As African countries are ranked poorly in the Brand Finance’s “Global Soft Power Index 2021”, we share a chapter by Oluwaseun Tella from his latest book to empower us all on the value of using our soft power as a foreign policy arsenal.

Soft power is not often associated with Africa. This stems from the negative images, from diseases to war, terrorism, poverty, and crime that have char­ acterised perceptions of the continent, creating the impression that Africa lacks agency. However, there are positive images coming out of Africa and the fact that these remarkable aspects of the continent are ignored or under-reported by global media does not imply that they do not exist. It is equally germane to note that the world is recognising this reality, as perceptions of Africa as a backward continent are increasingly being challenged. It is within this context that one can understand the notion of “Africa Rising”, the successful 2010 FIFA World Cup hosted by South Africa, Pretoria’s liberal constitution (considered as one of the most progressive in the world), Nigeria’s Nollywood (the second largest movie industry in the world), Kenya’s success in athletics, Egypt’s status as the cradle of civilisation, and Rwanda’s status as the world champion of gender equality.

The notion of “Africa Rising” was popularised by The Economist in 2011, 11 years after the same publication labelled Africa “the hopeless continent”. This change of heart was largely due to high economic growth rates and remarkable economic performance across the continent. While doubt has been cast on this narrative recently (particularly since 2015) due to the poor economic performance of the regional powers, especially Nigeria and South Africa, it remains relevant as African countries dominated the top ten fastest growing economies prior to the emergence of COVID-19, with Rwanda being the fastest growing, achieving a 7.7 per cent growth rate. This dictates that Africa remains the future of the global economy and provides a model for economic growth. It is no wonder that the twenty-first century has been characterised by renewed interest in the continent, generating what some have described as a new or second “scramble for Africa”.

Africa has indeed developed agency around the notion of African solutions to African challenges, which finds practical expression in the AU’s Agenda 2063 – a normative and strategic framework that seeks to ignite Africa’s growth and development and position the continent as a global force. Indeed, Africa has exercised soft power and provided models for the world on many levels. In terms of good governance, with more than 60 per cent female representation in par­ liament, Rwanda provides a model in the area of gender equality, while South Africa’s constitution offers a template for constitutionalism.

The global popularity of African cultural exports, including films, music, lit­ erature, and fashion, is increasing. African literary icons like Nigerian Wole Soyinka, Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, and South African John Maxwell Coetzee have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Popular African music artists in the diaspora, especially Senegalese Akon and Nigerian Jidenna, have identified with their ancestral roots in their lyrics and dress codes. Top African artists such as Davido, Wizkid, DJ Maphorisa, AKA, and Diamond have collaborated with top American artists including Drake, Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, Beyoncé, Ne-Yo, Meek Mill, and Rick Ross. African fashion has also taken the world by storm, with Western designers like Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent, and Paul Smith drawing inspiration from African designs and prints; and top celebrities and influential figures such as Michelle Obama, Beyoncé Knowles, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Kim Kardashian, Gwen Stefani, and Nicki Minaj wearing them.

It is against this backdrop that this book assessed Africa’s soft power capacity by drawing attention to how the regional powers on the continent – Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, and Egypt – have exercised their soft power to achieve their set goals. Like other states around the world, these countries confront sev­ eral challenges in the exercise of their soft power. However, they all wield their soft power derived from diverse sources to varying degrees.

Given that the concept of soft power was developed by an American Political Scientist, Joseph Nye, it is no surprise that his conceptualisation of the term is biased toward the United States’ political system, domestic politics, and foreign policy. Hence, the immediate task of this book was to de-Americanise and Afri­ canise the concept. In de-Americanising the term, the book drew attention to the soft power resources of non-Western states, specifically the BRIC countries. As I argued, the media has been a fundamental instrument in showcasing the narra­ tives of these states. Media outlets including Qatar’s Al Jazeera, Russia’s Russia Today, China’s CGTN, and India’s NDTV have been critical in challenging the stances taken by the Western media, especially CNN’s, the BBC’s, and France 24’s positions on global issues. Non-Western media organisations have also been vocal in representing the voice of the South and being critical of the Western media’s often un-analytical portrayal of the global South. This has improved the image of the Southern countries and provided the fillip for states like Russia, China, and India to exercise their soft power.

