U.S. Re-Ignites Relations With Africa: What Stakes?

Introduction

In a move that depicts a scramble, the African continent has witnessed a significant rise of influence and admiration from global world powers such as China, the U.K., Russia, the U.S., and France, among many other states. This scramble has positioned Africa as a strategic hub for economic development. This is largely due to Africa’s strategic demography comprising of its dynamic and entrepreneurial youth force, unexploited mineral deposits, and attractive economic and climatic conditions.

Within the context of international relations, states have proceeded to sign and renew several bilateral and multilateral agreements, binding them on several spheres ranging from political to economic, and sociocultural and security aspects. Some highly interested states have moved a step further by hosting summits specifically aimed at re-enforcing and securing ties with states within the African continent. These summits have progressed to become the basis of bilateral cooperation between countries involved. Some significant summits worth remarking are the Sino-Africa summit (I), the Russia-Africa summit (II) and the U.S.-Africa summit (III) which shall constitute the center of analysis in this paper.

Contextual Background

The U.S. convened 49 states from Africa to a U.S. summit in Washington, D.C., in December 2022, where it unveiled its new strategy for Africa. Besides economic growth and investments, which featured as the central motivation of this summit, it could equally be concluded that the U.S. strategy for Africa had as agenda to reignite U.S.-Africa relations. They wanted the dominant partnership between both regions at the detriment of China and Russia, which have increasingly grown as favorite partners for a majority of states in Africa. This is mainly due to economic and security interests.

Prior to the U.S.-Africa summit, relations were reportedly strained between both regions under the Trump-led era, (IV) further setting a complex precedence for the Biden-led administration. Amidst these strained relations, China significantly boosted its presence in Africa by securing partnerships on infrastructural projects and providing debt-relief loans for political and economic concessions tactfully mapped in a strategy now termed “debt trap diplomacy.” (V)

Russia, on the other hand, has leveraged on specialized para military companies such as Wagner Group and targeted military operations to implant military bases in Sudan, Libya, Mali, CAR, and more. (VI) They are monitoring third party interference in Africa. These strained relations and growing influence from China and Russia are a sum of multilateral developments that have challenged the U.S. and Africa. It is what provoked a redefinition of the U.S.-Africa strategy.

In a bid to understand what is at stake with these renewed relations, this paper will go over several topics. It will highlight the manifestation of the new U.S.-Africa strategy (I), identify what is at stakes with the U.S. re-engaging strategy in Africa (II), and project how Africa can position itself for a win-win relationship with the U.S. (III)

Highlights of U.S. Re-Engagement in Africa

Besides unveiling a new strategy for Africa and advocating for more inclusion of African voices in global institutions and conversations, a significant manifestation of the renewed U.S. engagement in Africa is seen through a series of visits by U.S. officials to Africa. Such has been witnessed recently with the visit of U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris to three African countries: Zambia, Tanzania, and Ghana (VII) and U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s visit to Ethiopia and Niger (VIII).

These visits were all geared toward deepening ties and mapping strategies for the implementation of tailored initiatives in the domain of trade, investments, economic growth, global governance, technology and innovation, and health and youth development initiatives. Several visits by U.S. top officials to the continent are equally announced including that of President Joe Biden in November to intensify relations.

What could be at stake in the re-ignition of relations between the United States and Africa?

Visits to Africa by senior U.S. administration officials cannot be read in isolation from the complexity of modern day international relations. In her speech during her Africa tour, U.S. Vice President, Kamala Harris outlined her intention to “work to increase investment in the continent and facilitate economic growth and opportunity.” She presented Washington as “a steadfast partner for African progress.”

For some, this speech depicts a change in the American view of Africa. From now on, Washington will consider Africa as a place for investment and not only for aid (IX). However, the first perception of the renewed interest of the United States in Africa seems to be biased insofar as, the very notion of partnership remains very theoretical, ambiguous, and “more of a charm offensive than a change in practice.” (X)

On the diplomatic level, this intensification of relations between the United States and Africa comes after the presidential term of former U.S. President Donald Trump, which was characterized by a notorious lack of interest in Africa. The former U.S. president never visited Africa and often used derogatory terms against African states.

