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“Mamma” Africa cannot be a single mother

Specialists defend the strengthening of relations between Brazil and the African continent

Brazil, which is home to the second largest black population on the planet, had for a very long time treated “mamma” Africa as its own version of the song by Chico César of the same name: “She comes and goes but never moves far away”. Our diplomacy is always “remembering” and “forgetting” the continent.  During the 20th century, at least until 1960, Brazilian foreign policy ignored the African continent and looked to America and Europe. “But, more recently, between 1985 and 2006, relations have entered a movement of variable and continuous intensity, with periods of ambivalence and uncertainty, a marked decline in the 1980s and 1990s and with a recovery beginning to appear at the turn of the century”, observes Cláudio Oliveira Ribeiro, a professor on the international relations course at PUC (SP) and author of the PhD thesis, Political and trade relations – Brazil-Africa, which he defended last year at USP. This is a coming and going, he notes, that “adjusts to the variations seen in the international plan of things and in the Brazilian diplomatic agenda itself”. The Atlantic, as the diplomat and African scholar has already observed, was once a river that separated Brazil and Africa and could go back to being so again.

“Mamma” Africa suffered the punishment and prejudices of a “single mother”, and was romanticized for the same reason., Even with the recent priority given to a policy for the African continent within the Atlantic sphere the researcher warns that the “construction of an African policy based on the assumption of material ties presupposes a distorted view of Africa itself, in which Brazil, by means of its supposedly progress-driven discourse, judges itself capable of helping African countries by promoting a missionary-like policy”. For Ribeiro, foreign policy for the continent cannot be understood without recognition of the continent’s strategic interests, but without this meaning “only considering Brazilian interests in this relationship”. Although in the present government President Lula and the Minister of Foreign relations have carried out a series of visits and put in place unprecedented agreements, which reveals the new dynamic of relations between Brazil and Africa, “we see that the process of formulating foreign policy for the continent still lacks a corporate-based foundation”.

According to the author, in the relationship between diplomacy and the corporate sector, despite the existence of opportunities for developing Brazilian commercial relations on the African continent, “there are no articulation mechanisms or fluid channels of communication between the two segments, which compromises a broader participation by social players and sectors, as is the case with the private sector which remains marginalized from negotiating processes because of an insular diplomatic policy”. Despite this, businessmen are full of praise for the current approach to Africa. In an interview with the researcher, Roger Agnelli, the current president of Vale, states: “Drawing closer to the African continent is one of the best recent developments in Brazil’s foreign policy. Assessed superficially the strategy has attracted criticism, since it might appear paradoxical that a developing country like Brazil should increase its diplomatic efforts in poor partnerships that have relatively little influence within the global geopolitical context and, so far, little weight in the Brazilian trade balance”. But, Agnelli goes on, “you need to dig below the surface and assess this strategy within the global movements of Brazilian companies. Africa is one of the territories that is naturally suitable for investments in sectors in which Brazilian companies are already very competitive”.

Valter Campanato/ABr Ghana: Caltech’s farm where Embrapa is undertaking a project in AfricaValter Campanato/ABr

Economist Ivo de Santana, an analyst with the Brazilian Central Bank and author of the PhD thesis Brazil-Africa: economic relations agrees with the businessman: “The Brazil-Africa trade potential exists, because even when we see the weakness of the economic situation in many countries there are various African economies that since 1994, have been achieving annual growth rates of over 10%, which justifies a greater interest and aggression on the part of Brazilian companies”. Despite the so-called  “Afro-pessimism” which generally only sees ethnic wars, bloody dictatorships, blood diamonds and Aids on the continent, the idea is increasingly growing in trade  and diplomatic circles that Africa will have a place of prominence on the contemporary international scene. After all, we are talking of a place that accounts for 22.5% of the land mass on the planet, with 10% of the world’s population, which should double by 2050 (it will be the only continent to achieve this). Africa has 66% of the world’s diamonds, 58% of its gold, 45% of its cobalt, 17% of its manganese, 15% of its bauxite, 15% of its zinc and 10 to 15% of its oil. Despite having almost 30% of the world’s mineral resources it only has 2% of global trade and only 1% of international industrial production.

Between 2002 and 2007 the continent had even more promising data. The poorest region on the earth, sub-Saharan Africa, grew by around 5.5% to 6% a year, the biggest growth in African history and similar to the economic growth of Latin America, according to data from the Economic Committee for Latin America and the Caribbean (Cepal), and more than Brazil. Average inflation was around 6% to 7% in the same period. “There’s an Africa that’s growing internationally and not at all on the sidelines and that’s at the center of a very strong competition of interests and interested parties from all parts of the globe, especially China and more recently the USA”, says José Flávio Sombra Saraiva, a professor of international relations at the University of Brasília. “But let’s not be naïve: it’s obvious that Africa is another frontier of capitalism, it’s today’s Far West. It’s obvious there’s  a struggle of the giants there which was started by China in 1989, with the Celestial Peace crisis that isolated the country and obliged prime minister, Li Peng, to draw closer to Africa which had not criticized Chinese political incidents’, he observes. “But a recent article written in the USA in 2006, written by a professor from Harvard and Chester Crooker, former American under-secretary of state for Africa, “More than humanitarianism”, raises the status of the African issue  beyond  humanitarianism and places it at the epicenter of the question of terrorism, oil and natural resources. To say nothing of Bush`s trip to Africa, which had come out against the war in Iraq”, notes Saraiva.

