Dr Terence McSweeney, Solent University and the London School of Economics and Political Science - Written Evidence - Submitted 1st January 2020

Summary Change the narrative: African identity in the 21st Century

1. 2020 is the year that South Africa assumes the Chairmanship of the African Union, eighteen years since it occupied the position as the inaugural country to do so in 2002. It is also the year that the UK is considering the role it will play in the African Union’s drive to implement the goals of the 2063 Agenda. A robust relationship between the UK and the AU moving further into the twenty-first century will be a mutually beneficial one and will bring significant advantages to not just UK and African citizens, but also the industries and institutions of both parties.

2. The goals of AU 2063 Agenda recognise how much progress has been made since 2002, while acknowledging the challenges still to be confronted for the continent. This written evidence will focus on the diverse issues facing modern Africa in four different but interconnected fields, all of which are prioritised in the 2019 AU-UK Joint Communiqué: climate change, shifting population demographics, human rights, and the culture industries. It will conclude by offering recommendations and remarks about the potential benefits for the implementation of stronger ties between the UK and the AU. My primary desire is to highlight the ways such partnerships can, in the words of UN SecretaryGeneral António Guterres, change the narrative about Africa, so that Africa is rightly seen for its dynamism and enormous potential, as a continent of opportunity.[1]

3. In doing this it is vital to recognise three issues: i) that these elements might be particular to the African continent but have a tremendous impact on the wider world, including the UK. ii) that while it is relevant to talk about general trends across the continent, at the same time it is vital to understand that Africa is not a homogenous entity and that the diversity of nations, religions and communities should be taken into account more than has been done in the past. iii) that there are several practical constraints the AU faces in its ability to achieve these goals: two examples of which will suffice here for the sake of brevity. The AU has a considerably smaller staff than might be considered practical for such a task (5% that of the EU for twice the population) and a budget of £315 million compared to the E.U.’s £128bn.


4. My specialism lies in the study of global and transnational societies, politics and culture. As an academic, researcher and creative practitioner my work has taken me all over the world. I am currently a Senior Lecturer at Solent University and a Visiting Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, but I have held research posts at Oxford University, UCL and the University of Southern Denmark. My research is taught in universities across the globe and regularly cited inside and outside of the realms of higher education. My 2019 film won Best Short Documentary at the Respect Human Rights Film Festival, Belfast. I am a member of the Human Rights Centre, Essex University and founder of the Research group War, Conflict and Human Rights in Contemporary Global Cinema. I welcome the opportunity to play some small role in the International Relations and Defence Committee’s inquiry with this written evidence.

The Challenges Facing Africa in the New Millennium

5. One of the issues outlined in 2019 AU-UK Joint Communiqué was that of the AU’s commitment to the long-term challenges of climate change. The IEA’s (International Energy Agency) recent report “Africa’s Energy Outlook 2019” observed that Africa produces only 2% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, while being home to some of the world’s most vulnerable countries when it comes to climate change.[2] The fact that Africa has the richest solar resources on the planet but currently only produces only 1% of solar energy globally presents some substantial challenges, prospects and responsibilities moving forward, as Vitaly Soloviy at the Sustainability Times wrote Africa faces a unique opportunity to do it the right way without repeating many mistakes made by industrially developed nations so it can choose a much less carbon-intensive path.[3]

6. A central concern for the continent is the demand of adapting to the shifting coordinates of Africa’s changing population demographics, an issue which will have far reaching implications. Some have expressed a concern that more than 75% of Africa’s population is under thirty-five, with worries about the impact of the required investments in health and education, high youth unemployment rates, and whether these young people will be able to reach their potential to contribute to their societies. But this also represents remarkable opportunities for growth in a range of key areas and the prospect of how a well-educated generation might be able to propel Africa into the twenty-first century.

7. An area often returned to in discussions of the African continent is the problematic relationship between some African states and the issue of human rights. This is a vital, urgent and important arena and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Those areas that are often discussed in global news and editorials are violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights such as the right to asylum, freedom from torture, and the right to free speech. The AU Agenda 2063 has set itself the commendable goal of becoming a continent where democratic values, culture, practices, universal principles of human rights, gender equality, justice and the rule of law are entrenched.[4] At the same time as being aware of these serious problems it is also important to acknowledge that there have been substantial signs of progress in many African countries. As Franck Kuwonu wrote in African Renewal in 2019 ‘In the last two decades, citizens have pressured many African countries, including Nigeria, the Gambia, Liberia and Zimbabwe, to move from authoritarian regimes to democracies, opening up political space.’[5] What is less often a part of the global narrative on African human rights are those marginalised areas that are deserving of more attention by the international community: the lack of facilities and care for those with mental health problems, the lack of investment in provisions for the disabled, and the idea that endemic corruption is also a violation of human rights.

8. Connected to all three of the categories above is the prominent role digital media now plays in the lives of citizens across the continent, not just within youth culture but for more members of African society than ever before. With regards to social media, until very recently the tendency has been to focus on the negative aspects (links to radicalisation and violent acts) while ignoring the positive role it has played. As Alejandra Grus and Farida Vis argue social media can change the world[6] by bringing marginalised social groups together, providing news to those unable to access it, share cultural experiences, encourage civic participation and provide a platform for the voices from those communities who have habitually been marginalised.

