Connecting the launch of the Humanities Across Borders programme and the 60th anniversary of the landmark Bandung Conference, Mohomodou Houssouba analyses the current state of discussion of the Asia-Africa axis:

Sixty years ago, Asian and African leaders vowed to build an alternative to the rivalry between the capitalist and communist blocks, by creating a non-aligned movement out of the so-called Third World, thus keeping a critical distance from the hegemonic discourses of the day. Since, the two continents seem to have continually drifted apart. In the meantime, Asia has emerged as a world player while Africa remains mired in multiple and durable crises. It serves a raw-material reserve for competing Asian powerhouses.

In this regard, despite Japan’s long reign as the leading Asian economy, the recent debate is largely inspired by the emergence of China as alternative economic partner for Africa – as buyer of minerals, wood and even cropland, in addition to funding major infrastructure and providing credit to cash-trapped states whose leaders are eager to slip out of the fangs of the Bretton Woods lending institutions, draconian structural adjustment plans and litmus tests on democracy and human rights. There is also the role India seeks to play as alternative model for economic progress through democratic rule; that is, a different political, economic and even technological model for countries striving to free themselves from famine, poor health coverage and low digital resources. At the same time, Japan, the former Asian powerhouse, and its apparent Korean successor and stiff competitor in high-tech export goods, play on different registers. Each of these Asian drivers holds its economic forum with African leaders, respectively in Beijing, Delhi, Tokyo and Seoul. Thus economic and geostrategic considerations dominate the new Afro-Asian discourse.

The comparison between the regions and individual countries is consistently unfavorable to the African part. For example, already in the 1990s, a recurrent motif in The Economist juxtaposed Ghana and South Korea. Accordingly, in the 1950s, the two countries had comparable gross domestic products with even a slight advance for Ghana, thanks to its natural resources and agricultural potential. Over forty years, Korea had become an export economy driven by industry, high-tech and logistics drivers operating on a global scale. More recently, the Senegalese analyst Adama Gaye asserted that Senegal had a higher per capita income than China in the 1960s but today there is no match, especially when it comes to a qualitative assessment of development levels. By all accounts, China is no longer just an industrial power, but a mature economy driven by technological innovation. In 2006, Gaye’s critical analysis of the ‘China-Africa’ connection had a far-reaching echo. He used the dragon vs. ostrich metaphor to illustrate what he considered to be the degree of self- awareness and disposition toward self-affirmation that distinguishes the Chinese from African elites. To him, African leaders had gotten it all wrong from the beginning by accepting to follow recipes made for them by the West. In contrast, the Chinese didn’t take any ready-made solutions, considered the various offers at hand and selected the ones suitable to them. They learned from their own mistakes and those of others. This pragmatism helped them become self-reliant and assertive in defending their interests. Nonetheless, Gaye is strongly critical of the current state of Sino-African relations, which he considered mostly unfavorable to African countries.

The different analyses invariably pose the same nagging question: Why have these countries slipped so far apart and why is this pattern so prevalent in the overall Asia-Africa comparison? In short, what explains the success of Asia and the failure of Africa?

There is no lack of deterministic explanations falling back on culture to account for the altogether divergent fortunes of postcolonial Asia and Africa. To some extent, the images have been sufficiently internalized by the African elites themselves in the face of apparently inextricable crises.  But the narrow scrutiny of Asia’s alternative capitalism does not help us much in grasping the underlying social dynamics at play, in hearing the voices of people who experience the massive transformations that are reduced to economic indicators, in sensing the human drama of rapid industrialization and urbanization, the cultural conflicts and environmental losses, and the ethical challenges of being a citizen in a society undergoing massive transformation on a continual basis. Still, the Asian experience exerts an unwavering fascination over a new generation of leaders who readily invoke the ‘Tiger’ trope to legitimate the mix of authoritarian politics and liberal economics they practice. They refer to Chinese and other Asian experiences as illustrating the primacy of economic growth and social benefits over political rights. Among these proponents, the Rwandan president who enjoys enormous popularity across the continent because he has been able to secure his country and build its infrastructure after the 1994 genocide. As in the early stages of his Asian models, the strongman is even seen as the key actor of the new breed of free market and economic nationalism supposed to build wealth and redistribute it through rising income, better education and healthcare, and even cultural benefits. Here, Gaye’s critique of Africa’s political and intellectual elites converges with Paul Kagame’s self-conscious posture as a post-‘Françafrique’ leader whose political and diplomatic agenda is not dictated by Western powers. Instead, his regime will be legitimated not by givers of lesson on political virtue, but rather through the higher living standards the Rwandan population will enjoy in the future. Even now, travel narratives often depict the country as a phoenix rising from its ashes.

In this sense, the idea of Asia bears heavily on the revived debate over the development state, which had its hour of glory in the immediate post-independence period. Much of the current discourse on ‘emergence’ revolves around the role the state should or could play in enlarging the national pie. Considering that economic interests predominate in the debate over ‘emergence’ in Africa, it is clear that despite the fuzzy images they project and undifferentiated depictions they inspire, Asian countries fascinate a great deal across the continent. More than the older European nations, they offer more immediate examples of divergence, of choices not made or yet to be made, to bring closer the itineraries of the two continents. Asia has become, for all intents and purposes, a conspicuous object of curiosity and desire. This is also reflected in the academic sphere. African students are now studying all over Asia, and African studies are now offered at many Asian universities. In parallel, since 2015, Asian studies have been introduced at universities in South Africa, Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana, among others. The growing opportunities for intellectual exchange enable the kind of critical engagement that has so far been missing from the debate.

This was excerpted from an article titled Beyond area studies: IIAS Leiden’s ‘Humanities across Borders: Asia and   Africa in the World’ published in the 1/2017 edition of the newsletter of the Swiss Society for African Studies (SSAS).

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