According to this author, there are more than enough reasons for optimism in all African regions and the continent today has been chosen as a priority for new loan and portfolio areas from the World Bank. “Above all there’s a feeling that over the last seven years Africa has been overcoming the historical drama of its internal wars. The number of armed conflicts has fallen from 13 to 5. There is a wave of democratization from political regimes in various parts of the continent. This dramatic reduction in wars makes one think that the resources of almost US$ 300 billion that have been wasted in conflicts between 1990 and 2005, may now be directed towards policies for reducing poverty and misery”, he believes. Despite this, Saraiva observes, Brazil is reflecting in a modest and late way on the economic power-houses. “The media still insists on presenting Africa as lazy and dictatorial, where there’s nothing for Brazil to do and many businessmen still doubt whether it’s possible to operate on African soil. There’s chronic rheumatism, like a force preventing the country from advancing towards Africa at the same speed as other runners.”  Even African nations have abandoned their old discourse of a colonial victimization that prevents progress and have adopted a pragmatic line of relations with foreign countries. “In claiming the capacity for building their own futures African leaders are taking on greater responsibility for overcoming the marginal degree of involvement the continent had in the 1990s”, is how it is analyzed by Saraiva, for whom Brazil cannot afford to lose the  “African opening”.

If it does, we shall undoubtedly lose the opportunity in the face of a Chinese strategy that, he says, is directed at the exponential and almost unlimited use of Africa’s natural resources. “There’s no African capital that doesn’t have an important building going up, subsidized by Chinese funds and that doesn’t have Chinese language schools, as already exist in Angola, and there’s no airport or highway that doesn’t have Chinese financing. Since the 1980s the Chinese have drawn up a strategic plan that is to present Africa as a representative of the developing world with bargaining space in international negotiations relative to its own regime and its political transition into the new century.”  According to data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Brazilian trade with Africa today has grown by more than 200%. “But this is still little given what’s possible. If we look at the growth of Africa’s relations with emerging economies like China, India or the Gulf states, Brazil is already being left behind. If there are countries on the continent growing at 6% a year there are others, like Angola, where growth exceeds 20%. Brazil’s got to wager a lot more”, advises Carlos Lopes, the United Nations’ general under-secretary. “Few Brazilian businessmen know that a giant company like Gazprom, from Russia, is investing massively in gas in Africa or that two of the continent’s largest commercial banks now have a majority Chinese shareholding, or even that the production of African copper is already in the hands of the Chinese.” Brazil, despite its cultural discourse that talks so much about “mother Africa”, is unaware of this potential.

Gilberto Freyre
In fact, the perception that Africa holds a privileged position for Brazilian foreign policy only started in the 1960s, in a tentative way as part of the independent foreign policy inaugurated during the Jânio Quadros government and maintained by Goulart.  Previously, during the JK government, academic debate, led by people like Gilberto Freyre, was already advocating setting up a tropical Portuguese community in the Atlantic, but more linked to ties with Portugal than with its then African colonies. “It was during the second half of the 20th century that the potential of relations within a third world discourse were perceived, and which from the outset were intended to counter-balance the weight of the country’s relations with the USA and oppose the limitation imposed by the Cold War’s East-West split”, explains Ribeiro. In Africa Brazil identified a chance for diplomatic arrangements that would make possible a special position in the international scenario. But special relations with Portugal prevented a direct link with African territories going through the independence process and only from the 1970s, with the Carnation Revolution and decolonization, did the actions become a reality. So, curiously, in the military governments of Medici, Geisel and Figueiredo, notes the researcher, the relations of Brazil with former Portuguese colonies in Africa became stronger, particularly in the oil energy sector, with the very significant presence of Petrobras in Africa, via Braspetro.

AFP PHOTO/Evaristo SA President of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, visits Brasília in 2007AFP PHOTO/Evaristo SA

Things really took off under the Sarney government. The old third world diplomatic model with its national-developmental stamp was abandoned at the same time that both sides of the Atlantic went into economic crisis. Onto the scene came the concept of “Africa cost”, a perception, explains the author, that “insistence on relations with Africa would cost foreign policy dearly”. According to this view the struggle for independence had not yet ended and there was an image that African states, in comparison with their colonial past, were still fragile, numerous and incapable of setting up the institutions that would guarantee contracts and laws. “For a country like Brazil, which was facing economic crises and the task of consolidating a democratic regime, insisting on ties with a continent beset with political and institutional struggles had little support”, observes the researcher.  There was, he continues, a growing lack of interest because Africa was not a priority in national public opinion and Brazilian policy for the continent entered its death throes. So as a priority the Sarney government agenda adopted the idea of South American regional integration.

