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Ivory Coast, Libya highlight growing rift between Africa and the West

Many African leaders share China's viewpoint that national sovereignty is more important than human rights and democracy.

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Not only was UN action unwanted in Ivory Coast, it was also undermining AU efforts at mediation in Libya, Mr. Obiang said.

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"I believe that the problems in Libya should be resolved in an internal fashion and not through an intervention that could appear to resemble an humanitarian intervention," Obiang said. "We have already seen this in Iraq.”

Colonialism looms large

Yet the larger debate between democracy on one hand and nationalism on the other is an old one, Mr. Mbembe says, dating to the colonial period, when Africans were fighting for self-determination.

“Africans wanted elections, but they also wanted to be free from foreign intervention,” he says. Freedom movements combined both of these two goals into a larger project to push out Western colonial powers. But once the colonial powers left, the liberal goal of democratic freedom gave way as newly formed African governments adopted an authoritarian style.

This authoritarian style has lasted until today, through strongmen Presidents such as Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Angola’s Eduardo Dos Santos, and Gabon’s Ali Bongo.

At a time when foreign investment is flooding into Africa – particularly from China, India, and Russia, but also from Britain, France, and the US – this authoritarian style, mixed with a touch of populist nationalism, can sometimes ring warning bells, as when South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) contemplates new rules to limit press freedom, and when ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema recently called for nationalization of all the country’s privately operated mines.

The power of nationalism

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