"Any way the wind blows" - Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
Updated from my last blog on the subject; I’ve now completed and submitted my essay (thesis) on the subject of African participation in internet governance. A great feeling to have completed it; capstone assignment of the course.
For my essay, I gave a brief review of the literature dealing with how internet governance developed.This historical overview is interesting, as it is (at least from the perspective of international governance institutions) quite specific and atypical.Following from that, I looked at a few of the current taxonomies currently used in academia, before taking a specific approach to evaluate African participation in internet governance.Below is a summarized selection from this part.
In the literature there are different types of taxonomies and definitions of core functions and / or critical resources and as a result it is useful to look at a few cases before laying out how to proceed in this specific case. This brief overview will start with a look at the list identified by the WGIG in 2005, which in many ways was the first (and arguably only) international and political formulation and is at the basis of the Internet Governance Forum’s (IGF) work and approach (and hence the UN’s). This will then be complemented by a few key taxonomies and / or overviews from the academic literature.
The WGIG, set up by the UN Secretary General, as mentioned above, was the core of a UN process to address questions around internet governance and hence in its 2005 report also set-out to identify “critical internet resources”. However, possibly reflecting the complexity of the issue and the challenge of the multilateral process, there is no clear articulation by the WGIG of what these critical resources are. First of all, from the four public policy areas identified by the WGIG in its report for attention, one consists of, “Issues relating to infrastructure and the management of critical Internet resources, including administration of the domain name system and Internet protocol addresses (IP addresses), administration of the root server system, technical standards, peering and interconnections, telecommunications infrastructure, including innovative and convergent technologies, as well as multilingualization. These issues are matters of direct relevance to Internet governance and fall within the ambit of existing organizations with responsibility for these matters.” (2005, p. 5).
The second area identified in the report by the WGIG consists of, “Issues relating to the use of the Internet, including spam, network security and cybercrime. While these issues are directly related to Internet governance, the nature of global cooperation required is not well defined. “(ibid, p. 5). The distinction between the two categories seems arbitrary and largely based on the perception of possible governance solutions. Here it needs to be kept in mind that the WGIG largely had a perspective that multinational (e.g. UN) governance was needed for specific internet governance aspects and in particular the tasks managed by ICANN and other US stakeholders.
The other two clusters of governance issues identified by the WGIG in its report consists of “broader” issues (e.g. intellectual property rights or trade) which are (to be) managed by other organizations and Internet governance issues related specifically to the developmental aspects (ibid, p. 5). Noteworthy with both these clusters is how the WGIG felt that these could be separated out into different types of issues.
The report then goes on to identify, “… the issues of highest priority” (ibid, p. 5). It is not articulated by the WGIG which issues belong to which cluster, nor which issues are to be considered covering or dealing with “critical internet resources”. The thirteen issues identified are: a) Administration of the root zone files and system; b) Interconnection costs; c) Internet stability, security and cybercrime; d) Spam; e) Meaningful participation in global policy development; f) Capacity-building; g) Allocation of domain names; h) IP addressing; i) Intellectual property rights (IPR); j) Freedom of expression; k) Data protection and privacy rights; l) Consumer rights; and m) Multilingualism (ibid, pp. 5-8).
What can be discerned with regards to key internet infrastructure from the above list by the WGIG? From the initial quote above – related to the policy areas - it could be understood that the WGIG considers the critical internet resources to be the domain name system administration, the IP addresses, the root server system, technical standards, interconnection, telecommunications infrastructure, innovative and convergent technologies as well as multilingualization. This would be a very wide definition, and, more concerning, a somewhat vague one. “innovative and convergent technologies” is open to wide interpretation, as are “standards”. While in the later breakdown of specific issues the report does not address the question of “standards” this would clearly need further discussion and reflection. Some standards used on the internet (such as the TCP/IP mentioned previously) do need some form of joint agreement and governance, for others (that might be developed in a commercially proprietary context) this might not be the case. And should all “telecommunications infrastructure” be considered and governed under internet governance? Furthermore, the list of issues identified does include some related to the core of managing the internet, while others are arguably secondary (e.g. dealing with spam, consumer rights, or multilingualism). Finally, it is interesting to note that with regards to some of the issues listed – for example data – the WGIG showed foresight (keep in mind that Myspace and what was to become Facebook were only founded in 2003 and that the concept of “big data” had only just entered the lexicon).
