Public Diplomacy: Do African states know what it is?

Listening to western academics discussing how valuable public diplomacy is and how their governments invest millions in this practice, one wonders if their former colonies in Africa know what this is all about. Do African states practice public diplomacy or they are just recepients of the practice from powerful nations? Are the objectives and benefits of the practice understood by all or some states in the developing world of Africa?  In any case do African states have the capacity to as well as craftness to exercise public diplomacy and a story to tell to each other let alone those powerful nations beyond Africa’s territorial borders.Image result for African continent images

It is important to clarify that Africa is not a country but a continent which is nearly thrice as big as Europe, before exploring the subject topic of Africa and public diplomacy. The continent is often divided into two, Sub-Saharan Africa region occupied predominantly by Black people and the MENA region which is mainly resident to people of Arabic origins. That said, this discussion will focus mainly on Sub- Saharan Africa, with brief allusion to the MENA region of the continent. The analsyis for time and space will not cover all countries in the region but will identify a few which are opined to be leading Sub-Saharan African states such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal and a few others.

Defining what public diplomacy is would be a starting point before analysing the behaviours and actions by African states which fit into the known and accepted definition(s) of public diplomacy. Sharp’s definition of public diplomacy cited by Melissen 2005:11 as the ‘process by which direct relations with people in a country are pursued to advance the interests and extend the values or beliefs of those represented’, may sound plausible when analysing actions done by Africans residing in foreign lands as we shall see below. Hans Tuch, quoted by Melissen has a definition which puts emphasis on a ‘government’s process of communicating with foreign publics in an attempt to bring about understanding for its nation’s thoughts and ideals……….’. Whereas this definition may ring true among powerful nations such as Russia, China, the US and European states, it may not necessarily  be so with African states, some of which are struggling even with the ‘traditional’ form of diplomacy. It does appear that there is ignorance, lack of appreciation or of resources to engage in public diplomacy for countries whose economic and political existence is largely based on the benevolence of powerful states. These are states whose union the African Union’s budget is 70% foreign funded by non members, primarily the US, World Bank, China, European Commission even Turkey ( Within their ranks the major donors, South Africa and Nigeria are going through a challenging economic period, it is difficult to see them sustaining their financial support of the AU. But that is a digression.

Sharp in Melissen’s (2005:106) description of public diplomacy being an advancement of interests and extent of values………captures how a country like Ethiopia practices a form of public diplomacy known as ‘diaspora diplomacy’. This is probably the strongest form of public diplomacy which most African states have even though it may be as a result of unintended consequences such as war or famine. Ethiopia and Nigeria in particular have a huge number of their population living in the diaspora for various reasons. As economic migration increases, African diasporans who settle in western capitals and some such better nations will seek to maintain their cultural identity, exercise some of their beliefs and values in host countries, thereby inadvertently portray and share an image of their country, otherwise unknown to the host public. In addition as their community grows such as is the case with the Sierra Leonean, Nigerian and South African communities in the UK, they begin to influence the host governments and public’s policies towards their countries of origin. They may do this through direct engagement or through community activities which raise the profile of their countries both politically and economically.

The Winter publication of Public Diplomacy in Sub-Saharan Africa (2016) identifies the use of movies by Nigeria through their Nollywood film industry. Nigerian movies depicting their way of life, culture, values and beliefs are now widely broadcasted across African countries and western capitals such as London Sky TV channels. Further more countries such as the Congo have exported their rhumba music to capitals such as Paris and Brussels as well as other African states, thus providing a different perception of their country even though there is still a long way for the continent to be perceived as anything but a world ‘basket’ case of poverty and poor governance. Recently the world has began to witness African comedians such as Uganda’s Anne Kansiime and South Africa’s Trevor Noah practising publicy diplomacy for their states through comedy the US and European countries ( result for trevor noah shows in uk. Most African countries have been slow however to realise the benefits and support these activities as part of their diplomatic engagement with other countries, though some are now getting there. The question remains, however, have African states really embraced public diplomacy as a key component of their diplomatic services or their governments are still unappreciative of this nature of diplomacy?

