Fifteen years ago, leaders from both regions assembled in Washington DC for a “US-Africa ministerial” gathering, to, in the words of then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “draw up a blueprint for US-Africa relations in the 21st century”. Albright added that US relations with Africa were defined by “two overarching goals” for America: security and the economy.
Today, the Barack Obama administration has built on that modest beginning with an “Africa Strategy” published in 2012, centered around four themes, expanding on the Albright agenda: promoting democracy, human rights and civil society; advancing economic trade and investment (especially among African countries); security issues (confronting Al Qaeda and allied terrorist groups, as well as other “transnational” threats) and development (health, food security, climate change, women and youth empowerment).
Africa is growing in terms of its strategic importance to America, from an economic and geopolitical point of view, but still lies well below other global issues on the US priority list. So what should the world be reading out of this Summit? A recall of President Barack Obama’s famous words that “Africa’s future is up to Africans
It has of course fallen upon Barack Obama as President of the United States to preside over a marked shift in the relative significance of Africa to the United States. The North African spring happened during his watch, forcing the government to scramble – with limited success – for an apposite response. On 25 January 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Mubarak regime, long an ally of the US in a tense region, was “stable”. Two weeks later the regime was history; three decades of authoritarian rule ground into the dust of Tahrir Square; with a manual of American policy assembled over the decades suddenly rendered obsolete.
That season of uprising in North Africa (starting in Tunisia in January 2011, moving to Egypt, and then Libya) was to be followed by the rise of a particularly violent strain of Islamic extremism that stretched south to the north of Nigeria, and east to Kenya; part of a wider campaign of terror that has drawn the US into interventions in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen in the last two decades.
Africa’s place in the world
However, the 1990s’ were mixed bag for the continent. On the one hand there were early momentous events like the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the prospects of a return to civilian rule in Nigeria. On the other there were tragedies like the Rwandan genocide (which coincided with the period just after the first-ever democratic elections in South African history), and brutal civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere.
The bad of course completely overwhelmed the heartwarming. The spectre of “increasing lawlessness” in West Africa in the mid-1990s’ inspired Robert Kaplan’s dystopian essay, “The Coming Anarchy”, in which he wrote that “Sierra Leone is a microcosm of what is occurring, albeit in a more tempered and gradual manner, throughout West Africa and much of the underdeveloped world: the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war.”
That disturbing view of Africa would linger for years, so that even in 2000 The Economist magazine could still deem it fit to label the continent “hopeless” in what would turn out to be one of its most infamous covers ever.
But as the 21st century settled in, Africa started to see a sea change in the way it was perceived by the rest of the world, with a surge in commodity prices which swelled government treasuries, and a wave of democratization and policy reforms which engendered unprecedented political and economic stability and attracted impressive levels of foreign direct investment. During the first decade of the 21st century, six of the fastest growing economies in the world were in Africa. The excitement of “Africa Rising” quickly gripped newsrooms and boardrooms across the world, causing even The Economist to issue, in 2011, an apology for its “Hopeless Continent” cover.
Importance of Africa to the US
In August the US Senate traditionally goes into recess, providing, according to its website, “a chance for senators to spend time with family, meet with constituents in their home states, and catch up on summer reading.”
Which leads to the question: why would a supposedly landmark Africa Summit take place at a time when some of the most important elements of the government may not be available; when the city is more than anything playing host to the swarms of tourists who make their way in. Can this seemingly minor timing issue be seen as definitive evidence of where Africa stands on the list of American priorities? Perhaps.
Not until the end of the 1980s’ did evidence of what Nigerian Professor of Political Science Ayo Olukotun described (in a 1992 paper for the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs) as “better and somewhat more sophisticated knowledge about Africa in official circles in the United States” begin to emerge.
The emergence of Bill Clinton as US president in 1992 was arguably a pivotal moment in the vista of Africa-America relations, which, for decades had revolved around aid and development as a tool for staving off the Soviet threat. American governments actively and wholeheartedly supported African dictators as long as they were deemed to be sufficiently unsympathetic to communism.
Clinton became president in a post-Soviet, “end of history” world, and was much admired by the African-American population, so that he was dubbed “the first black president” of the United States. When, in his second term Clinton paid state visits to Africa, in March 1998 (Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana and Senegal) and August 2000 (Nigeria and Tanzania), it heralded a new age of US presidential interest in Africa. He launched the landmark African Opportunities Growth Act (AGOA) trade regime, which provides an opportunity for African countries to export a select range of products to the US, duty-free. His successor George Bush – who spearheaded a raft of massive Africa-focused aid initiatives, ranging from education to HIV/AIDs – visited even more countries, on two trips in 2003 and 2008.
Before then, the last official visit by a US president to Africa was in March 1978 when Jimmy Carter spent 3 days in Nigeria, hosted by then Head of State General Olusegun Obasanjo. The Carter visit itself came thirty-five years after Franklin Roosevelt made history by becoming the first serving US president to visit Africa.
The China question
China is now firmly a major threat to US influence that, in the uni polar aftermath of the Cold War, was taken for granted in Africa. Running on a self-confidence that came from more than two decades of double-digit growth, China turned ambitiously towards Africa at the turn of the 21st century.