Mueller, in his “Networks and States”, builds on the WGIG report’s conception of critical internet resources. He notes that, “… the issues connected to critical Internet resources continue to widen.” (2013, p. 216). And indeed, many of the issues identified by the WGIG did not get solved – as much as they can be solved to everyone’s satisfaction – and more issues were added to the agenda as the importance and technical complexity of the internet increased. The ICANN debate was impacted by cybersecurity issues (e.g. the Snowden revelations) and the DNS questions were impacted by evolving technological changes (ibid, p. 216). Before looking at the resources that Mueller identifies (like the WGIG report, he approaches this via issues) it is important to look at his overview of the key current internet governance institutions.
Mueller identifies the IETF, the Internet Society (ISOC), the Regional Internet Registries (RIR’s), and ICANN as the core institutions (ibid, p. 217). The ISOC was formed by several members of the IETF in 1992, give more structure to the informal working groups that were providing much of the governance for the internet but also to support the IETF if the various projects and agencies that were supporting much of internet development in the early stages might end (or if the needs were to grow). By 1995 the ISOC became more (formally) structured, developed a relationship with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and it now forms with the IETF one of the main forums where technical and policy discussions on a range of topics related to the internet and its governance take place.
Mueller highlights 13 issues with regards to critical internet resources: a) address resources; b) IPv4 address scarcity; c) the “next generation” internet; d) routing security and the RIR’s; e) addresses and states; f) domain name industry regulation; g) multilingual domain names and ccTLDs; h) securing the DNS; i) state authority and ICANN; j) nation-states and internet public policy; k) the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC); l) unilateral globalism (i.e., role of the US); and the “affirmation of commitments” (ibid, pp. 221- 249). In addition to the similarity of the issues to those raised in the WGIG report, noteworthy is the focus on really the nuts and bolts of the internet and how these technical elements have essentially remained the same in a fast-moving sector. As Mueller himself notes, “This analysis will make it clear that domain names and IP addresses, while certainly not the whole of Internet governance, constitute an important part of it that intersects crucially with the other policy domains. Likewise, routing and interconnection, which are almost pure forms of networked governance, constitute the real core of how Internet service is provided.” (ibid, p. 221).
Noteworthy update from the WGIG report is the specific highlighting of the RIRs. According to Mueller, “After years of relative obscurity, the RIRs now find themselves on the front lines of global Internet governance. They are facing several transformational policy issues: (1) the need to manage scarcity in Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) addresses; (2) the need to migrate to a new Internet Protocol; (3) intensifying pressure to make the Internet’s routing system more secure and controllable; and (4) pressures to use IP addresses as a basis for law enforcement.” (ibid, pp. 221-222). Each of these issues is too complex to address at this point (some will be returned to later on), though it is useful to briefly touch on the new Internet Protocol (IPv6) as this is cross-cutting and illustrates today’s governance of critical internet infrastructure.
Summarized, IPv6 will allow for more internet addresses to be able to be created (there is currently a shortage), but IPv6 is not “backwards compatible” (i.e. the two protocols cannot work on / with each other) so both will have to operate in parallel (ibid, p. 224). Needless to say, whatever final solutions will be found, these will involve costs for network operators. One can imagine the potential difficulty of two internets running in parallel; even more so with the advent of the IoT where it is expected that machines communicate with each other at least in part over the internet in order for things to function normally. As a result of the informal and unstructured nature of internet governance there is no clear process for decision-making or global procedure for implementation.
Denardis is a prolific researcher and author in the domain of internet governance. For the purposes of this section, I will focus on her 2014 book (The Global War for Internet Governance), a 2012 paper (Hidden Levers of Internet Control: An infrastructure-based theory of Internet governance) and a 2015 paper written with Raymond (Multistakeholderism: anatomy of an inchoate global institution). Using multistakeholderism as an approach to understand internet governance is at the core of Denardis’ approach (Denardis 2014, pp. 226-227). As a result, it is best to start by unpacking the concept in Denardis’ work and then looking at her approach to critical or core internet resources and functions.
According to Raymond and Denardis, “We define multistakeholderism as two or more classes of actors engaged in a common governance enterprise concerning issues they regard as public in nature, and characterized by polyarchic authority relations constituted by procedural rules.” (2015, p. 573). The term “polyarchic” refers to Dahl and Lindblom’s concept of competition amongst elites / leaders for the support of the public / masses (Von der Mull 1977). In the case of internet governance, the competition is not among political elites in the traditional sense, but between government institutions, private sector actors, and a range of technology experts and platforms. As Denardis notes, “Therefore, a question such as ‘who should control the Internet, the United Nations or some other organization’ makes no sense whatsoever. The appropriate question involves determining what is the most effective form of governance in each specific context. A constantly shifting balance of powers between private industry, international technical governance institutions, governments, and civil society has characterized contemporary Internet governance approaches. This balance of powers is often called ‘multistakeholderism’. (2014, pp. 226-227).