For the Collor government, Ribeiro recalls, the priority was promoting modernity by means of an “international agenda that wanted to bring Brazil closer to the group of industrialized nations, thereby overcoming its identification with the Third World”.  Therefore, he says, “in opposition to the stance adopted by previous governments there was a wish to work on the notion of operational partnerships, from which Africa was clearly absent”. In the domain of relations between Brazil and the African continent this was a moment of intense distancing, when the Atlantic dimension stopped being considered as favorable to the country’s interests and international demands. The process of regionalization via Mercosur and maintenance of the “high cost” of relations with Africa thinking intensified in the two FHC governments that, says Ribeiro, preached as their central foreign policy axis, “the strengthening of Mercosur and intensification of relations with the USA and other advanced economies and regional powers”. The researcher believes there was a particular intention behind this strategy: “There was an assumption that greater diplomatic efforts with countries in the region would allow Brazil to exercise its diplomatic universality better, the basis of Itamaraty’s foreign policy, thereby strengthening the directive of ‘autonomy through integration’. Mercosur, therefore, was necessary for Brazilian autonomy, because it protected and extended its national identity across the globe”.

To complicate the situation of “mamma” Africa there was a lack of financial and human resources for exercising a foreign policy that was both hemispheric and global. There was a need for options and there was no place of prominence for Africa in the new agenda. “On a continent that has more than 40 countries, like Africa, it was impossible not to adopt a selective policy”, said Luiz Felipe Lampreia, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the FHC government, in an interview with the researcher, and for whom, ‘without ignoring relations with our traditional partners in Africa the priorities of foreign policy translated into a process of consolidating Mercosur”. The result was the closure of diplomatic posts on the African continent and an emphasis on relations with those African countries whose official language was Portuguese (Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, São Tomé e Príncipe and Mozambique), the so-called Palops. “This choice leads one to conclude that the African continent is not a vector that merits more investments on the part of the FHC government and within the scope of South-South relations efforts are concentrated on relations with India and South Africa. In this scenario it is clearly obvious that the decline in Brazilian-African trade is what is driving the retraction of the role of the State in the economy, characterized as it is by deregulation and extensive privatization.”

According to Ribeiro, the Lula government has proved the turning point in relations between Africa and Brazil. “These changes largely derive from the government’s international project that, within the overall plan of things, there is room for a more assertive stance from Brazil, an assessment of the world situation that assumes the existence of gaps for a medium-sized power like Brazil that, with the country’s active and consistent diplomacy, may even be widened.” In the Atlantic the policy with regard to the African continent has become a priority. “Africa has a lot of poverty, but it’s not stagnant. In my various trips to the continent I’ve noted that there’s a dynamism and a will to find home-grown solutions for Africa’s problems”, observed current foreign minister, Celso Amorim, in an interview with the author. The policy towards Africa, however, has gained more pragmatic forums. “Despite ethnic and cultural ties being presented as a differential in our relations it’s the convergence of interests in the global agenda that is the legitimizing fact of our policy on Africa. The more coordination there is with the continent the more chances we should have to be heard on the international sphere in the sense of being heeded with regard to certain Brazilian and African interests”, explains Ribeiro. The trade dynamic also has considerable weight in the relationship.

“It’s important to transform the ties of friendship into economic and social progress”, warns Amorim; hence the reopening of closed diplomatic posts and the many visits of President Lula to Africa with businessmen. “Even so there are serious communication problems. According to the diplomats who were interviewed the absence of an active business participation in drawing up the diplomatic action agenda weighs heavily when it comes to intensifying relations, which would explain the low entrepreneurial profile of the Brazilian private sector. Businessmen, on the other hand, complain of diplomatic activity in the region.” For the private investor sector it is not enough just to open diplomatic posts if the diplomats are not given the conditions to work; it is also necessary to rethink the issue of ‘suitable training” for the Brazilian diplomatic service.

Valter Campanato/ABr Politicized: at the 7th World Social Forum in NairobiValter Campanato/ABr

“What we’re seeing is that the foreign strategy in trade terms is still restricted to small self-sufficient decision groups within government that know what they’re doing and take decisions when they get information”, notes Ribeiro. “The marginalization of the private sector is obvious. In the absence of a concrete communication channel between the two groups for promoting partnerships between the government and the private sector diplomatic behavior based on ad hoc consultations with interested sectors will continue.” For the author, “it’s necessary to rethink the process for formulating current Brazilian policy towards Africa, because we can’t sustain the premise that this is a strictly state dimension”.

There is some good news, however, even for the scientific field, like Embrapa’s recent incursion into Africa with development projects for the sustainable use of natural resources, production systems and the sanitary protection of plants and animals, with the right to a two-way exchange situation in the future, since the continent has a lot to teach Brazil about mining technology, for a start. “Brazil’s new African policy needs to be something other than a piece of rhetoric; it has to serve society in all the countries involved, arguing in favor of access for our products to the closed markets of the North”, advises Saraiva. The real “mamma” Africa is not a single mother.