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Here at Democracy in Africa we are delighted to be launching one of our Special Issues, this time looking at the question of how authoritarian governments engage with Africa, how African states and peoples respond, and the impact of this complex process on democracy and development. In other words, is there anything distinctive about how countries like China, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia interact with sub-Saharan Africa, and if so, how does this shape political and economic processes on the continent.

We do not focus on authoritarian regimes because we believe that they are inherently “worse” than democratic ones in terms of their foreign and development policy. Even if one buys into the fiercest critiques of China and Russia, they have yet to do anything on African soil that would compare to the human rights abuses committed by the United Kingdom under colonial rule, for example during efforts to both establish and stabilise the imperial regime in Kenya, or France’s complicity in the Rwandan genocide.

Indeed, we are agnostic as to whether the way in which authoritarian states engage with Africa amounts to “autocracy promotion” at all. As Oisen Tansey has argued, countries such as China and Russia are motivated by a variety of different considerations, and while most of these may be self-centred – as with any international power – that does not mean that they have a concerted plan to convert the world to authoritarianism. While China and Russia may be very happy to turn a blind eye to repression and censorship, this is not the same thing as propagating an active campaign designed to promote dictatorship in the same way, for example, that the United States and the United Kingdom have made democracy promotion a central plank of their foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.

Instead, we decided to launch this Special Issue precisely because there is a fascinating and growing debate about how we should characterise the strategies of authoritarian powers in Africa – and because we realised that this platform has not paid as careful attention as it could have to the growing influence of a range of authoritarian governments in the African political landscape. As ever, our aim is to provide a range of different opinions, and so while some pieces will argue that China and Russia are driving a process of democratic backsliding, others see will depict these international relationships in a much more positive light.

Agency in international relations

Our focus on foreign authoritarian regimes should not be taken to imply that we think the strategies of these governments are more important or more influential than the responses of their African counterparts. As a number of different authors have demonstrated, even when faced with the economic might of China, African states have consistently demonstrated the ability to exercise agency in tight corners, shaping international engagement to their own advantage.

Of course, it is impossible to do justice to this point while talking about “Africa”. There is pronounced variation, both in terms of the the way that authoritarian regimes engage with different African states, and in in terms of how different African governments respond. Most obviously, China has so far proved to be more interested in developing strong relationships with states that feature large amounts of particular kinds of natural resources.

The foreign policies of African states display similar variation. Contrast, for example, the increasingly close relationship between the governments of Ethiopia and Zimbabwe with their authoritarian counterparts outside of the continent with the approach of Zambia’s new president Hakainde Hichilema, who made a bee-line for Washington shortly after his inauguration. These differences in strategy on both sides of the equation are so great that it makes no sense to speak of the way that “authoritarian regimes” engage with Africa, or of how “Africa” responds. A much more fine-grained understanding is needed.

For this reason, the Special Issue will feature case studies of particular external authoritarian regimes, such as Joe Siegle’s take on Russia, alongside comparative analysis, such as Onyalo Paul Otieno’s article that contrasts the impact of China and Russia on the continent. Similarly, while some essays will consider regional African responses, for example through the African Union and regional bodies, others will look at the situation in individual countries, such as Abdul-Gafar Tobi Oshodi and Ufo Okeke Uzodike’s piece on how Nigeria can best work with China.

In this way, we hope to be able to both identify broader patterns and highlight nuance and complexity.

The Special Issue

As usual, we will be posting the article in groups of 4 or 5, so keep checking back for more! As usual, if you want to contribute all you have to do is drop us a line! And as usual, we are particularly interested in hearing from authors from/working in the African continent.

In this instalment, we are bringing you:

Once all of the essays have been published online, they will be collated into a single publication and shared for free via this website.


This Special Issue was edited by Calum Booth and Nic Cheeseman.

Calum Booth is an MSc Student in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on China’s impact on developing countries.

Nic Cheeseman is the founder of Democracy in Africa, and the Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham. 


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