The evolution of the internet and its governance has resulted (so far) in limited participation by states in the development of frameworks for its governance and a strong role for technical and commercial drivers of solutions or compromises and a kind of ‘multistakeholderism by default’ (Raymond and Denardis 2015, p. 585). Attempts to put this into a more formal and state-centric framework (such as the UN’s WGIG process) have had little influence on actual internet governance (ibid, p. 587). Indeed, Denardis has argued that there is now a form of competition of what type of multistakeholderism should lead internet governance: widely diffused, state-centric, or private sector led (2014, p. 228).
Infrastructure is important to the internet even though Denardis examines all dimensions of internet governance. Denardis states that that, “The Internet has a complex technical architecture beneath the layer of applications and content and generally out of public view. This architecture includes a considerable ecosystem of Internet governance technologies, meaning the digital systems and processes inherently designed to keep the Internet operational.” (2012, p. 721).
In their article, Raymond and Denardis present a “disaggregated Internet governance taxonomy” in which one “functional area” is defined as “Control of ‘critical Internet Resources” (2015, p. 590). A range of tasks are listed under this: a) Central oversight of names and numbers; b) Technical design of IP addresses; c) New top-level domain approval; d) Domain name assignment; e) Authorization of root zone file changes; f) IP address distribution (allocation / assignment); g) Management of root zone file; h) Autonomous systems number distribution; i) Operating Internet root servers; and j) Resolving DNS queries (ibid, p. 590). Here we can see the similarity with the issues identified both by the WGIG and Mueller.
Noteworthy is that Raymond and Denardis do not include “Protocol number assignment” under the list of critical internet resources but rather under “setting standards” (ibid, p. 590). This has of course been one of the important but contested tasks under the responsibility of ICANN / IANA. Moreover, as the authors themselves point out, elements of internet governance are not governed by a multistakeholder framework (ibid, p. 594).
In her book, Denardis addresses some salient points of concern regarding the governance of the internet’s core. She highlights the tension between commercial and technical interests, the challenge faced by emerging markets with regards to interconnection, and the role interconnection points can play as points of control over the internet (2014, pp. 122-130). The role of the US with regards to ICANN and the root zone file has already been discussed. However, it is important that later on in her book Denardis does point out that, “Internet interconnection, because of its enormous public interest role is a critical part of privatized Internet governance… Interest in interconnection regulation and proposals for government oversight of pricing structures will likely continue to be a central Internet governance concern between content companies, incumbent telecommunications providers, and governments with an interest in particular forms of interconnection monetization” (ibid, p. 226).
The rise in importance of financial and private commercial interests is particularly noteworthy, and likely to continue. Denardis goes on to conclude that, “Coordination and administration necessary to keep the Internet operational require huge financial investment and commitments. Private industry not only performs many aspects of Internet governance, it also funds much of Internet governance, whether Internet exchange points, infrastructure security, network management, and the business models that sustain standardization and critical resource administration.” (ibid, p. 243). This goes beyond simply questions of access to the internet, as private actors are more and more also playing – through infrastructure control- a role in governing expression and intellectual property governance on the internet (Denardis 2012, pp. 734-735).
For Dutton, another seminal author in the area of internet governance, when defining internet governance, “A narrowly defined perspective revolves around the governance of specific, critical Internet resources.” (2015, p. 17). In that paper Dutton does not provide an explicit listing of what he deems to be “critical internet resources”, his discussion of the origins of the debate on internet governance does raise many of the issues mentioned by the previous reports and authors (i.e. ICANN functions, DNS / DNS root, IP addresses, and core protocols) (ibid, pp. 17-18). In an earlier paper, based on comments by Steve Crocker, Dutton laid-out “layers” of internet standards and protocols laid out three layers: “core infrastructure” (routing of data packets; address assignment, domain name translation), application protocols (ranging from the technical ones that assign ports that computers do to more known ones like those managing e-mail), and “telecommunications carrier protocols and standards” (core protocols such as the IP standards) (Dutton and Peltu 2005, p. 9).
13.05.2020, Niamey, Niger.
 It should be noted that, since Mueller’s book has been published, “transition mechanisms” are being developed and implemented by some operators and / or those hosting websites. Some of these are still at the draft stage and being discussed by the IETF.