9. The vibrant and diverse film and television industries across the African continent (from Algeria to Zimbabwe) are a platform that is now exploring some of these social issues with substantial impact, as Mette Hjort and Eva Jørholt conclude in their African Cinema and Human Rights (2019) moving images play a significant role in advancing the cause of justice and fairness.[7] Some of these national film industries also produce content which has challenged the dominance of the American film industry in their own geographical regions, something that is now becoming increasingly rare around the globe. Among those creative voices offering hope for changing the narrative of Africa in the new millennium are a range of notable female African film-makers including Mati Diop, Judy Kibinge and Sanaa Hamri.


10. On the matter of climate change, the UK Government should consider placing a higher priority on relations with the AU than it has historically done in the past and encourage partnerships at both local and national levels. There are many ways this sense of partnership can be achieved, for example by prioritising UK’s investments in Africa and supporting sustainable investments in African markets. This can also be achieved by having ministers for Africa who are more immersed in the history and politics of the continent. There is no doubt that this is an area of considerable growth that would be profitable for the UK to have a competitive advantage in.

11. It is clear that the people of Africa, especially the youth, will be at the forefront of any development in the continent’s future. After all Africa has the youngest population in the world with 200 million people between the ages of 15 and 24. There is a general consensus in the academic and business community that the UK should shift, as far as possible, its priorities from being a provider of aid to one of partnership in matters of strategy, security and trade. There are traditional elements in these relationships as one might expect, in industry and governmental partners, but it would profit the UK to recognise and cultivate relationships with the youth of today who are of course the statespeople of tomorrow. This might mean acknowledging young people making a positive social change, especially those from marginalised communities (for example Haneefah Adam and Samah Al-gadi) and those like the Egyptian Hassan Ali Ghazaly recently recognised as “Young Person of The Year” at the Young African Leaders Summit (YALS) in Accra, Ghana

12. With regard to the development of Human Rights issues in the AU, a greater sense of historical awareness is necessary in the future, one that also recognises Africanist perspectives rather than side-lining them. Bonny Ibhawoh places this at the centre of his essential Human Rights in Africa (2018) which also seeks to create a narrative that is attentive to transnational and transregional patterns.[8] As well as highlighting the problems that remain in 2020 progress should continue to be focused on. As a 2018 Amnesty International report documented Today, the struggle is far from won, but the intervening decades have seen extraordinary progress.[9] These initiatives should be made in partnership with other European countries to strengthen their influence and impact on African nations.

13. The three elements above: climate change, shifting population demographics and human rights issues are impacted upon in far reaching ways by contemporary developments in the media and culture industries. As a result, efforts should be made at the policy level to support their continued growth with an acknowledgement that this rapidly emerging arena of the Africa economy is a site of considerable influence across the continentIn the realm of social media the UK should continue to support studies of the impact it is having in positive and negative ways, and also be vocal about social media bans on the continent (Chad, Sudan, DR Congo etc.) About the film industry in 2013 Lizelle Bisschoff wrote that African cinema has historically and contemporarily, been hugely marginalised in film production and distribution all over the world[10] but the UK can participate in improving this by encouraging and implementing co-production initiatives, partnerships, and international film festivals which will bring gains to the UK culture industries and African partners.  


14. The AU 2063 Agenda offers a range of opportunities for individual African countries and Africa as a whole to continue to develop and play a more prominent role on the global stage. It is a period that will bring many challenges, some of which are difficult to anticipate, but also will offer tremendous potential in the creation of a relationship between the UK and the AU that will lead to significant benefits for both parties.

[1] António Guterres, Sustainable Development Best Way to Build Africa’s Climate Resilience, Tackle Causes of Conflict, Secretary-General Tells Aswan Forum in Video Message, The United Nations (11 December 2019): https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/sgsm19908.doc.htm [accessed 21 December 2019]

[2] IEA (International Energy Agency), ‘Africa Energy Outlook 2019’ (November 2019): https://www.iea.org/reports/africa-energy-outlook-2019 [accessed 21 December 2019]

[3] Vitaliy Soloviy, Africa’s sustainable energy transition has global implications, Sustainability Times (19 December 2019): https://www.sustainability-times.com/low-carbon-energy/iea-transition-to-sustainable-energy-in-africa-has-global-implications/ [accessed 21 December 2019]

[4] AU, Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want, Addis Ababa, African Union Commission,2015. p. 5.

[5] Franck Kuwonu, ‘Africa’s freedom struggles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’, Africa Renewal (December 2018 - March 2019): https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/december-2018-march-2019/africa’s-freedom-struggles-and-universal-declaration-human-rights [accessed 21 December 2019]

[6] Alejandra Grus and Farida Vis, 6 ways social media is changing the world, World Economic Forum (7 April 2016): https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/04/6-ways-social-media-is-changing-the-world/ [accessed 21 December 2019]

[7] Mette Hjort and Eva Jørholt, African Cinema and Human Rights, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019. p. 3.

[8] Bonny Ibhawoh, Human Rights in Africa, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. p. xiv.

[9] Amnesty International, Rights Today  in Africa- 2018’, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2018/12/rights-today-2018-africa/ [21 December 2019]

[10] Lizelle Bisschoff, Representing Africa in the UK: Programming the Africa in Motion Film Festival, Research in African Literatures, vol 44, Issue 2, (Summer 2013), pp 142-162:  p142. DOI: 10.2979/reseafrilite.44.2.142 [accessed 28 December 2019]