Will Canada’s Trudeau Be The Anti-Trump When It Comes To African Engagement?

Written by Dana Sanchez

Canada’s renewed commitment to Africa seems strategically timed to coincide with uncertainty about the future of U.S. commitment on the continent.

U.S.-Africa engagement was championed by President Barack Obama, but now depends on the whims of president elect Donald Trump, who has tweeted almost nothing on the subject.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has just returned from his first trip to Africa as head of state. He visited Liberia, where he unveiled a host of spending initiatives, and Madagascar, where he attended a summit of La Francophonie, a global community of French-speaking people.

Stepping up Canadian engagement, including a United Nations peacekeeping mission to Africa, can set an example that Trump might want to follow, said Michaelle Jean, secretary-general of La Francophonie said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“I think Canada as a sovereign country has a very strong voice and we all realize and we can see how Canada wants its voice to be heard again,” she said. “I’m hoping that actually maybe the new president of the U.S. will see this as an example with its closest neighbor and will be hopefully inspired by our position — Canada’s position — in the world.”

Trudeau’s spending initiatives in Africa include support for promoting African gender equality, according to Global News:

– $10 million over five years, beginning this year, to support the activities of U.N. Women in West Africa.

– $1.5 million this year to a U.N.-backed financing-acceleration instrument meant to enhance the engagement of women in peace and security.

– $1 million to support the U.N. Development Program for the 2017 Liberian election, including encouraging the participation of more women in politics.

Trudeau said he chose to visit Liberia in part because of the leadership of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her role in securing and maintaining peace following civil war.

This dovetails nicely with a decision by the Trudeau government to put gender equity and the female empowerment at the heart of its international development strategy, Global News reported.

“We have to pierce through the perception that women’s issues are only for women to talk about and to fight about,” Trudeau said. He encouraged men to help improve the lives of women and girls for the greater good.

Canada is sponsoring a joint U.N. resolution with Benin against early and forced marriages, Canadian Press reported.

Freedom of speech was one issue absent from the agenda on Trudeau’s trip, according to Rodney D. Sieh, editor and publisher of FrontPage Africa, a leading Liberian print and online newspaper. Sieh is a 2016 fellow at Massey College and the University of Toronto.

Both countries Trudeau visited have had issues with press freedom, specifically the criminalization of speech and defamation.

In 2013, Sieh and his newspaper were sued for criminal libel for publishing the results of an independent audit that found $6 million of ministerial funds unaccounted for that year. The minister responsible was dismissed but never prosecuted.

“My newspaper was shut down for three months during my incarceration and ordeal,” Sieh said in a guest column in The Star.

In Madagascar, Trudeau’s second African stop, defamation is a criminal offense. In 2014, two journalists from the daily Madagascar Matin were arrested on charges of libel and press offenses for publishing a letter alleging government involvement in a trafficking case.

The Madagascar parliament adopted a cybercrime law with up to five years in prison for defaming state officials online, raising reasonable fears about the suppression of dissent online, Sieh said.

Canada needs to take a closer look at the implications for free speech while engaging countries like Liberia and Madagascar, he said, according to The Star:

A free press is crucial in holding governments like those in Liberia and Madagascar to account. My struggle for press freedoms has been bolstered by the help of our media development partners, the Canadian-based Journalists for Human Rights and U.S.-based New Narratives. Their support has helped newspapers like ours to flourish under extremely difficult conditions.

We have been able to tell heart-wrenching stories that were fundamental to Liberia’s post-war development. Stories about prostitution; stories about communities living on the fringes of underdevelopment; stories of poor sanitation and poverty; and especially, stories about human rights.

“Our ability to tell these stories is also important to Canadian interests. Over the past few years, Canada has generously provided millions in aid to Liberia.

Without journalists able to track the use of aid money, it can be hard for donor agencies to ensure funding gets where it is supposed to go. Equally important is the role governments can play in easing conditions for journalists like me. Archaic laws still lingering on the books in Liberia, Madagascar, Canada and elsewhere are bad for thriving democracies and should become a priority for Canada as it pursues its exciting new course in global engagement.