 Some would argue that the US not participating in the WGIG process was the main issue.
 Full overview taxonomy in annex.
For some reason, I’m not sure why, I had to think of Binyavanga Wainaina. He was a Kenyan author (died last year), known internationally mainly by wining the Cain Prize in 2002 and his 2005 Granta essay (or rather, “satirical article”), “How to Write About Africa”. The essay made a huge impression on me, both because of its subject and its style.
Binyavanga, arguably, died way too young and never got to write his great novel. Yet his presence in the media and in other writing formats, to me, make him an exceptional African artist and intellectual. Dealing, as an African, with issues such as HIV and homosexuality, only making him politically and socially significant as well. He discussed all of this candidly in an interesting interview with the Guardian.
Issues around identity (in particular the social and collective components of identity) very much interest me. Hannah Arendt of course is particularly interesting from this perspective, but so is Binyavanga Wainaina.
05.05.2020, Niamey, Niger.
We’re still in Niamey… So far, so good, at least for us personally. Nevertheless, a few repatriation flights have taken place, so it feels strange to be here. (We’re not the only foreigners still here, but you can sense there’s less of us, understandably so). The closure of the school’s been extended, warning posters have gone up all around Niamey, and a curfew has been put in place (from 19:00 to 6:00). More worrying, there are more and more cases and Africa (in Niamey, Niger and throughout Africa). Of course, the medical capacity in Niger is dramatic when compared to the West or richer Asian countries. There is some hope that Africa may be less hard than other parts of the world (e.g. because the virus seems to have less impact on younger people and the population in Africa tends to be younger) but you can also argue the other way (e.g., as people have more underlying health issues and less access to medical care, the impact could be larger).
One thing that seems clearer, is that the impact on the global economy is likely to be large. In the US, throughout Asia and in the EU, there has been a huge drop in economic activity, massive rises in unemployment claims, and certain reduction in overall growth. Around the world, in particular in richer countries that can afford to, massive action – often unimaginable a few weeks ago- has been taken to limit the damage. Even the IMF is enthusiastically supporting expenditure.
For African countries, the scope of economic tools is limited. McKinsey has provided an overview, including a range of scenarios. Even the minimum foreseen drop in GDP – 3% - would have significant consequences in a country like Niger (of course, the estimation is not country by country but total). Furthermore, with large informal sectors, much of the damage will be difficult to assess and help difficult to direct. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that food security – for example in West Africa – could be impacted. And while the shift of much of the aid sector (in particular with regards to health) to Covid 19, one does wonder what the overall impact will be with regards to the overall health sector and more structural diseases like malaria, diarrhea and TB that kill hundreds of thousands across Africa yearly.
Unfortunately, a further challenge for Africa, in particular its poor. After the financial crisis from 2008, with international solidarity already strained, this will not be easy.
08.04.2020, Niamey, Niger.
Of course, I would have liked to write a sharp blog on the current health crisis and Africa. However, at the moment little is known about the virus and in particular about how present it is and what the long-term impact on African health systems and economies could be. However, the amount of confirmed cases is increasing, there is a lot to be worried about. The stress the virus has caused to health systems in rich countries such as Italy or Spain mean that a full outbreak in a developing country would potentially be disastrous. And the impact on a population facing other challenges (e.g. malnutrition, HIV, malaria, etc.…) is hard to predict. The economic impact – with collapse of demand from China for natural resources and the fall in the price of oil – is set to be massive as well.
On a personal note, from a position of privilege compared to most of the local population, we have had to decide weather to return to Europe or stay in Niamey as the borders of Niger (and the EU) close and most airlines are stopping flights around the world. With so many variables (For how long are the border closures and flight suspensions? Will there be an outbreak here and what will impact be? How will the outbreak progress in Europe?) and the range of things to consider (e.g. other health risks here – in particular for children, security concerns, etc.…) it is practically impossible to make a reasoned decision. In any case, we have decided to stay.
Once again, the question is if the world will learn from this crisis. As a recent commentary in the Lancet has put it: “The COVID-19 outbreak is yet another reminder of the necessity of intensified and sustained commitment to global public health preparedness. The world does not need more evidence of the health, social, economic, environmental, and other problems that arise when we fail to invest adequately in global health security. What is required to break this panic-then-forget cycle is to follow through on prioritising, funding, and implementing preparedness interventions.” Even within the EU collective coordination and support of the emergency response has been challenging (let alone overall and forward-looking policies when the pressure will be less). Responses to 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis and global (lack of) give little reason to be optimistic. Once again, we are in this together though…
19.03.2020, Niamey, Niger.
