Published 21 January 2022.
As we turn the page on 2021 and look forward to 2022, there is much to take stock of. For many, the past two years have been turbulent not least due to COVID-19. The pandemic has affected each of us in unique ways.
With the loss of loved ones, the loss of economic opportunities and the loss of shared social experiences – it seems that ‘loss’ has been the hallmark of this period. One only needs to look at news reports throughout this period to understand the depth of its impact: economic recessions, elevated commodity prices and interrupted trade are just a few examples. However, our collective resilience in the face of adversity, our collaborative spirit rooted in empathy, and most of all, our ingenuity makes me hopeful. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “we must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope“.
I am pleased to say that the way the ALN family have navigated 2021 gives me much confidence for the future and hope for our continued growth and lasting success. However, the exponential rate and scale of change require us to have steady hands and agile minds if we are to successfully navigate emerging challenges.
Before I turn to our organisation and the legal market, it might be helpful if I sketch in broad strokes some major forces at work on the global stage, which provide important context to Africa’s trajectory and the work we do. In my view, the world has not, at least in modern times, seen the current scale of both geopolitical upheaval and technological innovation occurring simultaneously.
i. The new world order
Since 1990 and until quite recently, the global geopolitical architecture was built fundamentally on a uni-polar basis, with the USA being the world’s only superpower prepared and willing to project its power and its “rule book” of “acceptable” behaviour globally. In the African context, this “muscular” US position was a key factor in driving the democratic revolution experienced across the continent since the early 1990s: the so-called “second liberation”.
Beginning with the Obama Administration but accelerated during the Trump and Biden Administrations, the USA has increasingly withdrawn from the world stage. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is the latest example of this reluctance. Whilst the world order between the Second World War and 1990 has been described as bi-polar, with the USSR and the USA being the dominant world powers, this was only true militarily and not economically. The difference now is that China is both a rising military power and a rising economic power and it is increasingly willing to project both its military and economic might globally.
History teaches us that, when a rising economic and military power confronts the incumbent dominant economic and military power, it is inevitable that there will be confrontations and tension, possibly even war and conflict (often through proxies).
At our very doorstep, one only needs to look at Ethiopia to understand how such tensions can play out and how changes in global architecture can have consequences close to home. To view the Ethiopian conflict solely through the lens of a domestic ethnic issue is to ignore the super-power proxy battles that lie at the core of the difficulties.
Before the 1990s, there was little focus on the quality of governance and respect for civil liberties and human rights as part of the foreign policy agenda. Global powers were looking for reliable client states and this invariably meant “strong men”. However, the USA’s increasingly insular position combined with the emergence of China, Russia, and perhaps even India who have less than a stellar reputation when it comes to individual liberties and the rule of law, will have a direct impact on the governance of emerging economies including, and perhaps especially, in Africa. Kenya, Tanzania and other States within the continent are at risk of a return to those times. We have already witnessed the return of the coup – in Guinea, Mali, Chad, and Sudan. Largely, the African Union and the global international community have stood by, passively. Tanzania, on its part, has only begun to reverse the sharp claw back of civil liberties experienced during the Presidency of John Magufuli.
Our role as lawyers is now more crucial than ever. We need to fight for our hard-won Constitutional rights, advocate for civil liberties and human rights and to call out corruption whenever we see it.
In truth, our fight is easier than it was for our predecessors in the 1980s: we are better educated, more literate, more inclusive especially of women, we have social media tools at our disposal and our economies are more integrated into the global economy. However, let us not say in years to come, to quote Byron “Of all the horrid, hideous notes of woe, Sadder than owl-songs or the midnight boast, is that portentous phrase, “I told you so”.
At ALN, we already have great examples of how our advocacy has spoken truth to power, whether when fighting for the interests of fee-paying or pro bono clients. The time to multiply those efforts is now.
We at ALN are deeply proud of our continued commitment to enhancing the rule of law through our work with our valued clients (most especially our pro bono clients), and through the ALN Academy.
Rooted locally and with a wide regional and global reach, I am confident in our ability to influence positive change.
ii. Multilateral organisations and global challenges
Let me turn to the second major geopolitical challenge. After the Second World War, a multilateral framework was put in place and the organisations we know of today such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were created to deal with challenges that the world believed needed multilateral cooperation. However, the nature of the challenges facing the world today has drastically changed, calling into question the suitability of the existing multilateral frameworks. Some of our greatest challenges include, climate change, the re-ordering of the world super-power balance (as discussed) and the impact of artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics on the future of work.
Take climate change, for example. It is obvious that our multilateral responses have been inadequate, and time is running out. The re-shaping of multi-lateral organisations take time and often occur, sadly, only following a cataclysmic event. So, we should not expect the world’s global architecture to get its act together anytime soon. This, however, should not discourage us from effecting the necessary changes individually to the various things over which we have agency.
From our diet to our modes of transportation, to the organisations we support monetarily or through volunteerism, we possess the potential to have a small but taken collectively material impact on our immediate environment.
While this may not be the systemic change we want, it would certainly be a catalyst for a shift in attitude towards climate change and a recognition of the immediate and tangible danger it poses to us all.