On the geopolitical and socioeconomic levels, this intensification can be explained by the growing influence of China and Russia in Africa. Indeed, these two powers have established themselves over the decades as privileged partners of African states in key areas. The Chinese offer for Africa is based on infrastructure, loans, and the extension of telecommunications networks.

It is in this context that Ghana recently concluded a $2 billion agreement with a Chinese company to develop roads and other projects in exchange for a key mineral for the production of aluminum (XI). As for the Russian offer, it is more security-oriented. To reverse this dynamic, the United States has pledged to make a more enticing offer to support a permanent seat in the G20 for the African Union (Ibid).

This intensification is also taking place in an African context of accelerating the implementation of the FTAA. It would thus be a matter of the United States taking advantage of this new era of African development to better establish itself in this vast African market with multiple economic opportunities.

Finally, from a strategic point of view, this intensification of relations initiated by the United States can be seen in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, which has demonstrated to some extent the importance of Africa in world geopolitics (XII).The neutrality of some African countries and the non-alignment of others have been perceived as a threat to the future of Africa.

How can Africa position itself for a win-win a partnership with the U.S.?

In the face of growing multilateral interests, some states in Africa are stuck between privileging certain partners to the detriment of others. This could be due to the need to privilege national interests.

From an economic and business related perspective, China has emerged as the preferred trading partner by a majority of countries in Africa, the U.S. equally offers a myriad of economic and trading advantages, such as the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA), which gives access to a tariff free and open market. Conflict and economic disparities further complicated by the repercussions of the Russia-Ukraine war pose significant challenges to most African economies. However, Africa must seek to take advantage of these open markets to boost its exports.

Cognizant of the fact that infrastructural development is a major catalyst for economic development, many African countries are still lagging in terms of adequate infrastructure. A major aspect worth considering therefore would be the financing of energy, healthcare, and digital infrastructures. This should equally be accompanied by transfer of technology to enhance local capacity in managing local infrastructures.

Africa’s dynamic youth force remains one of its strongest assets. Unfortunately, lack of sufficient economic and capacity building opportunities have lured many youths in Africa to cross border migration under risky circumstances in search of favorable conditions. Women boast of enormous managerial capacities yet, are massively underrepresented in many key sectors of the society.

A sustainable commitment from states in Africa would be to invest in the youth development and women empowerment to successfully leverage on modern challenges. Africa must therefore take advantage of capacity building initiatives offered by the U.S. through the U.S.-Africa partnership. (XIII)

Finally, one of the most essential elements Africa must prioritize in its partnership with the U.S. is humanitarian relief, emergency response and digital transformation. Even though Africa already benefits from a multitude of bi-lateral agreements with other states and its membership in international organizations, present day challenges within the continent such as conflict, outbreak of pandemics, food insecurity require more benevolent support to effectively counter effects of these challenges.

The U.S. has increasingly shown interest and commitment in powering and prospering Africa through corporate developmental and relief projects. It would therefore be strategic for Africa to leverage on offers tabled by the U.S. to curb growing challenges within the continent.

Conclusion

The strategic move by the U.S. to reignite relations with Africa comes at a critical moment when global super powers China and Russia have taken the lead in securing economic, infrastructural, and military agreements with a host of African states. African states are therefore at crossroads between privileging one country over the other. It is equally possible that some states be subject to pressure and unfavorable conditions in exchange for foreign aid.

In the midst of these multiple influential partners and scramble, it is profitable for states in Africa to prioritize their utmost interests among which we can site, trade and business, economic independence, infrastructural development, and more. However, this must be strategically done to avoid conflicting scenarios among all partners.

Antem Anthony
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Antem Anthony is a Policy Analyst in peace & security at the Foretia Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation, he served as conflict, policy and security assistant at the International Crisis Group, Kenya. Anthony is a certified administrative and operations professional from the United Nations University for Peace and the Pan African Institute for Development, West Africa (PAID-WA)

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Aboudi Vanessa is a Research Associate in the Democracy and Governance Division of the Nkafu Policy Institute. She holds a Master's degree in Political Science from the University of Yaoundé II and is particularly interested in governance and gender issues. She is the author and co-author of several articles published in national and international journals.

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