I’m working on an essay (thesis) for a course, and the subject is the participation of Africa in internet governance.A big topic – and a target of 15 000 words for the essay – so my plan is to break down parts for this blog.With the recent EU Joint Communication on Africa mentioning a “partnership for digital transformation”, the topic is clearly in the “zeitgeist”.(I would of course point out that I decided on my topic many months ago…)I won’t add the bibliography for the blog posts – maybe at the end I’ll upload the final thing with the full bibliography, but all references are available if needed.This first entry is from the background, dealing with the importance of “digitalization" in general.
The development of information and communication technologies (ICTs), so-called “digitalisation”, and the “internet economy” are all having a profound impact on society and the economy. According to a recent UN report, “Digital technologies are rapidly transforming societies and economies, simultaneously advancing the human condition and creating profound and unprecedented challenges.” (UN 2019, p. 6). According to one author, “Networked digital information technology looms ever larger in all of our lives. It shapes our perceptions, conditions the choices available to us, and remakes our experience of space and time.” (Greenfield 2018, p. 8).
There is no clear consensus on what should be included in the “digital sector”, which can include everything from hardware (e.g., mobile phones), e-commerce, paid services, free services, advertising, dta, etc… which can be difficult to clearly value (IMF 2018, pp. 1-2). A 2011 report by McKinsey stated that 21 percent of GDP growth in mature economies the previous 5 years was linked to the internet (Manyika and Roxburgh 2011, p. 1). The World Bank, based on other work by McKinsey, estimates that in 2014 the financial worth of cross-border data flows was US $ 2.8 trillion; 45 times more than in 2005 (World Bank 2018, p. xv). E-commerce sales in 2017 were estimated to be US $ 29 trillion, growing 13% from the year before (UNCTAD 2019a). Digital data and so-called “platformisation” (referring to businesses like Facebook, Uber and Amazon that function like global platforms) are key elements of this new economy: seven of the eight largest companies in terms of market capitalization are platforms that work with data (UNCTAD 2019, p. xv). Haskel and Westlake have focused on the “intangible” dimension of this “new economy” (i.e., the large companies in this new world often have limited capital – much of their value is based on technology and branding), and show – as an example – that investment in intangible assets as share of GDP in the EU is catching up with investment in tangible assets as a result of technological change (2018, p. 26). Just to illustrate the point, the market capitalization of Amazon on March 7th, 2018 was larger than Walmart, Target, Carrefour, Tesco and the 7 following largest retailers combined (2018, p. 3).
Looking forward, there is no reason to believe that the impact of ICT changes and digitalisation will lessen. In fact, there are many reasons to believe it might even intensify and accelerate. Technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, web-based services / cloud computing, mobile-based services, and even e-commerce are still in their infancy. In many ways, this may amount to a new industrial revolution, and the impact on states and society could be similar (Medhora 2018). According to the Internet Society, “In a hyperconnected economy, no sector of the economy will be untouched by technology… This rapid change will disrupt businesses and increase pressure on societies, in particular on jobs and economic opportunity. Business models and the nature of work will be profoundly changed.” (2017, p. 25). Inevitably this will also impact Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where there are a range of low- and middle-income countries and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) as defined by the UN.
16.03.2020, Niamey, Niger.
 Specific definitions and list of platforms vary in the literature, for a good overview see Poell, Nieborg and van Dijck 2019).
I’ve recently written an essay on populism, a subject much in the news the past few years.In the popular media, this is often the result of migration or (unfair) trade relations, where the West is the victim.This is surprising, as one would think that we are in a world designed and dominated by the West…
Populism is a complex and contested concept.Movements considered right and left wing and / or with positions across the political spectrum have been considered populist.One explanation for this wide scope of policy positions ascribed to populists is the debate around the drivers of the phenomenon.Essentially, there are two approaches.According to Algan et al.’s analysis of Eurosceptic populism, “The first one is a cultural backlash against progressive values, such as cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, and a shift toward national identity.The second explanation emphasizes economic insecurity, stemming from either globalization and technological progress (typified by outsourcing, increased competition from low-wage countries, and automation) or the sharp increase in unemployment in Europe in the aftermath of the recent global financial and economic crisis.” (2017, p. 310).Some have suggested that the two drivers are linked; e.g., Rodrik argues that the latter economic driver may make it easier for politicians to mobilize on the former nationalistic driver (Rodrik 2017).