The University of Southern California’s Centre on Public Diplomacy on March 10, 2017 published its view that African states are really embracing public diplomacy as a way of changing the economic, social and political perception of the continent with various initiatives. The hosting by South Africa of football’s world cup in 2010 was deemed as an act of public diplomacy through sport. This has not been lost to a country such as Senegal which according to Bret Schafer (2016) is now capitalising on their native Amadou Gallo Fall to attract the National Basket Association to host some of each matches in Dakar, with the country promoting and supporting its players to go and play in the US.  Of course the reverse may be true that the US for example may actually benefit more from acts such as this being the dominant country politically and economically. But that being said African states still stand to benefit somehow as populations in powerful states take to liking or loving these sports people. In England and some other football mad nations, one has to look at how African footballers have changed host nations people’s attitudes towards their countries of origin.

The point though is in most cases, there is no direct government link to this citizens public diplomacy be it sports or culture and most African states seem to lack the capacity to capitalise. It then falls into Sharp’s definition of public diplomacy, which does not emphasise government actions but rather an advancement of interests, values and beliefs by Africa’s diaspora population, which consequently ‘speaks’ to the populations in their domicile states to the benefit of their country of origin. Africans have also used religion as a form of public diplomacy to engage with those countries they feel would further their interests. For example over the last ten years many African countries have revived their diplomatic relations with Israel after years of avoiding so in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Both moslem countries such Algeria and predominantly christian countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria as well Ethiopia and South Africa, both have a huge population of Jews. These and others have used their belief that Israel ‘birthed’ christianity to access its markets and get its expertise to develop their nations. They have successfully courted Israel’s government and public thinking using their religious belief and zeal, which they are often derided for. Moslem countries in Africa have turned to Israel primarily to be helped fight terrorism as they regard Israel as an expert in combating terrorist acts. Of course when scrutinised further, Israel also needed friends at a time when western support for it is wavering or waning and a public charming of African countries presented a good opportunity ( result for nigerian diplomacy with israel

So what can be conclude as an answer to the question , does African countries know what public diplomacy is? Notwithstanding the fact most African governments may not be as much  knowledgeable of the practice or lack resources to do it at a scale done in the Western world, with dedicated TV news channels, government funded art, culture and film industries among other activities, African populations both in the diaspora and locally based do practice various forms of public diplomacy.


Schafer. B. (2016) Basket ball diplomacy in Africa;

Sharp. P. (2005). Revolutionary States, Outlaw Regimes and the Techniques of Public Diplomacy. Melissen.J. (2005) The New Public Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations



2 thoughts on “Public Diplomacy: Do African states know what it is?

  1. icantbelievethisusernamehasbeentaken April 27, 2017 / 1:48 pm

    Very interesting blog entry, I really enjoyed reading it ! I think you’ve given a fair and detailed account on the matter and I particularly enjoyed you dedicated some time to explain concepts such as ‘public diplomacy’ and acknowledge the focus of your blog (I’m referring to the Sub-Saharan and MENA distinction in particular). If I can give some constructive feedback, it seems to me that you’re suggesting African diplomacy has potential but lacks a strategy. I would have enjoyed some more information about that. You mentioned the South African world cup and the strengthening of relations with Israel, do you think African public diplomacy is making some good steps forward but is lacking consistency to benefit from it?

    Great read !


    • xavizava April 27, 2017 / 1:59 pm

      Thank you for your feedback. All your points are in principle correct. There is huge potential and if African countries would utilise all its diaspora resources in sport particularly then it would be somewhere. Look at Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes. African footballers everywhere in the world but not utilised as England did with Beckham etc. African countries must learn of turning certain situations such as Commonwealth countries events or summits to project a better image of their countries in the corridors of world powers but often they are too slow or lack consistency and coherence of what they want and where they want to be.

      Liked by 1 person

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