Beyond the major sources of soft power identified by Nye, China’s power of attraction includes trade, the state’s role in international organisations, and aid and investment, as well as an alternative development model (the Beijing Con­ sensus). Russia draws its soft power from its sovereign democracy (as an alter­ native to liberal democracy), natural resources, especially oil and gas, and language (Russian is the dominant language in the CIS states). India’s soft power is derived from its large diaspora, historical links with states such as Iran, South Africa, and South East Asian states, Buddhism, and yoga. Brazil’s pacifist tradi­ tion, success in football tournaments, and the influence of its soccer players are germane in this regard. It is thus clear that these states, whose domestic contexts differ from those of the West, derive some of their soft power from sources that are not identified by Nye. In the African context, which is the focus of this book, African philosophies exemplified by Nigeria’s Omolúwàbí, South Africa’s Ubuntu, Kenya’s Harambee, and Egypt’s Pharaonism fit this context.

The Omolúwàbí (the epitome of good character) philosophy presents a potential soft power resource for Nigeria. Were it to be imbibed across the globe, it could transform domestic socio-economic circumstances and political behaviour, as well as international relations in such a way that individuals and states let go of indi­ vidual, narrow interests in favour of collective goods. Coupled with its strong emphasis on morality, Omolúwàbí contrasts the realist paradigm that emphasises narrow interests and disregards morality. Nigeria’s most obvious soft power is arguably Nollywood, which has taken the world by storm, evident in its out­ stripping Hollywood as the second largest producer of movies, its displacement of Hollywood, Bollywood, and producers across Africa in terms of local content, and its reach in Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas and to a lesser extent some parts of Europe. Nollywood has thus made inroads in challenging the negative stereotypes that Nigerians are associated with including corruption, terrorism, Internet scams, and human and drug trafficking; and has made many Nigerian celebrities famous across the globe. Beyond its entertainment value, it serves as a veritable tool to promote Nigeria’s foreign policy of economic, cultural, and citi­ zen diplomacy. However, it still needs to do more in providing a counter narra­ tive to anti-Nigerian sentiment across the globe that has resulted in the imprisonment, deportation, and killing of Nigerians.

Abuja has also exercised soft power in the area of democracy promotion in states such as Sierra Leone, São Tomé and Príncipe, the Gambia, Togo, and Liberia. Although the country was successful in these cases, it lacks moral authority to promote democracy in light of its domestic democracy deficit. Nigeria projects the image of a peacemaker on the continent due to peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts such as in Liberia and Sierra Leone. However, its struggle against a domestic uprising in the form of Boko Haram has challenged its military capacity and its image as a peacemaker in Africa. Other sources of Nigeria’s soft power include its aid and multilateralism. Despite this soft power reservoir, Nigeria remains a potential soft power state as there is a wide gap between its soft power resources and actual influence.

South Africa is arguably the quintessential soft power state on the continent. Its philosophy of Ubuntu encapsulates community as opposed to individualism, as well as humanness, dignity, harmony, caring, and forgiveness. These are clearly important attributes in a “post-truth” world order increasingly characterised by immorality. In its engagement with the world, South Africa has sought to pro­ mote the philosophy and principles of Ubuntu that characterised its celebrated political transition. Its liberal constitution is another important source of Pre­ toria’s soft power as it has received global accolades and provides an important template for other states in relation to constitutionalism. South Africa also boasts of charismatic political leaders. The larger than life character of Nelson Mandela was a significant soft power booster, evident in his global influence and recogni­ tion as a symbol of emancipation and reconciliation. Others influences, such as those of Steve Biko and Thabo Mbeki, are also notable. While Biko was and remains associated with Black Consciousness, Mbeki symbolises African Renaissance.