Another reason so many political agendas can be called “populist” is that it might be more of an approach than a policy agenda.In their analysis of the literature, Elchardus and Spruyt note that, “Authors using a minimalist definition of populism focus on those elements of populism that are always present in discursive formulations of populist ideology and in populist rhetoric, regardless of context… They identify tow such elements that can be considered as the core of populism as a thin ideology.The first is the centrality and elevated status of ‘the people’ or more precisely ‘the ordinary people’… The second core trait of the thin ideology of populism is articulated on the basis of that vertical view of the social structure: the betrayal of the ordinary people by an elite that uses its power to its own advantage… (2016, pp. 113-114).This anti-elitism is important to take note of.Outside of the European context, Mead, for example, has argued that this is a key tenant of the United States’ Tea Party movement (2011, p. 34).Muller, in his overview of populism takes a similar line: “Populism is not just any mobilization strategy that appeals to “the people”; it employs a very specific kind of language.Populists do not just criticize elites; they also claim that they and only they represent the true people.” (2016, p. 40).
A range of studies have argued that there are links between the rise of populism and economic factors.According to Algan, et al., in the context of Europe, “There is a statistically and economically significant relationship between regional unemployment and a decline in trust toward the European Parliament and national parliament.” (2017, p. 312).De Vries and Hoffmann make a similar observation, noting that, “Our findings show that fear of globalisation is the decisive factor behind demands for changes away from the political mainstream… This effect is particularly evident when it comes to right wing populist parties, but is also present for left wing populist parties.” (2016, p. 3).In the US and the Tea Party, Mead has argued, “That federal deficits produce economic growth and that free trade with low-wage countries raises Americans’ living standards are the kind of propositions that clash with the common sense of many Americans.” (2011, p. 34).In the context of Australia, and the rise of the populist One Nation Party, Mughan, Bean, and McAllister argue that economic insecurity was a key driver of the rise of the party (2003, p. 631).
03.02.2020, Niamey, Niger.
Algan, Y., Papaioannou, E., Guriev, S., and Passari, E. (2017), “The European Trust Crisis and the Rise of Populism”, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, pp. 309-382.
Rodrik, D. (2018) ‘Populism and the economics of globalization’, Journal of International Business Policy, 1, pp. 12-33.
Elchardus, M., and Spruyt, B. (2016) ‘Populism, Persistent Republicanism and Declinism: An Empirical Analysis of Populism as a Thin Ideology’, Government and Opposition, 51:1, pp. 111-133.
Mead, W. R. (2011), ‘The Tea Party and American Foreign Policy: What Populism Means for Globalization’, Foreign Affairs, 90:2, pp. 28-44.
Mughan, A., Bean, C. and McAllister, I. (2003) ‘Economic globalization, job insecurity and the populist reaction’, Electoral Studies, 22, pp. 617-633.
Muller, J-W., What is Populism?, Penguin Random House UK, 2017.
De Vries, C., and Hoffmann, I. (2016) Fear not Values. Public opinion and the populist vote in Europe, EUpinions, Bertelsmann Stiftung.
The franc of the African Financial Community is starting to undergo some significant changes. Or at least the West African one (the other is the Central African FCFA). The West African states – both Anglophone and Francophone – are planning to adopt a common currency (the Eco). At least for the Francophone countries that are part of West African FCFA zone, this means moving from one common currency to another. A first step in this direction was taken recently, when at least symbolically, the link between the FCFA and France was cut by removing the rule that existed that meant that half the foreign currency reserves of the FCFA states had to kept on a special French treasury account (in exchange of the French currency exchange rate guarantee) and by France withdrawing from the BCEAO (the West African States’ Central Bank).
The FCFA – including its peg to the French franc and then the euro- has been much criticized, for a good overview of the key points I would recommend Pigeaud and Sylla’s, “L’arme Invisible de la Francafrique: Une Histoire du Franc CFA”. A recent article in the Jacobin, though written with a very clear angle, is also very good. Aside from the historical colonial roots of the FCFA that bother some (for a great history of France’s relationship with Africa, Bat’s “Le Syndrome Foccart” is a great read), two of the main points of criticism are the rigidity of the party (which means austerity is often the only adjustment mechanic during crises) and the structural overvaluing of the currency, in particular with regards to other developing countries.
The advantages of the FCFA has, in particular, been its stability (minus devaluations by in 1948 and 1994) and the lack of inflation in the FCFA zone (which is in stark countries with several other countries in West Africa that have had their own currencies). This, together with the longevity of the FCFA, are remarkable.