“What China so desperately needs, Africa has,” Dambisa Moyo wrote in her 2008 book, Dead Aid. The results of that engagement have been significant; in 2009 China overtook the US to become Africa’s biggest trade partner. This has alarmed the US, which sees in China’s rising influence in Africa a decline in its own.
On a trip to Senegal in August 2012, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted as declaring that her government was committed to “a model of sustainable partnership that adds value, rather than extracts it.” Those comments were widely reported in the media as a thinly veiled censure of China’s aggressive Africa policy, unashamedly focused on raw materials and commodities, for which it flooded the continent with new bridges and stadiums and railway lines.
Today, however, things appear to have cooled considerably. Writing in May in the New York Times, journalist Howard French, author of the new book, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa noted that “China’s relationship with the continent is entering a new and much more skeptical phase” – the inevitable consequence of years of unbridled infrastructure investments that have “left many countries saddled with heavy debts and other problems, from environmental conflict to labor strife.”
The war against terror
Three years before the September 2001 attacks, Al Qaeda had kicked off its war against America on African soil. Osama Bin Laden, who spent much of the nineties living in Sudan, is believed to have given the green light to the twin bombings of the US Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
By the time Barack Obama came to office in 2009, it was clear that some form of rapprochement with the Muslim world was needed.
The olive branch was offered on African soil, in Cairo, Egypt, in June 2009. It was President Obama’s first visit to the continent as sitting president, only six months after he was sworn in. In a speech he delivered at Cairo University, he called for a resetting of US-Muslim relations. (Egypt is home to more Muslims than any other country in Africa, with the exception of Nigeria).
It was not the easiest of speeches, seeking to confront head on the spectre of violent terrorism that had shaped the previous decade. Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East formed the cornerstones of the speech; at that time few would have guessed just how prominently Africa would itself become a theatre of lingering war in the coming years, as the map of radicals’ infiltration extended southwards, to encompass swathes of West Africa (from Mali to Nigeria), East Africa (Kenya and Somalia), and North Africa (Egypt, Libya).
What does the future look like?
“The foreign policy objectives of the Obama administration in Africa are rooted in security, political, economic and humanitarian interests,” Hillary Clinton said in 2009, at her confirmation hearings as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. Almost six years on, that all-encompassing strategy seems set to continue. The US will approach Africa chastened by the failings and limited successes of omissions and commissions in Rwanda, Darfur, Congo, Somalia, and Libya.
The vastly changed dynamics of the US-Africa oil trade – for long the most important economic relationship between the two regions – calls for an updating of policy.
In 2009 American General Carlton Fulford, a retired US Marine Corps general, wrote that American foreign policy “must incorporate America’s strategic interest in ensuring commercial and physical access to hydrocarbons.” Less than five years later America is firmly on the road to hydrocarbon self-sufficiency; by some estimates it will be producing enough oil to meet domestic consumption by 2020.
China on the other hand is as hungry as ever, in September 2013 displacing America as the world’s largest importer of crude oil and other liquid fuels on a monthly basis, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration.
The US will no doubt continue to be deeply wary of the growing economic interdependence between China and Africa.
The competition for influence on the continent between both countries – and other emerging players as well, like Brazil, which doubled its diplomatic presence in Africa in the 2000s, and India which recently replaced America as the leading importer of Nigerian oil – will heighten the tempo of complaints by those, within and outside the continent, who regard the 21st century as merely a more sophisticated replaying of the 19th century “Scramble for Africa” among European superpowers of that era.
Indeed there are already those who see the August summit as a validation of the perception that Africa remains hopelessly beholden to all-powerful foreign interests, and who would rather not see African leaders summoned off to foreign capitals for “talks” and summits, whether in Beijing (as now happens triennially under the auspices of the “Forum on China-Africa Cooperation”) or Washington.
In May, following the abduction of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by terrorist group Boko Haram, French President François Hollande convened a security summit in Paris. In an editorial titled “Boko Haram: Jonathan’s Paris flop”, Nigeria’s Punch newspaper noted that the fact that “it took such a conclave in faraway France for Nigeria to forge a strong coalition with these Francophone countries against Boko Haram’s terrorism underscores the bankruptcy of our diplomacy.”
Similar sentiments should be expected as African leaders flock to Washington for the US-Africa Leaders Summit. Jonathan Moyo, Zimbabwe’s Information Minister, has already been quoted as saying, regarding the non-invitation of President Mugabe to Washington, that “we do not mind, because what matters most to us is our sovereignty over our resources and not a trip to Washington.”
In the face of renewed vigour on a continental level, as seen in initiatives like the reinvigorated African Union and its New Partnership for Africa’s Development, African countries need to demonstrate greater confidence in their abilities to work together to solve their own problems. There is evidence that greater cooperation among Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger would go a longer way than any externally-inspired intervention, in checking the threat of Boko Haram.
On his whistle-stop trip to Accra, Ghana, a month after the Cairo visit, Barack Obama said: “We must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans.”
It should be clear to all that there is very little a Washington trip will do for Africa and Africans that cannot be accomplished in Cairo, Abuja, Johannesburg, or Addis Ababa.