Skip to main content

In Trudeau government’s Africa strategy, the continent does not come first

Many world leaders were quick to congratulate South Africa’s new corruption-fighting leader when he took office in mid-February. Within days, President Cyril Ramaphosa had received phone calls from British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and others.

More than a month later, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had still not spoken to Mr. Ramaphosa. A mere scheduling problem, federal officials say. But critics say it is typical of Canada’s continuing ambivalence towards Africa – a tendency that has persisted through two governments over the past 12 years.

While other Western governments see Africa as a key region with economic potential and strategic value, the Trudeau government has shown little interest in the African continent, despite its election rhetoric about reviving Canada’s traditional peacekeeping role.

Story continues below advertisement

After announcing its intention to send up to 600 peacekeeping troops on an expected Africa mission as part of its commitment to peacekeeping, the government has now scaled back the plan to just six helicopters and an unspecified number of support personnel for a vaguely defined period. In aid and diplomacy, it has followed the modest path of the previous Stephen Harper government, with no substantial increase in global development assistance in real terms.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canadian troops involved in a UN peacekeeping mission in Mali will be well equipped and receive all necessary training. The Canadian Press

It is understandable, of course, that the Trudeau government would be preoccupied with its trade issues with the United States and its security interests in Europe. But analysts say it is missing opportunities in Africa.

It has failed to reopen the diplomatic missions in Africa that were shuttered in the Harper years, and it has failed to send its top leaders on African visits, aside from a short three-country tour by former foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion in 2016 and a brief stopover in Liberia by Mr. Trudeau on his way to the Francophonie summit in Madagascar in the same year.

“Trudeau appears to have good intentions … but he has yet to transcend the constraints of the past,” said Edward Akuffo, a political scientist and Africa expert at the University of the Fraser Valley and author of a book on Canadian foreign policy in Africa.

“Trudeau is not very different from Harper in terms of their foreign policy strategy in Africa. We are squandering our goodwill so fast, and we seem not to be bothered, in spite of the growing strategic importance of Africa to the global economy.”

South Africa is a glaring example of Mr. Trudeau’s apparent lack of interest in the key African countries. Although it is the most industrialized country on the continent and, like Canada, a member of the G20 bloc of countries, South Africa has been largely ignored by Mr. Trudeau. The arrival of Mr. Ramaphosa, with his business-friendly pro-reform agenda, has galvanized international optimism about South Africa’s economic prospects, but Mr. Trudeau has lagged behind other leaders in cultivating relations with the new president.

This month, the death of anti-apartheid icon Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has sparked a huge outpouring of grief in South Africa, including 10 days of national mourning and a state funeral. But while a British Minister of State was expressing her sympathy to South Africa for the death, Mr. Trudeau left it to his local diplomat, the Canadian High Commissioner in South Africa, to give condolences.

Story continues below advertisement

Foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland, who has not visited Africa during her 15 months in office, finally dispatched her parliamentary secretary, Matt DeCourcey, on a nine-day visit to South Africa and three other African countries this month. But when asked if the parliamentary secretary would attend any of the official memorials for Ms. Madikizela-Mandela in South Africa during his visit, the Global Affairs Department did not respond to repeated queries from The Globe and Mail over a period of several days.

“What is striking about Trudeau’s foreign policy toward Africa is how it really does not seem to be based on any strategy or consideration of the needs of the African continent,” said David Hornsby, a Canadian professor at University College London who has studied Canada-Africa relations.

“Africa still feels like an afterthought in the grand vision of Canada’s place in the world. Sadly, none of the Harper-era foreign mission closures have been reversed, and there doesn’t seem to be any thinking about how to use trans-societal links to build bridges. It very much feels like the status quo.”

Canada’s decision to send military helicopters to Mali is its most significant new Africa initiative in years. But many analysts were disappointed by the small size of the deployment in a country where Western help is badly needed.

After two years of delays and internal discussion, the Canadian announcement “seemed surprisingly rushed and politically timed,” according to Chris Roberts, a political scientist at the University of Calgary who specializes in African issues and peacekeeping.

“The lack of a wider strategy on Africa, with no direction coming from the centre plus resource and expertise gaps within the relevant departments, leaves open all sorts of political criticisms,” he said.

Story continues below advertisement

“And that pushes the government to aim for the lowest-cost and lowest-risk contribution that will at least minimally satisfy our allies as well as the government’s base support that wants to see Canada involved in peacekeeping again.”

Mr. Akuffo agrees. The Mali announcement was aimed at appeasing the Canadian public and the United Nations, but it was a “distraction” for the government, he said.

“Like previous governments, Trudeau has his sights largely on America and Europe. What the government needs is a comprehensive reassessment of our relations with Africa.”

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons or for abuse. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.