The new currency would possibly be pegged to a basket of currencies (though there is no consensus yet), and, presumably, the BCEAO could decide on the rate of coupling (and change it). Nevertheless, the challenges of currency unions when faced with crises is clearer than ever since the eurozone tribulations of the past years. Moreover, there is even less of a transfer union between the ECOWAS states, less convergence (including in national policies), and less performant governance (both at the national and regional level).
Speaking to people here in Niamey, there is still some skepticism how this will work out for the common man. For them, the macroeconomic arguments and the political / independence arguments are somewhat abstract. For them, the stability of the currency seems an important element – for the rest, they are somewhat agnostic about the technical aspects. For a political scientist, with an interest in Africa, it’s all very interesting. If the development perspectives of the region improve; so much the better. Otherwise, it will be a hard sell.
08.01.2020, Niamey, Niger.
One of the big joys in this world, for me, is basketball. The NBA is the pinnacle of the basketball world. For someone looking from outside the United States, it is clear that the NBA does have its issues. These are mainly the extreme commercialization of the game, which drives an extremely liberal interpretation of the rules to ensure entertainment (one example is the NBA’s interpretation of travelling violations, which in practice is even more open to taking steps then the already highly liberal text of the law).
This year the Toronto Raptors became NBA champions, beating the all-powerful Golden State Warriors (some injuries helped…). Interesting has been the “African” contribution to this win. Serge Ibaka (Spanish, but originally from Congo) and Pascal Siakam (from Cameroon). African players are not a new phenomenon, not even as key players in NBA championship teams – I remember watching Hakeem Olajuwon from Nigeria win two championships when I was younger.
But particularly interesting this time is the role of Masai Ujiri as the central executive of the Raptors. He essentially constructed this team, including making several high-risk and gutsy trades. To see an African make it to be the top executive of an NBA team – and win – is impressive and a good positive story. Others have said it better, so if interested to know more, please follow this link.
18.6.2019, Niamey, Niger.
The long list of conflicts and coups throughout West Africa and the Sahel does make the question of achieving sustainable peace and security a recurring one. The countries are very diverse with regards to economic structures (and performance), ethnic composition, colonial history, geographic realities, climatic challenges and other key factors that may underlie specific drivers of conflict. Yet, as argued by Denece and Rodier, they all face persistent internal conflicts, jihadist terrorism, and / or the spread of criminal activity (2012, pp. 36-37). This points to a problem of power – or rather, the lack of power of state institutions.
Regardless of if we agree with Bodin, Weber, Hobbes or any other classical approach to the importance of the state’s “monopoly of violence”, the lack of this monopoly by states in West Africa and the Sahel is one key common characteristic that stands out. The two sides of the coin – legitimacy and capacity – are both important. It is also important to keep in mind that this goes beyond “governance”, a concept that has become so diluted in international development debates that it has become almost pointless, even if many of the efforts individually (less corruption, equality, etc…) are good in principle.
We can take the security sector as an example. The recent attacks in Mali, coup attempts in Burkina Faso, or the recent conflicts in Chad which necessitated an intervention by the French air force all show the perilous state of the security sector – and hence the monopoly of violence by the political leadership – in the region. As noted by Bryden and Olonisakin, “The potential for structural change remains limited across many African settings. National processes of [security sector] reform continue to face resistance and are being challenged by internal and external factors. Faulty assumptions which guide security sector reform interventions, and the sometimes conflicting strategies and interests of external stakeholders, limit the extent to which radical change is possible even in such settings. “(2010, p. 232).
While there can be little doubt that external actors can militarily impose order on a region and people (at least in the short term), whether they can imbue a state actor with legitimacy is not clear. In some cases – see the above example of the French intervention in Chad – one can even argue that external actors are even undermining the legitimacy of a regime most likely kept in place purely by force. That legitimacy needs to come from the people and the political process – whatever shape it may have.
Unfortunately, in the case of West Africa and the Sahel, there is limited reason for optimism in this regard. Chabal and Daloz once noted that, “Our (admittedly far from cheering) conclusion is that there prevails in Africa a system of politics inimical to development as it is usually understood in the West. The dynamics of the political instrumentalization of disorder are such as to limit the scope for reform in at least in two ways. The first is that, where disorder has become a resource, there is no incentive to work for a more institutionalized ordering of society. The second is that in the absence of any other viable way of obtaining the means needed to sustain neo-patrimonialism, there is inevitably a tendency to link politics to realms of increased disorder, be it war or crime… Consequently, the prospects for political institutionalization are, in our view limited. Nor is it likely that the recent democratic experiments in Arica will lead to the establishment of the constitutional, legal and bureaucratic political order which is required for fundamental reform. Such change would have to be driven by popular will. Only when ordinary African men and women have cause to reject the logic of personalized politics, seriously to question the legitimacy of the present political instrumentalization of disorder and to struggle for new forms of political accountability, will meaningful change occur.” (1999, p. 162).