Lawyers bear a unique burden as we are strategically poised to work hand in hand with our clients and regulators to shape a better future. I am immensely proud to be associated with our clients who have continually shown a refreshing recognition of their organisations’ responsibility to society. We will continue to work with our clients to strengthen their environmental, social and governance (ESG) activities in the coming year, as well as to learn from them. I am also proud of the example we, as ALN, have set. For example, we recently worked to champion for legislation prohibiting the use of single-use plastics within the East African Community. In the coming year, we will redouble these efforts and hopefully inspire a wave of change.
iii. Multi-National Corporations versus the Governments of the World
Finally, in relation to geopolitics, an issue that is already having a direct impact on our work: the growing tension between global corporations and governments. Whilst some of what I have said suggests that the conflict between governments may define much of our future geopolitics, a strong case can also be made for the position that what unites governments of all hues is the confrontation with corporations.
But why is there this conflict? Corporations have grown very large. For example, if Apple Inc. were a country, and its market capitalisation was equated with GDP, it would be the 5th largest country in the world, larger than India or the United Kingdom for example and almost all of Africa combined.
If you equate customers with citizens, the largest global corporations have many more customers than any country has citizens, and consequently, they can create a community of interest across geopolitical lines.
Most of the largest corporations in the world hold incredible amounts of data. This combination of a vast number of clients, money and data makes them powerful to a degree not previously known in human history.
Corporations can work seamlessly across borders and structure their affairs in a fiscally convenient manner. Governments are desperate for revenue and are in a constant scramble to try and keep up with corporations and tax them. How and why does this matter? Well, in an immediate sense, for example in our tax advisory work, we have already been involved in this cat and mouse game between government and corporations. The tax challenges arising from digitalisation, claims of aggressive base erosion and profit shifting by corporations and transfer pricing disputes have been hallmarks of this battleground. Further, in China, we witnessed the “cutting down to size” of Jack Ma and Alibaba by the Chinese Government, whilst in Europe the imposition on global oil companies of net-zero targets means that they must fundamentally alter their business models.
On the other hand, the speed with which COVID-19 vaccines were created is a testament to the powerful innovation within corporations and their ability to cooperate across borders and geopolitical lines, in a manner that makes governments look unwieldy and out of date. Space-X’s space programme is evidence that the private sector can undertake better and more effectively what was previously thought to be in the domain of governmental institutions such as the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
When one considers where power really lies, there is a strong argument that Tim Cook, Satya Nadella, Sundar Pichai, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg for example are in strong competition with leaders of even the world’s largest countries. Are they more accountable than our political leaders? Or less? How easily can they abuse power and influence and how can that impact us?
Often, as a continent, we have been an afterthought when it comes to innovation and regulation of such innovation. Our direct contact with these organisations, often as our clients, gives us an opportunity to shape the narrative. This brings me to the last item in this geopolitical discussion: Our continent, Africa.
iv. Africa, big picture
COVID has had a devastating economic impact on our continent. Some of the most damaging effects include an increase in the foreign currency-denominated debt burdens of African countries, an increase in emigration (often illegally and through risky means) in search for a better life outside the continent and the clawing back of democratic gains.
At the same time, it is also true that there is a significant increase in tech investments with Egypt, Kenya and Nigeria at the forefront of creating unicorn companies that will create jobs and change livelihoods. We know that Africa remains the food basket of the world and could supply much of the needed labour with our youthful population and improving skills base. We have also witnessed the increasing integration of Africans into the gig economy. Our literacy levels are rising and there is markedly more inclusion especially of women in both government and corporates.
We, therefore, have a lot to play for, but our ability to capitalise on these positives is critically dependent on good governance.
Our successful integration into the global market and supply chains depends on the quality of governance in both public and private institutions.
With the private sector, we have noted a much sharper focus on governance by regulators and corporates operating in Africa, but there remains much to be done. We have elections this year in Kenya, Senegal and Angola which are likely to test the strength of our democratic institutions. These are particularly important due to the democratic backslide I have discussed previously. Unfortunately, elections are still seen as turning point events in our continent so there will be much hand-wringing and agitated anticipation (and reduced economic activity) as a result.
What does all of this mean for us, as ALN? Our understanding of geopolitical forces, and how they exert themselves in the region, is instrumental to our role as trusted advisors. From the waxing and waning influence of superpower countries to regional developments, we consider it our duty to have our finger on the pulse of our continent. Considering the developments discussed above, I am confident in the direction we have taken as ALN. I am hopeful for the coming year during which we will work hand in hand with our clients to shape a better future for Africa. An inclusive future. A future Africa deserves.
As we embark on a new year filled with hope and promise, I cannot help but to renew my commitment to ALN. I believe in ALN because it is agile and dynamic. I believe in ALN because of the gifted individuals I have the pleasure of working with and learning from.
I believe in ALN because it provides—within a uniquely African context—an unmatched platform for individual and collective growth. I believe in ALN because it has a vision for a better Africa. I believe in ALN because of its global reach but local roots.
Most importantly, I believe ALN is the right organisation to steer Africa in the right direction, together with our clients, regulators, and stakeholders.
On behalf of ALN, I would like to wish you all a happy and prosperous new year. May the coming year bring us all much-needed certainty, growth, and good health.Recommended1 recommendationPublished in