Book review: “Africa, Partner of Atlantic Brazil” by José Flávio Sombra Saraiva


CAPA AfricaParceria

Original title: "África parceira do Brasil atlântico" (Portuguese)

Brazil’s presence in Africa is growing– nothing symbolizes this reality better than the 37 Brazilian embassies that now exist across the continent, providing Brazil with a stronger diplomatic representation than traditional powers such as Great Britain. Yet what is Brazil’s Africa strategy, and what are its interests? Are we witnessing an intense yet unsustainable rapprochement (as seen before), or is this just the beginning of a long-lasting and ever closer cooperation?

José Flávio Sombra Saraiva, Professor of International Relations at the University of Brasília, published his first book on African affairs in 1978. He is one of the few Africa experts in Brazilian academia, and this book is thus a most welcome contribution as Brazil’s recent role in Africa remains understudied and misunderstood.

After Brazil and the African continent were separated from each other millions of years ago, it was the slave trade from the 16th century until the late 19th century that marked Brazil – Africa relations. More African slaves were brought to Brazil than to other any country in the Hemisphere, including the United States, creating irreversible and profound cultural ties between the two. Yet in the first half of the 20th century, “silence reigned over the South Atlantic”, as Saraiva puts it, as both Africa and Brazil looked north towards Europe and the United States respectively.

Brazilian elites sought to minimize the role blacks played in Brazil’s national identity, and topics related to Africa were removed from the curriculum in Brazil’s schools. As the struggle for decolonization intensified after World War II, Brazil (under Kubitschek) refrained from actively supporting independence movements, principally because it sought the help of industrialized nations to develop economically, and it because “it was reluctant to offend” Portugal, a colonial power in Africa. Saraiva’s book provides fascinating details about this controversial period – for example, Brazil’s Ambassador to Portugal from 1957 to 1959, Álvaro Lins, was soon called back to Brazil because he called on the Brazilian government to support African nations’ struggle for independence.

Yet, after many African nations gained independence in the late 1950s and early 60s, Brazil’s President Jânio Quadros took the first steps towards establishing stronger ties with them. Quadros sent Raymundo de Souza Dantas, a black Brazilian journalist to head the embassy in Accra. Dantas was the first black Ambassador in Brazil’s history, yet he called his 2-year stint in Ghana “traumatic and painful” and soon returned to Brazil, complaining that the government had not provided him with the necessary infrastructure to do his job properly. Ghana and Senegal soon opened embassies in Brazil, the first ones in Latin America. President Quadros also invited the Senegalese head of state Leopold Senghor to Brazil, who was paradoxically received in 1964 not by Quadros but by General Castelo Branco, who had deposed Quadros’ successor Goulart in a military coup six months earlier. Castelo Branco saw Africa mostly in the context of the threat of communism, but otherwise cared little about Africa.

In the early 1970s, Brazil-Africa relations again received a boost, Brazilian investments in countries such as Angola surged, and the number of Brazilian embassies across Africa reached 16. In 1972, Brazil’s foreign mininister Gibson Barboza visited nine countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 1975, Brazil recognized the independence of Angola, thus ending the traditional alignment with Portugal. The oil shocks caused Brazil to turn to Nigeria and Angola as potential oil suppliers. Despite the advances, it took until 1983 for President Figueiredo to become the first Brazilian head of state to visit Sub-Saharan Africa. Interestingly enough, Nigeria had by then overtaken South Africa as Brazil’s principal trading partner, largely because of Nigerian oil exports.

Yet once again the activism proved unsustainable, and Brazil-Africa relations went into hibernation in the 1990s. President Collor put a clear focus on strengthening ties with the United States. President Cardoso’s Foreign Minister Lampreia did not regard Africa as a priority in the post-Cold War scenario. While trade with Africa had made up 10% in the 1980s, it came down to 2% of Brazil’s overall trade in the 1990s.

It was President Lula who early on in his first term identified Africa as a priority in Brazil’s effort to diversify its partnerships. Notably, his motivations had both idealist and realist elements. Lula pointed to Brazil’s ‘historic debt’ to Africa, saw cultural ties and sought to strengthen South-South relations in general to balance what he saw as overly powerful established powers. At the same time, he recognized that Africa’s markets offered great potential for Brazilian companies. Saraiva also argues that Brazil “is turning into a speaker of African interests in the international system”, yet this seems rather aspirational as Brazil’s interests increasingly diverge from those of small developing countries.

The author is full of praise for the Lula administration’s decision to reengage Africa, and the effects are indeed notable: There are now more African embassies in Brasília (34) than in any other capital in the Western Hemisphere except Washington, D.C. Trade has increased to US$ 20 billion, climbing back to 6% of overall trade, and this share is expected to grow further. There is little doubt today that no emerging power can afford not to invest in Africa, one of the world economy’s last frontiers.

It would have been interesting, however, to hear Saraiva’s point of view regarding the challenges Brazil faces when dealing with Africa. For example, the fact that race remains a potent marker of socioeconomic status in Brazil may also undermine attempts to forge stronger ties with African nations. Visiting delegations from Nigeria or South Africa are frequently baffled to see that very few blacks form part of Brazil’s elites, contrasting Brazil’s image as a society where race plays no role.

In addition, the way Africans see Brazil will inevitably change as Brazil's economic presence in Africa grows. While its presence is still much smaller than that of India or China, Brazil must be careful to avoid some of the mistakes made by China, which runs the risk of facing a regional backlash. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Brazilians are well-liked across Africa. Now the challenge is to assure that even despite ever greater investments, such as Vale's recently signed US$ 1 billion deal to build a railway in Malawi to transport coal from Mozambique, Brazil will continue to be seen as a partner, and not a new colonizer who merely seeks to exploit Africa's resources.

Finally, Brazil is acquiring the military capacity (several nuclear submarines) to increasingly control the South Atlantic, yet it remains unclear how exactly Brazil seeks to employ this new-found strength. Security specialists both in the United States and in Southern Africa wonder whether Brazil is to design a South-Atlantic Security Space akin to NATO and what the geopolitical implications of such a move would be. No matter what Brazil will decide, Brazil-Africa relations will be deeply affected.

Read also:

New book chapter: BRICS and the Bridge to Brazil

Why Africa matters to Brazil

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O Brasil na África: uma ponte sobre o Atlântico?