After spending its first six years in power largely ignoring the continent, the Conservative Party of Canada has finally “discovered” Africa. Last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper undertook a four-day trip to Senegal and the DRC—only his second trip to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office in 2006, and his first in five years.
Harper’s policies have (at least rhetorically) emphasized government belt tightening. Accordingly, the Conservatives have repeatedly cut Canada’s foreign aid commitments in order to focus on priorities such as lowering the budget deficit and buying $25 billion worth of fighter jets. Given their espoused economic policy focus, it is not surprising that the Conservatives sought to portray the Prime Minister’s recent trip as focused not on delivering foreign aid, but on promoting international trade.
The Canadian press largely embraced this narrative: “Africa no longer needs your help. It needs your investment,” read the first line of one article.
“These days Africa has a new image,” a Harper spokesman explained in a newspaper interview during the trip. “It has emerged as the region with the world’s second-highest growth rate … Wars and coups are declining, foreign investment is soaring, and democracy is expanding.”
Yes, it appears as though the “Africa rising” narrative has reached the halls of the Canadian Parliament.
This narrative was readily apparent in a speech given by Ed Fast, the Minister of International Trade, at a press conference following Harper’s trip. “There are more cell phones in Africa than India,” he noted, in announcing a 2013 trade mission to Ghana and Nigeria.
While Harper did announce an aid package during his visit to Dakar, he mostly focused on expanding the two countries’ trade relationship. A few days earlier, John Baird, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, had undertaken a similar trip to Lagos and Abuja, announcing—using a metaphor surely familiar to all Nigerians—that Canada would seek to increase its commercial ties with Nigeria because that was where the “puck” of the international economy was “going to be” in the future.
The other stop on Harper’s trip proved rather difficult to fit into the narrative of an emergent Africa ripe for Canadian investment: From Senegal, Harper traveled to the DRC to participate in the annual summit of La Francophonie. Harper used his speeches at the summit to rebuke the Congolese government, telling a gathering of opposition and civil society leaders, “We’re concerned about many things in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including … violations of human rights, difficulties, problems (and) unfairness in some of the electoral process.”
Again, the Canadian media were content to play along with this narrative. “Stephen Harper enters Africa’s heart of darkness,” read one headline.
The rhetoric surrounding the Prime Minister’s trip last week, then—both from government spokespeople and from the press—demonstrated a troubling bifurcation, a dividing of Africa into “good” and “bad” states. This portrayal, it should go without saying, is overly simplistic. The DRC has demonstrated strong economic growth and increased foreign investment, while Nigeria has struggled with sectarian violence and popular dissatisfaction with President Goodluck Jonathan’s policies. Neither of these facts is captured in a straightforward labeling of Nigeria as a “good” trade partner and the DRC as a “bad” human rights violator.
While it may not be politically wise to discuss Nigeria’s continued political problems at the same time as promoting increased trade with the country, or to encourage investment in the DRC while rebuking Joseph Kabila’s human rights record, one hopes that, behind closed doors, Canada’s policy toward Africa less resembles the simplistic media coverage of this past week than Prime Minister Harper’s public statements would seem to suggest.
* Nicholas Barber is a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at McGill University in Montreal. His research interests include representations of Africa and Africans in Western media, indigenous film and video. He has worked on development projects in Ghana and Lesotho and for the Film and Video Center of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.