At any given moment in the global political order power is distributed in a way and manner that favours certain states more than others. Now such states are usually dominant enough to assign their own values to the international political system which has been described as amorphous. So the nature of the distribution of power in the system determines the type
of polarity prevailing at any given moment. Four types of polarities have been identified by scholars namely, unipolarity, bipolarity, tripolarity and multipolarity . A shift from one kind of polarity to the other signals a re-arrangement of the global power system hence a new world order ensues.
What is of import here though is how the global power structure affects Africa which so far has never been a factor in the distribution of systemic power. It is indeed worth noting that, the absence of Africa from the politics of power does not preclude the continent from its effects. During the peak of the cold war, the United States of America and the Soviet Union were identified as the two major powers in the world with most states falling under the influence of one of these two major powers. The world was therefore, disposed to a bipolar political system which has been described by certain scholars as the most stable type of polarity.
Of course, such views are elucidated without much regard for the African
continent. The cold war may have ensured stability between the two main axis of power in the international system due to the balance of power situation between the two and the so-called MAD theory which basically stipulated that the guarantee of mutually assured destruction in case of a nuclear war for instance prevented the world from degenerating into a full scale war.
The conflicts between the two were however played out in smaller states many of them situated in Africa such as Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, where communist and capitalist ideologies were competing for national prominence. The cold war saw a massive explosion in intra state warfare for this reason. Even the violent removal of political icons such as Kwame Nkrumah from power has been attributed to the excesses of cold war politics.
Similarly, it is the contention of some scholars that a unipolar global system is relatively unstable where the last remaining super state is able to influence and dominate the rest of the world with its political values, cultural beliefs and military as well as economic might.
Again viewing the experience from the perspective of the African continent, it can be said that the unipolarity witnessed after the collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the sole custodian of international power and even though this may have resulted in the September 11 attacks of New York and Washington because the smaller entities were challenging the supremacy of the last global power as well as the ensuing conflicts in
Afghanistan and Iraq, the African continent witnessed intra state stability in many countries that were hitherto war torn. The spread of democracy and the embrace of multi party politics became widespread even if the implementation was problematic in some countries.
This was in part due to the uniformity in global political values engineered by the dominance of the United States. Countries seeking favour from the international community for development needed to subscribe to the values of the last remaining super power before they got the global attention they were seeking. African states such as Ghana democratized in part because of the demands and conditions of the International Finance Institutions (IFI).
All across the continent there is a deliberate mandate for democratization even if elections are perpetually rigged and the will of the people is subverted by the political greed of their leaders. Democracies are however emerging in Africa and the situation at the moment appears to favour a respect for Human Rights, and the Rule of Law within most countries.
These tenets of governance are even enshrined in the mandate of the African Union and continental initiatives such as the African Peer Review Mechanism were designed to advance these mandates in all African countries.
The stability of the continent may however once again come under threat with the emergence of new powers in Asia especially where there appears to be a varying kind of paradigm for governance. China’s economic pre-eminence and its ability to supplant Japan recently as the second most advanced economy in the world may usher in a new era of global power distribution. The shift means that there may be a new world order at hand and the question is how will it affect Africa? Is the new form of polarity been visited upon the world going to garner further political instability for the continent? China’s human rights record continues to be the subject of international scrutiny and examination.
China’s refusal to adhere to the tenets of democratic rule means that, unlike the IFIs they are willing to extend developmental assistance to countries such as Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other states with questionable democratic credentials and a dodgy human rights record. This means that, China may now actually be willing to have a foreign policy that bankrolls dictators and political autocrats on the continent who are willing to give them limitless access to their country’s natural resources.
What will the emergence of a new power with different political values mean to Africa? Are we going back to the days of the cold war when the Soviets and the Americans played out their interests on the continent resulting in civil wars and coup d’états that impoverished Africa and its people? We have already seen how bipolar politics in the world divided
countries like Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia. All have stabilized since the end of the cold war.
The way forward for Africa and its people seems to lie in complete independence from the axis of power dominating the world at any given moment. The notion that similarities in traditional values for instance with Asia would mean more favourable bilateral dealings with emerging powers from that part of the world is incorrect. The cardinal feature of international politics is a never ending quest for power in order to advance self serving
national interests. The paradigm of exploitation that defined Africa’s relations with the west will not be given a rest in a new world order where the continent’s developmental partners appear to be changing.