The farce of “elections” taking place in Benin show that even in countries that are deemed to be “positive” examples of democratization, with regular elections, little politics is done through formal institutions (elections, parliament, etc.) Even Senegal managed to have a presidential election without a debate. Unfortunately, the politics of the formal institutions in many African states is often a Potemkin village. Citizens of these states will have to refuse to accept this for things to change. Only then can the political system and the state gain sufficient legitimacy to start working on the important task of gaining the monopoly of violence. Soldiers are of course also citizens, and there is (on the basis of self-reporting), some reason for optimism, as newer generations of soldiers may have a different attitude than their elders. For external actors, the guiding principle to any intervention should be to, “do no harm” to the development of citizen agency in these states.
10.5.2019, Niamey, Niger.
Bryden, A. and Olonisakin, ‘F. (2010), “Enabling Security Sector Transformation in Africa”, in Bryden A. and Olonisakin, ‘F. (Eds.), Security Sector Transformation in Africa (Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces), pp. 219-233.
Chabal, P. and Daloz, J-P. (1999), Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument.
Denece, E., and Rodier, A. (2012), “The Security Challenges of West Africa”, in OECD, Global Security Risks and West Africa: Development Challenges, West African Studies.
I recently finished Jean-Pierre Bat’s, “Le syndrome Foccart : La politique française en Afrique, de 1959 à nos jours”. A big book, covering France’s politics and policies with regards to Africa – in particular its former colonies. The book is a great read, providing a good overall framework but also a lot of interesting insights into specific events and issues. The main threads are the influence and important role of Jacques Foccart, who was a close confident to Charles de Gaulle and his “Mr. Africa”, the importance of the former colonies to French presidency, and how relevant the concept of “Françafrique” is as a framework to look at France’s policies and politics.
It’s difficult to summarize 50+ years of history, so I won’t even attempt to do so here. A few interesting points stood out for me. First of all, the network of former colonies has been important to France – and in particular the French presidents – as a means to ensure France’s international stature. As a result, French presidents have invested a lot of personal resources into the relationships with the leadership in these countries. Jacques Foccart was unique in this, as he was personally close to de Gaulle, important in the French center-right political (party) network, had close links to the secret service (having been employed by them) and had a strong relationship with African elites from the colonial times. A further consequence of this was the tradition of a strong “Africa” cell in the presidency, for a long time circumventing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Basically, this was only redressed in the late 1990’s.
A second noteworthy element is how unclear it is that this (supposedly) close relationship with these African countries does not seem to have really improved France’s decisions. Historically, it is hard to see how support for dictators like Bokassa or the Habyarimana regime, in particularly militarily, was ethically ever a good idea (even at the moment). And the support of secessionist movements during the Biafra war or civil wars in Zaire – merely with the goal of ensuring French regional influence – is extremely harsh. But even from simply a “realpolitik” perspective, some serious errors were made (one example is the transition in Ivory Coast after the death of Houphoet-Boigny).
A third (and for now final) noteworthy point is the lack of focus in much of France’s policies and politics in this area, which makes it hard to say there is a “Françafrique” concept. France’s interests have long been divided between different state actors (e.g. Ministers, security services, presidency, political parties, etc..) and private actors (e.g. private companies), and overall global movements with regards to Africa and development. Another strong influence has been the “Europeanization” of French politics – including the relationship with Africa.
The importance of France here in Niger is clear. The French embassy is very big, the French international school is the largest foreign school here, and the French army is present (including with fighter jets). At the same time, the growing role of other actors is also evident. The US embassy is probably as large as that of France, and the US has at least one drone base in the country (there are rumors of a second one being run by the CIA). A lot of infrastructure is being built by other actors such as Turkey, India, Saudi Arabia and China. The latter also have gotten into more strategic sectors that long were a French monopoly, such as oil and possibly uranium. Where does this leave France? And where does this leave Niger?
5.4.2019, Niamey, Niger.
Online encampment of A. S. Barry. Disparate and not-so-disparate thoughts on international relations, development, writing, and life.