Geraldo Magela/Agência Senado

Brazil-Africa Relations during the Bolsonaro Presidency

Incoming Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, has been labeled by the global media as the South American version of President Donald Trump. One more reason to add to the list of resemblances between the two may be a potential disengagement with Africa once the Brazilian politician assumes the presidency in January.

How has the dream of former President Lula da Silva (2003-2011) for South-South cooperation soured? He was in power when the concept known as the BRICS was first coined by Jim O’Neill. This term evolved into an initiative in which Brazil joined the Russian Federation, India and China (South Africa joined later) to form a new bloc that would provide investment opportunities to emerging economies without some of the conditions that other donors such as the United States and the European Union often add. The leaders of these five states, including Brazilian President Michel Temer, most recently met in South Africa for their annual summit.

Alas, Bolsonaro’s interest in strengthening ties with the U.S. and Europe may put in jeopardy Brazil’s participation in the BRICS initiative, as well as Brasilia’s engagement with Africa.

Brazil and Africa have a long history, dating back to the era of slavery. As a 2016 report by the German Marshall Fund explains, “around 11 million black Africans were forcibly brought to the American continents during the slave trade period. Brazil received approximately 4 million, making it the country with the most slaves in the world.” Brazil opened embassies and consulates in various African states in the 1960s as Brasilia supported self-determination and the end of colonization.

When Lula came to power, he wanted to make Brazil a global leader, and he also encouraged South-South cooperation. At first it was the five Portuguese speaking countries (Sao Tome and Principe, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and Mozambique) that were the initial points of contact as Brasilia sought to step out onto the World State under the tenure of the Worker’s Party. Lula was also a frequent visitor to Africa: a 2010 BBC article about Lula’s final trip to Africa as head of state explains how he visited “27 African countries on 12 different occasions, more than all his predecessors combined.” But under the term of Dilma Rousseff the government considered closing some embassies in Africa.

As for what can we expect once Bolsonaro comes to power? A 26 October article in Quartz Africa suggests that, “if little is known about Bolsonaro’s views on foreign policy in relation to Africa, his running mate, General Hamilton Mourão, has been very clear. During a recent speech he criticised Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff’s South-South diplomacy claiming that it had resulted in costly association with “dirtbag scum” countries (African) that did not yield any ‘returns.’” Scholarships that help African Students travel to Brazil to study could also be in jeopardy. This is problematic, as a relatively cheap and very effective way to promote cultural ties is to have such exchanges take place at the educational level.

Nevertheless it is assumed that the military initiatives and commercial contracts between Brazil and some of its African contacts will continue. For example, in July, the Brazilian aerospace company EMBRAER and Sahara Africa Aviation “signed a multi-year Pool Program Agreement for spare parts and support covering more than 500 components for their two recently acquired Embraer ERJ 145 jets.” Similarly, Denel Dynamics of South Africa and Brazil’s Mectron, Avibras, and Opto Eletrônica are jointly developing the A-Darter short-range imaging infrared (IIR) air-to-air missile (AAM) system. In other words, there are valid and practical reasons for Brasilia to continue its engagement with Africa.

Moreover, there is the question of Brazilian participation in UN peace missions on the African continent, now that the UN mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH, in which Brazil had a prominent role, is over. For some time, there was the belief that the Temer presidency was going to deploy troops to the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), a crucial but struggling mission (the authors of this commentary published an article in IPD, titled “Brazil to Join UN Mission in Central African Republic, MINUSCA,” in December 2017 about that possibility) however this has yet to occur. Brazilian Air Force Colonel Alexandre Corrêa Lima has joined the international staff of the United Nations Integrated Multidimensional Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSMA, in French), arriving in early September, but no massive deployment has occurred.

There are plenty of questions about what can we expect once President Bolsonaro assumes power next year. The future of Brazil-Africa relations may not be at the top of anyone’s list of Brazilian foreign policy priorities right now, but given how Brazil’s history of South-South cooperation could abruptly come to an end in the near future, it should be.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the authors are associated.