Tame geopolitics to secure Africa's 'ecological civilisation'
- Since 2007, “ecological civilisation” has become an explicit goal of the Communist Party of China and a core principle guiding its development.
- The UK has already started pivoting towards the Indian Ocean, including all the countries on Africa’s Indian Ocean Coast.
Ecological civilisation is the goal of all social and environmental reforms. It is Pope Francis who wrote: "We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”
Undoubtedly, the recently concluded Blue Economy Summit in Nairobi this week may have set the agenda for the consolidation of an “ecological civilisation” in Africa’s Indian Ocean seaboard.
But lingering geopolitical rivalries and weak state capacity to secure and govern the maritime space remain major sticking points in the building of an “ecological civilisation” integrating land-based and ocean economies.
Scholars and analysts use “ecological civilisation” to refer to a synthesis of economic, educational, political, agricultural, and other societal reforms balancing the imperatives of productivity and sustainability.
It is a form of human civilisation based on ecological principles, which results from effective responses to social injustices and global climate disruption. It is the end state of social and environmental reform in a polity.
For thousands of years, Africa’s Indian Ocean seaboard has been the convergence of civilisations, which have disrupted the emergence of a strong ecological civilisation in the region.
The “Swahili civilisation” marked the earliest attempt to establish an ecological civilisation in Africa’s Indian Ocean coast.
This marine civilisation, established by the Bantu people who were joined by Arab merchants and traders, was flourishing by the first century AD, encompassing Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, the Islands of Zanzibar, Comoros and penetrated deep into Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and Northern Zambia.
The civilisation’s affluence, beauty and power are well documented by the Moroccan intellectual and traveller, Abu Abdullah ibn Battuta, who extensively toured the region in the 14th century.
Today, as in the past, local insecurities and external geo-political rivalries and interventions by major powers have continually undermined efforts to consolidate an ecological civilisation in Africa’s Indian Ocean rim.
It is against this historical backdrop that China is crafting its diplomacy in the Indian Ocean Belt, hoisted on three conceptual pillars. One is an appeal to history.
In 2018, China celebrates 613 years since the famous admiral and diplomat of its Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Zheng He, made seven expeditions to western Indian Ocean region between 1405 and 1433, including to the coasts of Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and possibly Mozambique.
Chinese diplomats and scholars stressing the peaceful encounters between the 5000-year old Chinese civilisation and African civilisations to counter the narrative of a clash of civilisation and to project its ecological civilisation model.
Second, China is showcasing its commitment to building partnerships for “ecological civilisation”. Since 2007, “ecological civilisation” has become an explicit goal of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and a core principle guiding its development.
During a side event at the blue economy summit, Beijing’s Director-General of National Marine Data and Information Service (NMDIS) in the Ministry of Natural Resources, Mr He Guangshun, placed Beijing’s ecological civilisation model at the centre of the blue economy debate.
He expressed China’s commitment to inject “vitality into the global green and sustainability agenda”.
Third is Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a development strategy adopted by President Xi Jinping involving infrastructure development and investments in countries in Africa, Asia and Europe.
Besides “the Silk Road Economic Belt” consisting of overland routes (road and rail transportation), the BRI initiative comprises sea routes collectively known as the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road linking China to Western Indian Ocean Blue Economy estimated to be US$22 billion.
Portugal, which is set to co-host the United Nations Oceans Conference with Kenya in June 2020, is an integral actor in the story of the ebbs and flows of ecological civilisation in Eastern Africa.
Using their sophisticated technology including better and faster ships (carracks) well-equipped for naval warfare, the Portuguese conquered and occupied the west Indian Ocean coast for 200 years between 1500 and 1700 — and actually remained in Mozambique for another 275 years.
Britain is another major power shaping the fortunes of ecological civilisation in Eastern Africa.
Discernibly, besides deepening its transatlantic relations with America and Canada, Britain’s post-Brexit global strategy is to transform the Commonwealth club – comprising 53 countries across all continents and a combined population of 2.3 billion people, almost a third of the world population (94pc living in Asia and Africa combined) – into a formidable economic bloc.
Ahead of the impending withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union by March 29 next year, the UK has already started pivoting towards the Indian Ocean, including all the countries on Africa’s Indian Ocean Coast.
With the resurgence of Cold War era geopolitics, a medley of isolationism, protectionism and populism threatens to undermine the emergence of a strong “ecological civilisation” in the Indian Ocean.
Although the Donald Trump administration has drifted towards isolationism, protectionism and anti-environmentalism partly to counter the dual challenge to its global dominance by China, Russia and the European Union, the US has increased its footprints in the region.
While a resurgent Russia is making serious inroads into Africa’s Indian Ocean Coast, the Gulf states are locked in fierce geostrategic struggles over the region.
The prospects of an ecological civilisation in Africa depend on African countries bolstering their capacity to effectively govern their marine domains and secure the blue economy.
Prof Kagwanja is Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute (Kenya)