Like Nigeria, South Africa is a major peacemaker on the continent, evident in its missions in conflict zones such as Burundi, the DRC, the CAR, and Zim­ babwe. Its identity as an African representative finds practical expression in its role as Africa’s sole member of BRICS, IBSA, and the G20. South Africa is the most important player in its sub-regional organisations including SADC and the SACU. Pretoria is the pathfinder of APRM and NEPAD and a major player in the AU. Beyond the continent, South Africa has played important roles in the UN, the 1995 extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the 1997 Ottawa Process on the banning of land mines, and the 1998 adoption of the Rome Statute. However, its soft power has declined, particularly since the Zuma administration. This is the result of domestic constraints including: high levels of inequality, poverty, and unemployment; incessant service delivery protests, and political corruption. The contradictions of xenophobia and double standards on human rights are equally germane in this regard.

Egypt’s Pharaonism presents a philosophy that challenges false Western descriptions of the country’s past by highlighting the success of Egypt’s ancient civilisation and the state’s exceptionalism vis-à-vis other Middle Eastern and Arab states. This philosophy is critical in portraying Egypt in a positive light, thereby reinforcing its soft power. Egypt’s Pan-Arabism was and remains the dominant version in the region despite Cairo’s decline and the rise of states such as Turkey and Iran to regional powerhood. Until the Arab Spring, which led to the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011, Egypt was the most sig­ nificant state in relation to the stability of the Middle East particularly with regard to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Mohammed Salah and other key Egyptian entertainment artists continue to display celebrity diplomacy by pro­ moting Islam abroad. Cairo and Alexandria are entertainment hubs, and Egyp­ tian movies and music are the dominant entertainment in the region. This enhances Egypt’s cultural and economic diplomacy. Egypt’s soft power has, however, been undermined by political instability and the economic challenges that the country has witnessed in the post-Arab Spring period, resulting in the decline of the state’s geo-political influence.

Kenya’s Harambee, which encourages communal mobilisation of resources through self-help systems to achieve common goals, serves as a potential soft power resource. In an era characterised by increasing over-reliance on govern­ ment for the provision of public goods, the Harambee philosophy provides an alternative method, particularly given declining government revenue across the globe and the incapacity of many states to provide essential services. The success of Kenyan athletes and the tourist attractions across the country that draw tour­ ists from around the world each year are two key sources of Nairobi’s soft power. The display of the country’s flag and singing of its national anthem each time an athlete wins a medal in international tournaments provide instant global visibility for the country. Tourist sites such as the Nairobi National Park and Mount Kenya, and cultural festivals like the Rusinga Cultural Festival and Maralal Camel Derby enhance the country’s cultural and economic diplomacy and contribute significantly to national income.

Kenya’s efforts towards regional organisation in its sub-region are born out of the fact that it has the largest seaport in East Africa (Mombasa) and is strategi­ cally located as a point of access to contiguous neighbours like Burundi, the DRC, Rwanda, South Sudan, and Uganda. Nairobi therefore takes the EAC seriously as it provides an avenue to promote its economic diplomacy in the sub­ region where it is the largest economy. This translates to exercising soft power. Nevertheless, there are several obstacles to Kenya’s soft power including political corruption, ethnicity, perpetual electoral violence, and the tussle with the ICC.

Despite ubiquitous anti-African sentiment, this book has shown that African states have impressive soft power sources. While some are well developed, others remain potential resources. The extent to which Africa will be able to counteract global Afrophobia will depend on the degree to which the regional powers of Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, and Egypt and other key states like Angola, Ethiopia, Morocco, and Algeria, are able to harness their soft power capabilities to shape global perceptions of the continent.


This is an extract from Dr Oluwaseun Tella’s recently published book, “Africa’s Soft Power: Philosophies, political Values, Foreign Policies and Cultural Exports”. He is the Director: The Future Diplomacy, at the Institute for the Future of Knowledge at the University of Johannesburg. We highly recommend this book.