The United States and Africa: Where now?
Posted on 16th December, 2022 in Director's Blog
This week, 45 of Africa’s 54 leaders pitched up in Washington DC for the first US-Africa Summit in eight years, with another four countries represented at lower level – a powerful demonstration of the US’s continued pulling power and of its desire to woo African leaders.
President Biden said the US was “all-in on Africa’s future” and would support all aspects of Africa’s inclusive growth. He put his money where his mouth is too: National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the US would commit $55 billion to Africa over the next three years; Biden announced $500 million for infrastructure in Niger and Benin, and $350 million to boost the digital economy. It was claimed business deals worth some $15 billion were signed during the business forum.
Impressive. But there were two separate stories behind the Summit.
Firstly, that it was a deliberate effort to step up US efforts in the geostrategic competition with China and Russia for influence in the rest of the world. Africans are swing voters and the West was losing ground: more needed to be done. This is the story that has dominated media coverage.
But secondly, there is the substance of US relations with the continent and how this is changing. And that is actually the more interesting story.
What has driven US policy towards Africa over the past 20 years? Three things: firstly, the Congressional Black Caucus, which has always supported a strong relationship with Africa and ensured that even under the Trump Administration, despite all his insults towards Africa, US funding was largely sustained. This support has backed up presidential initiatives like Clinton’s AGOA trade legislation, Bush’s PEPFAR programme to combat AIDS, and Obama’s Power Africa plan to increase the continent’s energy supply.
Secondly, support for counter-terrorism action by African governments, following 9/11 and the US’s determination to deny Islamist terrorists a safe haven anywhere in the world from which to plan further attacks. This support has been focussed in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, coordinated from US bases in Djibouti and Chad, backed by AFRICOM in Stuttgart.
Only in third place came concern about geostrategic competition, and that only in the last few years. The US is conscious that the competition comes not just from China and Russia, but also from Turkey and the countries of the Gulf, which increasingly see both commercial and strategic interest in being more active in Africa, particularly in the Red Sea and down the east African coast.
Of course, the US has business interests too. But with Africa accounting for barely 1% of US overseas trade and investment, their voice has not been loud.
Apart from trade, this policy has brought real benefits to Africa. In health, it has been visible and made a huge difference. In security, it has been less visible but much appreciated by the governments concerned. Financially as well, African leaders are conscious of US clout in the IMF and World Bank that still deliver much support to many African countries. China may happily, and speedily, build you a railway or a stadium, but they will never make money and you still have to pay back the loan. Debt distress has not been of Washington’s making, but they are helping find an answer.
So African leaders came willingly to Washington. They want, and need, the money and the US’s political backing. That still matters to them.
But the US, and the EU and UK, have been losing the propaganda battle in the African street. China and Russia have systematically exploited anti-imperialist sentiment, successfully painted Western powers as neo-colonialist, and themselves as champions of African liberation. Many Africans firmly believe this, and their leaders cannot ignore it, as we saw in Macky Sall’s determination to sit on the fence over Ukraine, along with many other African leaders. This claim has not stopped Russia shamelessly backing incumbent leaders with cheap weapons and hired mercenaries (from the Wagner Group) to keep them in power, as in the CAR and Mali. And China has not baulked at doing business with Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe or Abiy in Ethiopia despite what they were doing to their own countries.
So a central part of this Summit was an attempt to change the narrative. This was outlined in the new US Strategy for Africa published in August and promoted by Secretary of State Blinken as a deliberate prelude to the Summit. The US aim was to help African countries do what they themselves wanted. It would help them recover from the blows of Covid (where the West is still seen as selfishly cornering the market in vaccines). Biden proudly underlined that the US was helping Africa manufacture its own vaccines for the future. He also trailed US support for a seat at the G20 for the African Union – underlining that it must be a seat at the table, not just an invitation to it. The US has gone overboard to show African leaders respect.
Still, it was interesting that the only leaders Biden found time to meet bilaterally, face-to-face, were those with elections coming up – above all Nigeria. Perhaps the US feels that democracies in Africa are more under threat from the economic downturn than authoritarian governments. And perhaps they are right. But the only real answer to this threat is to accelerate African growth. Both sides could agree on that. But whether either can deliver it will be the critical question for 2023 and the years beyond.
It is striking that the US and EU, great economic powers and in the US case a political and military super-power too, have both changed their policy towards Africa faster than the UK, which has neither of these advantages.
Of course, we have had our little domestic distractions. But these have not enhanced our international reputation, and Africans know empty political rhetoric when they hear it. Where’s the beef? The UK is at risk of writing itself out of the African script – cutting aid, cutting the British Council, cutting the BBC World Service, making it ever harder to get a visa, and (through the action of Old Father Time) losing that great purveyor of soft power, The Queen. Britain now has a mountain to climb to restore its credibility in Africa – and that means doing more than just announcing you’re putting your boots on.
Nick Westcott is the director of the Royal African Society.