This article provides a more nuanced picture, building on prior scholarship that demonstrates that African actors are not passive participants in the international realm. They use multiple pathways to shape and demonstrate their agency, at times creating, adopting, and contesting the norms and structures of the international system to gain influence, legitimacy, and resources (Ayoob Reference Ayoob2002; Acharya Reference Acharya2011). African political elites may establish and then manipulate global connections to ensure regime survival or to shore up the power of their political faction (J. Phillips Reference Phillips2018; Taylor Reference Taylor and Gadzala2015; Clapham Reference Clapham1996). They selectively interpret aid agreements and recognize (or downplay) donor requirements to ensure continued funding streams (Barnes, Brown, & Harman Reference Barnes, Brown and Harman2015), and they stress dependency to gain resources (Bayart Reference Bayart2000). In Malawi, for example, state and civil society leaders leverage informal ties through a form of “shadow diplomacy” to affect donors’ decisions about health funding (Anderson Reference Anderson2018). Post 9/11, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni prioritized the war on terror to gain U.S. support, while Rwandan president Paul Kagame emphasized his country’s progress on gender equality to deflect attention from other human rights issues (Fisher Reference Fisher, Brown and Harman2013; Burnett Reference Burnet2008).
At the national and international levels, African states may rely on the principle of sovereignty—and its implied requirement that donors must work through national-level administrative processes—to dictate aspects of aid agreements with more powerful states (Brown Reference Brown2012).
To facilitate agency, African actors incorporate various strategies. One is reliance on distinct understandings of solidarity that are rooted in pan-Africanism (Adler & Bernstein Reference Adler, Bernstein, Barnett and Duvall2005; Edozie Reference Edozie2017). This solidarity was evident when the chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Mahamat, along with President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, President Hage Geingbo of Namibia, and President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, castigated U.S. President Donald Trump for his criticism of the WHO and its Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus for leadership in the COVID-19 response. By emphasizing solidarity and consensus building, the AU (and its subsidiary body, the Africa CDC) draws from pan-Africanism as a “cultural reservoir” wherein interdependence and rhetorical solidarity inform the perspectives and decisions of African actors (Clapham Reference Clapham1996:106; Murray-Evans Reference Murray-Evans2015; Edozie Reference Edozie2017; Tieku Reference Tieku2013, Reference Tieku2017).
Third, actors may rely on emerging epistemic communities such as the Africa CDC that give legitimacy to expertise in the international arena. This specific epistemic knowledge responds to local experiences, is connected to societal concerns and practices, and is broader than mere technical skills. For example, one can point to how South Africa relied on the contact tracing strategies used to respond to HIV and tuberculosis, or the way that West African countries drew from lessons in the 2014–15 Ebola outbreak to respond to COVID-19. A focus on solidarity and epistemic communities does not mean that African voices are homogenous on health (or other issues). Rather, the epistemic community provides room for debate and adoption of different strategies, while still agreeing to the broader objectives of pandemic control and appreciating the region’s shared experiences in the global arena.