Racial issue in Brazil generates abstract vision of Africa, says former UN ambassador


If foreign policy is far from being central in the government plans of the presidential candidates, Africa is relegated to an even more marginal space. Of the five candidates with the highest voting intentions, only one proposes something for the continent. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (PT) puts it in a nutshell: “We will rebuild South-South international cooperation with Latin America and Africa.”

The ebb in relations puts Brazil in the rearguard at a time when all major blocs look to Africa as part of the solution to geopolitical challenges, says Guinean Carlos Lopes, former UN ambassador to Brazil and former executive secretary of the Commission Economics for Africa.

Thinking about a foreign policy for the continent, however, requires breaking with stereotypes and a deeper analysis of the region, adds the professor at the University of Cape Town.

he spoke to Sheet by video call a week after returning from a trip to Brazil, when he was in Pará and São Paulo. He went home frustrated: “With rare exceptions, there was an extraordinary lack of knowledge about the economic situation in Africa.”

How did you leave your visit to Brazil? I got the impression that the African agenda retreated a lot from everyone’s concerns. Africa appears to be associated more with the issue of identity than with the opportunity for economic relationships. In the PT itself, this identity predominance has always existed, but I think there is more now.

This creates some difficulties, because the issue of identity in Brazil is a problem that leads to a vision of Africa that is very abstract and distant from reality. I spoke to people at Itamaraty, and the impression is that they think that the problem of relationship with Africa is resolved by giving more weight to blackness and issues of diversity.

On the African side, I think it doesn’t matter at all. Africans are more interested in knowing what Brazil’s position is in relation to the BRICS, in terms of trade, if we are going to form alliances to defend common interests. It’s a much more pragmatic agenda. With rare exceptions, there was an extraordinary lack of knowledge about the economic situation in Africa. It seems like everything stopped in time.

Africa hardly appears in government plans. What do you think Brazilian foreign policy for the continent should be? We are in a very particular geopolitical period, in which it is clear that we are going to have the renewal of multilateral rules. And practically all the elements will only be resolved in the long term with the participation of Africa.

On the issue of intellectual property, there will be a battle in which part of the answer is not only innovation, but also consumption, and Africa will have a unique situation of one in two births from 2040 onwards; young Africans are indispensable as consumers of technology.

In the energy transition, there is no easy solution without green hydrogen, and the International Energy Agency says that 60% of that potential is in Africa. Brazil should be more attentive to these things, as is everyone else in the world.

World leaders have been touring Africa in recent weeks — Frenchman Emmanuel Macron, American Antony Blinken and Russian Sergei Lavrov. Is there a new race across the continent? All these visitors are concerned with energy. Russians are interested in being in African theaters to avoid losing influence in countries linked to energy and technology transitions.

They compete with the Gulf countries, always connected with some form of jihadism. We cannot be naive.

To what extent does terrorism hold back regional development? It has a very big weight. There is here the camouflage of a bigger problem: to interest certain actors in a certain instability of the African continent, for competitive or geopolitical reasons. All the western countries present in the mediations and peacekeepers have a lot of military intelligence that they do not share with the countries that are supposedly helped. So everybody knows a lot of the truth, but the countries that suffer from jihadism don’t know any.

Africa was and is recurrently seen as a place of fragile democracy and authoritarianism. In recent years pillars of democracy, such as the USA, have shown that the coup impetus is knocking at the door. In Brazil too. What do we have to learn? The first is that, without strong institutions, the judicialization of politics is no answer to authoritarianism. We have examples where institutions are strong and populism and authoritarianism can be curbed, as in Kenya — there are always tense elections, but in the end things fall into place.

The second lesson is that we are all subject to manipulation of electoral processes. The more populism there is, the more there is a tendency to tamper with the integrity of electoral processes. Third, the use of digital networks; it is easier to manipulate vulnerable populations than more educated ones.

Should Brazil look at Africa focusing on Lusophones? The language still has some advantage, but limited. Several trade blocs are being redesigned, because there will be a kind of neo-protectionism based on climate and security. Blocks will have to redefine their rules of the game, and Portuguese-speaking countries could benefit if they were organized.

We have a country like Brazil that is an incredible power in terms of the environment. Of the other Lusophones, each is in an area of ​​the globe that is important in negotiations. If there was leadership from Brazil, there could be a significant role in redesigning trade and creating advantages for each other. The more emotional idea of ​​us being interconnected because we have a common history is fine, but economically it has lost importance.

There are those who put the hope of a possible reactivation of the community in some political figure, such as ex-President Lula. Mr. do you agree? The CPLP lives on expectations, but no institution can be consolidated on the basis of expectations. He never managed to achieve a clarification of his objective. I’ve always said that I wanted to be a platform for political-diplomatic coordination, but it’s clear that it doesn’t work that way. The second proclaimed objective is that it serve to strengthen cooperation between countries, but this does not seem to be the case. The battles that the CPLP chooses are lost, such as introducing Portuguese to the UN.

You said, in a recent interview, that the food crisis in Africa is also based on problems of logistics, production and distribution. Would Brazil have a role to play? African agriculture has the lowest productivity on the planet for three fundamental reasons: low logistical capacity, great loss of production and the use of outdated agricultural methods. I cannot imagine a country that has more capacity in these areas, with ecological characteristics very similar to ours, than Brazil.

It is difficult to imagine how Brazilian meatpackers are not present in Africa to process meat for export to the Gulf countries. Africa is exporting huge amounts of meat with the animal alive. It’s an extraordinary opportunity.

But it is worth criticizing the performance of the time of Presidents Lula and Dilma. They identified very early on that Embrapa was a fundamental instrument for cooperation, but they never provided the means. Brazil has never put money into Embrapa to install itself and be able to spread its scientific knowledge in Africa to benefit in scale the transformation of African agriculture.

X-ray | Carlos Lopes

Professor at the University of Cape Town and visiting professor at Sciences Po, in Paris, he led the Economic Commission for Africa and was UN Ambassador to Brazil. He has written, among others, “Africa in Transformation” (2020) and “Structural Change in Africa” ​​(2022), both published by Tinta da China.

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