africa could forge its own identity or ‘sub-international community’ whose ideology has no traction within the mainstream understanding of international law. This is demonstrated by the increasing distance of African states from the International Criminal Court.

While the international community is definitely more than the sum of its constituent parts, unanimity in the system which would solidify its status as a cohesive unit and grant it distinct legal personality and capacity to act, would only be achieved when and if values are actually shared and not imposed. You cannot impose democracy, like you cannot boast about humility! Conceptualising the international community should take into consideration a realistic picture of the global value system which is a combination of shared and disparate values as well as a good measure of antagonism.

The effectiveness of the international system and the international community cannot be achieved without taking into account sub-Saharan Africa and its unique perspectives and narratives. Research should be collaborative across continents. Researchers need to acknowledge that their objectivity can only be assured by the recognition of their subjectivity. The international community should strengthen its communal aspects, which consists of people and not states. States are not as valuable as people. Without communal (global populace) cohesion, the global community will not become international. International law, therefore, to avoid obsolescence, should have as its goal, absolute truth, absolute equality and absolute justice, notwithstanding of ideological origins.

*F Ipinyomi, ‘The Impact of African Philosophy on the Realisation of International Community and the Observance of International Law’ (2016)18 International Community Law Review 3-33.

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