The modern discourse in African foreign policy is, fundamentally, a dichotomy between the sovereignty of the state, and respect for human rights. In South Africa, this discourse has manifested in the government publicising its intent to leave the International Criminal Court (ICC). Across the continent, it has been displayed in the foreign aid debate, humanitarian intervention and the problem of Chinese relations in Africa.

What all these cases demonstrate is an obsession by many African states to guarantee independence, often at the expense of the people. While Western nations try to enforce good governance with foreign aid requirements and structural adjustment programmes, African states balk at the demands, fearing a loss of sovereignty. This has pushed many African states to embrace a relationship with China, an association that has been identified as enabling human rights violations.

Underpinning this discourse is a palpable fear by African elites that an adherence to human rights requirements and good governance will disrupt their authority. As a result, they strongly oppose all measures to improve their people’s lot, fabricating a false dichotomy between independence and good governance.

Reasons for this dichotomy

Why does this dichotomy between human rights and sovereignty exist in Africa? Many nations manage to maintain a good human rights record and relatively good independence. In Africa, however, many leaders and governments don’t seem to want to even attempt this.

One explanation is that many post-colonial states are insecure. They fear foreign intervention as they fear recolonisation. This pushes them to oppose any form of foreign advice or control, unless it is in the form of enriching local elites. Under this view, independence is the fundamental principle of African governance. While this is a plausible explanation for explaining the views of African academics opposed to taking the advice of foreigners, it doesn’t explain the views of the elites. It is especially implausible, as African leaders have no qualms accepting deals with Chinese investors.

Elites have no misgivings about sucking up foreign aid and no-strings attached gifts; they only oppose taking advice or being influenced by foreigners. The simple reason for this is that local elites fear a loss of power. Dictatorships are tenuous, and dictators and warlords want to maintain their control over their demesnes. A relationship with China is especially important in this dynamic, as the state provides wealth that African elites desire without the pesky requirements that Western donors and investors demand.

Despite this, any sort of suggestion that elite self-enrichment and policies are harmful will immediately be rejected and their propaganda forces and allies are prompt to attack the advice or restrictions as a violation of their sovereignty. The African Union, for all its inability to enact any real action, has become an active mouthpiece against ‘attacks’ on African sovereignty.

The reason it has become a choice between sovereignty and human rights is, simply, because for many African dictators and rulers, human rights violations are how they maintain their power and riches. Elites eliminate competition through military might or inciting pogroms. Corruption serves to line the elites’ coffers. Sovereignty, as in rejecting any call for accountability and good governance, is the only way that these rulers can maintain their practices and authority.

Fallacies of the attack on independence

The truth is that the attacks on African sovereignty are vastly over-exaggerated. Structural adjustment programmes and conditions on foreign aid are reasonable requirements set out by investors and charities to ensure that their money is being used properly. Misconstruing this as an attack on independence is merely a cheap defence by rulers to defend their precarious station.

As mentioned before, African rulers often maintain their positions through methods that foreign charities and institutions find abhorrent. To preserve their positions, the rulers have to make sure their country doesn’t adopt these restrictions. To ensure that these policies are not adopted, rulers and their allies have to attack the advice – and as they cannot reasonably reject its merits without adequately trying them, they have to reject it as simply an affront to their independence.

But it is not. An invasion is an attack on sovereignty; underhanded politics, to take control of internal politics, is an attack on sovereignty; secret agencies and coups are an attack on sovereignty. Requiring a debtor or recipient nation to abide by reasonable codes of conduct, is not.

Ramification of the debate

As a result of the obsession with defending sovereignty over human rights, African nations have some of the worst human rights records, a history of genocide and conflict, terrible governance and a rejection of institutions and strategies that could address this.

Recently, South Africa has put forward its intent to leave the ICC. The reason given is that the ICC excessively punishes Africans. While the ICC should also deal with other regions, it is undeniable that Africa also has a disproportionate number of war criminals and human rights abusers. Africa needs the ICC because Africa’s courts, controlled by the criminals themselves, are toothless. The ICC is an enemy to many African rulers, true, but it is a friend to the victims of those rulers – the people.

A rejection of institutions such as the ICC, advice given in the structural adjustment programmes and foreign aid conditions, coupled with China’s lack of concern for human rights, has given African leaders a comfortable position to continue to abuse their people in order to self-enrich and maintain their power.

The false dichotomy

It doesn’t need to be a choice between sovereignty and human rights. I have already shown how there is no real assault on African sovereignty in the forms that rulers fear. Rather, a willingness to reform and embrace good governance will strengthen national sovereignty. The power of elites, in the grander scheme, should not matter. What matters is the stability of the state, and the freedom and prosperity of the people.

Good governance and responsible policies, many stipulated by foreign institutions, will help gain this sovereignty for states, as they no longer need to fear competing with rebels and terrorists. It will also make the sovereignty meaningful, as the people benefit.

Fundamentally, sovereignty and human rights can and should ideally co-exist. However, human rights should always trump sovereignty. The comfort of an elite is no ideal. A country’s success should be measured by the freedom and prosperity of its people, no matter if it is 100% independent or heavily influenced by a foreign power.

Nicholas is a co-founder and Marketing and Technical Director at the Rational Standard. He is a Council Member of the Institute for Race Relations as well as the Regional Coordinator for African Students For Liberty. Nicholas has written two science fiction novels. He is currently studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Cape Town.