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Uncovering Africa’s Soft Power

Michaela Gyasi-Agyei | Africa Fellow

African Renaissance Monument in Dakar. Image credit: Barke11 via Wikimedia Commons.

Africa Day and African World Heritage Day are celebrated in May each year, but often receive limited global attention. This is emblematic of the continent’s soft power, which is still largely unrecognised and underutilised. There is a significant amount of untapped potential within industries, organisations and individuals throughout Africa and the continent’s diaspora, as highlighted by The Africa Soft Power Summit. Leveraging Africa’s soft power could positively affect the international standing of African states, contribute to economic growth, and create numerous opportunities throughout the continent.

Soft power and its advantages

Soft power is best understood as a “country’s ability to influence others without resorting to coercive pressure”. Culture, political values, and foreign policy have been cited as the main pillars of soft power. Though soft power is difficult to quantify, estimates can be determined through measures such as the Global Soft Power Index.

Most African states have ranked low in soft power indexes, reflecting deep-rooted challenges. There are a range of myths and negative stereotypes associated with Africa, which has historically been viewed as a “dark continent” or even a nondescript country. External commentary tends to excessively fixate on regional poverty and fails to acknowledge the continent’s distinct cultures, and the unique situations of different countries and individual citizens. This in turn fosters interactions based predominantly on aid or extraction rather than trade and collaboration. Consequently, there are clear incentives for African states to grow their soft power, including fostering a greater international presence, and attracting investment.

Cultural capital

African states already possess a variety of cultural capital, which can play a key role in enhancing the continent’s soft power. Music is now considered one of Africa’s most significant cultural exports, with Afrobeats experiencing a notable global uptake. The African film industry, particularly Nollywood, has also made great strides. Elsewhere, UNESCO has highlighted progress in Africa’s fashion industry, spurred by the continent’s growing middle class. Finally, in the realm of sport, AFCON 2023 was the most widely viewed iteration of the tournament.

However, additional government support, local engagement and international exposure is required to allow Africa’s arts and entertainment sector to reach its full potential. Africa’s tourism industry should also be further developed to showcase the continent’s diverse cultures, histories, and natural landscapes. Such action should be taken both through a continental framework and individual national strategies. This dual approach would recognise commonalities while acknowledging diversity, and allowing African countries to showcase their distinct attractions and cultural symbols.

The African Union’s Agenda 2063 includes goals which could increase Africa’s soft power. As part of this agenda, the African Union (AU) has launched several projects, including building a Great African Museum. The AU has also previously drafted a Charter of African Cultural Renaissance (Charter). Article 12 of the Charter encourages states to hold events which will “build the capacity of the cultural sector”. In line with this, the AU could support and organise events similar to the Africa Soft Power Summit.

At a national level, African countries should provide further support to their local creative industries, enhance celebrations of culturally significant days, and further develop their tourism strategies. Moreover, African states which have not signed or ratified the Charter should do so. Taking such steps would increase Africa’s cultural influence, grow the continent’s tourism, and contribute to strengthening Africa’s soft power.

Parallel policies

In addition to initiatives within the cultural sector and tourism industry, there are a range of domestic and foreign policy issues which impact the soft power of African states. Challenges with economic and political stability and issues such as power outages in certain countries can discourage entrepreneurship, tourism, and investment. It is necessary for African governments and regional blocs to take concurrent action to address these factors.

It is also important for African states to approach diplomatic engagement in a way which prioritises the interests of their citizens, while developing mutually beneficial relationships with other states. Continued efforts to increase the representation of African countries in international forums play a significant role in developing the continent’s soft power. The improved international standing of African states may assist in various negotiations, including the permanent return of cultural artefacts. If successful, this reclamation could support initiatives such as the Great African Museum, exemplifying the flow-on benefits of enhancing individual aspects of soft power.

A bright future

With a median age of 19, one of Africa’s greatest assets is its young population, who have the potential to be drivers of culture and innovation. This is recognised by Article 13 of the Charter, which states that “The youth represent the majority of the African population. The key resources for contemporary creation reside in the youth”. Despite this, Africa has some of the oldest and longest-serving leaders in the world. Providing young citizens with greater access to leadership positions in both the public and private sectors is essential for increasing Africa’s soft power.

Another important resource for bolstering Africa’s soft power is the continent’s diaspora, who can act as a bridge between countries and cultures. Diaspora tourism can increase the visibility of African countries and boost national economies, as demonstrated by the “Year of Return” hosted by the Ghanaian government in 2019. A subsequent initiative known as “Beyond the Return” was introduced to further encourage the diaspora to economically engage with and invest in African states. Projects like this could create a range of opportunities, and mitigate certain negative consequences of Africa’s “brain drain”.

Africa has a diverse and creative population, and valuable cultural exports. The soft power of African states should be leveraged and recognised, for the benefit of citizens, national economies, and the continent as a whole. The time is now for Africa to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

Michaela Gyasi-Agyei is the Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She has a Bachelor of Economics/Laws (Honours) from the University of Queensland.


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