In 2017, the world watched as Kenya endured one of the most complicated election cycles ever. In the hotly-contested initial August vote, the incumbent won. As expected, the opposition contested the result in court. Many saw merit in the complaints, but were nonetheless shocked when the Supreme Court ordered a re-run. Unhappy with the hurried process that ensued, and fuelled in part by an opposition boycott, however, voters largely avoided the repeat poll in October, which registered a paltry turnout of less than 40%.
The Kenya case throws up an interesting contradiction of modern foreign policy. Western diplomats have long preached the gospel of good governance in the developing world. But as these uncertain events unfolded last year – with the police killing 78 civilians and the electoral commission itself admitting it had made a shambles of the second vote – Western ambassadors kept urging Kenyans to recognise the importance of one particular idea.
That idea was not “rule of law”, “democracy” or “free, fair and credible” elections. It was “stability”.
More than 15 million voters refused to participate in the Kenyan election re-run. The process was widely seen as illegitimate and has likely sowed seeds of dissatisfaction that could undercut the ability of the ruling party to govern for the next five years. But despite this, diplomats continue to parrot the cardinal importance of “stability”.
This was not the first or last time this word echoed around the continent in 2017. From Togo to Egypt, and from Chad to Gabon – all of which have seen popular protests come up against state power – the emphasis on stability has taken precedence over, say, political engagement. As Cameroon’s government gunned down protesters, arrested activists en masse, and shut down the Internet in Anglophone regions, for example, international actors urged a return to stability. As simmering discontent in Ethiopia led to online blackouts, heavy force and a state of emergency, Western diplomats supported the government in restoring the same.
It has even become the strategy taken in relation to Eritrea, nominally a pariah state, but now a lynchpin in Europe’s immigration policy. When it comes to Western engagement with Africa, stability is the mot du jour.
The Stability Doctrine
In the name of this “Stability Doctrine”, foreign governments tip the political balance in favour of existing power and the state. They bolster the short-term status quo, even if that means disregarding visible discontent and overlooking state abuses. They pick power over protesters, and privilege the interests of others over those of the citizens in the countries at hand.
One of the main reasonings behind this approach is inseparable from the global march of neoliberalism. Foreign extraction from Africa is not new, but steady social and political conditions are a particular priority for today’s predominant form of exploitation. Corporations hungry for endless growth – more so than states looking to manage a balance of power – need predictable politics to operate.
Unlike some periods of history, the focus today is also notably short-termist. During the Cold War, African nations were seen as potential allies in long-term, ideological world-building projects. But today’s Stability Doctrine is focused only on the next few years. It has no interest in building institutions, embedding good governance, or understanding the underlying causes of threatened instability. It has little concern for the implications of its actions in the future – because by that time, it will be someone else’s problem.
Two things have changed in the last ten years that have led to this particular brand of the Stability Doctrine. Firstly, the rise of China, Turkey and other non-Western countries has threatened the West’s long-standing economic domination in Africa. This has given African elites – amongst the key beneficiaries of “stability” – more leverage and led Western policymakers, afraid of losing their patronage networks, to weaken their good governance agenda.
At the same time, the 2007/8 global economic collapse has made opportunities to extract from Africa all the more important. African markets, labour and natural resources have never been more integral to resolving urgent economic challenges in other parts of the world.
Delay, defer, deny
What’s wrong with stability uber alles? First and foremost, it puts a risky mortgage on the future of Africa. It is an alliance between outsiders and African elites whose mantra is eat now and delay, defer or deny the consequences.
The Stability Doctrine treats Africa as a place to make as much money as quickly as possible, not a place where people live, love and exist. It ensures African countries continue to play a position in the periphery of global politics, providing raw materials, markets, and an acquiescent labour force for multinational corporations.
The focus on stability treats the tremendous effort and risk that African activists and politicians take to shift the political discourse as secondary to the interests of foreign governments. It sees widespread demands for greater justice, democracy and accountability as less important than holding things steady – at least at the levels important for foreign business.
The reality, however, is that while outsiders are tipping the scales in favour of wealth and the status quo in the corridors of power, African countries are growing increasingly inhospitable for many of their citizens, particularly the youth. In 2017, thousands died attempting to cross the Mediterranean, while the African Union estimates that another 200,000 are currently zig-zagging across the Sahara chasing after the same dream.
They leave partly because of the collateral damage of “stability” or profiteering over all else. They leave because there is no land to work – much of it sold off or unusable thanks to the ravages of climate change. They leave because their educations are worthless as privatisation has eaten away at public universities. They leave because their leaders spend more on weapons to maintain power than they do on healthcare. They leave because police officers show up at their doorstep and summarily arrest, detain or kill anyone who dares to hold a political opinion that threatens the country’s “stability”.
Stability for whom? For how long?
In 2018, things in many countries in Africa are probably going to get worse before they get better. Millions of young people will come of age in countries that have little room for them.
In Kenya, the authority of the executive elected under suspect conditions will probably be tested more than ever. In Cameroon and Ethiopia, protests will likely continue and may escalate. Meanwhile, in Gabon, the two Congos, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda and beyond, disillusionment will continue to swell even while African and Western elites hold fast on the promise, and profit, of short-term stability.
The point is not that instability is the answer. Rather, it is that when confronted with the Stability Doctrine, we must ask “stability for whom?”, “stability to what end?” and “stability for how long?”.
The Stability Doctrine as it is shuts African citizens out of their politics, lest they rock the boat, and leaves them abandoned. That may pave the way for predictable market conditions that benefit international corporations and African elites today and maybe even tomorrow. But what of everyone else? And what of the day after?
The Stability Doctrine is an imposter usurping a vacuum left by the slow erosion of ideological (versus commercialised) Pan Africanism. In 2018 and beyond, it’s important to re-assert that Africa is not just an idea or a market that must remain open for business at all costs. Enough Stability Doctrine – it’s time for a foreign policy ideology that asserts the dignity and personhood of African people over all else.
Appeared on JANUARY 23, 2018 on African Arguments
Nanjala Nyabola is a Kenyan writer, humanitarian advocate and political analyst, currently based in Nairobi, Kenya. Follow her on twitter at @Nanjala1