Author: Landry Signé
Site of publication: Foreign Policy
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: January 15th, 2021
Despite the immense potential of U.S.-Africa relations, China has been more engaged with the continent and in several ways is now ahead of the United States in the scale of its diplomatic and economic ties. China is now Africa’s largest trade partner and the largest bilateral lender to many African countries, creating an asymmetric power dynamic with the potential for dependency. China has also outperformed the United States and the United Kingdom in terms of higher education, becoming the primary destination for English-speaking African students. China even trains African journalists, about 1,000 each year, who are the ones forming the global narrative about the continent. Furthermore, Chinese President Xi Jinping has committed to giving African countries priority access to a successful COVID-19 vaccine developed in China, and Beijing will build the headquarters of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
While China has been making such tremendous progress on the continent, the United States has lagged behind. Although the Trump administration adopted a U.S.-Africa strategy that created high expectations in the African policy community, the lack of timely implementation, along with President Donald Trump’s discriminatory rhetoric and failure to sufficiently engage at a high level, has since undermined what could have been a great improvement in U.S.-Africa relations. Restrictions on African immigration, including student visas, have been put into place without sound evidence of threats to national security, and a new rule was recently issued requiring visitors from several African countries to pay thousands of dollars in bond money to travel to the United States. In 2019, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross canceled his participation in the U.S.-Africa Summit, forgoing a huge opportunity to facilitate trade and investment by engaging with African heads of state, government officials, and CEOs. The White House further spoiled what would have been good Africa policy by threatening to slash funding to the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Health Organization, indirectly impacting many African nations.
The Biden administration has an opportunity to change course and positively shape the legacy of U.S.-Africa relations. If the Biden administration focuses on areas of strong U.S. competitive advantage and crafts a values-based foreign policy that takes into account Africans’ preference for accountability and democracy, the United States still has a chance to outperform China on the continent—but it has to act fast.
The United States has a strong competitive advantage on several key issues that are critical to Africa’s future. Afrobarometer surveys show that nearly 70 percent of African citizens prefer democracy and accountable governance over other forms of government. U.S.-Africa interests also converge in terms of advancing prosperity through trade, investment, and commercial relations, including through the newly adopted African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). In fact, African publics prefer the U.S. model of development (32 percent) over the Chinese model (23 percent) and that of other countries. In terms of power, peace, and geopolitics, a stronger U.S. presence on the continent will promote peace in Africa while helping to prevent violent extremism, state fragility, and illegal immigration. It will also give the United States an advantageous position over China, Russia, and other countries in the global power struggle.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden could make a mark in his first year by developing specific solutions to critical challenges, such as those in Sudan, Zambia, Mali, and Angola, as well as the broader challenges of implementing the new free trade area and shaping post-AGOA trade strategy, after the agreement, which granted preferential trade status to African countries for certain goods, expires in 2025.
After decades of violent conflict, Sudan is slowly starting to make progress toward peace. Now is the perfect time for the United States to take the lead in promoting democracy and economic development and in preventing violent extremism in Sudan while countering Chinese and Russian efforts to increase their presence in the country. China has already indicated its public support for the political transition in Sudan, and there are expectations that it may expand its role in infrastructure development there.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden could make a mark in his first year by developing specific solutions to critical challenges, such as those in Sudan, Zambia, Mali, and Angola, as well as the broader challenges of implementing the new free trade area and shaping post-AGOA trade strategy, after the agreement, which granted preferential trade status to African countries for certain goods, expires in 2025
Mali, a country that used to be considered a model for democracy in Africa, has been struggling to control extremist groups within its borders and to stabilize its economy. Over the past few years, Mali appeared to be making progress toward achieving peace, but since 2019 the nation has seen a resurgence of armed conflicts. Over 1,000 incidents of political violence have resulted in the deaths of more than 2,700 people in Mali since September 2019.
Following a bloodless coup in August 2020, Mali’s military government agreed to act as a transitional government for 18 months, after which a civilian government would take over through elections. The United States should pay particular attention to Mali because it is a prime example of the climate-security nexus. Mali’s experience of continuous droughts and rising temperatures has threatened food security for many climate-vulnerable farmers and herders, making Mali fertile ground for communal conflicts to develop along ethnic, religious, and linguistic lines.
That is particularly dangerous given Mali’s geography. The country is located in the Sahel region, which is widely affected by the instability created by terrorist groups that operate in Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria. According to the United Nations, more than 200,000 people in Mali were internally displaced as of last summer, and nearly half a million had been forced to flee from Niger to become refugees in other West African countries.
The Sahel region is extremely volatile, and the United States must increase its operations to counter violent extremists in the region. But before sending in the troops, the U.S. government should first acknowledge the connection between climate change, development, and security. This means that a military solution alone will be insufficient to solve such a multifaceted problem. The United States needs a multidimensional peacekeeping approach in Mali with the specific goals of helping to resolve the main sources of fragility—climate change, demographic growth, and economic hardship—both in Mali and in the broader Sahel region.
Before sending in troops, the U.S. government should first acknowledge the connection between climate change, development, and security.
This means that a military solution alone will be insufficient to solve such a multifaceted problem. The United States needs a multidimensional peacekeeping approach in Mali with the specific goals of helping to resolve the main sources of fragility—climate change, demographic growth, and economic hardship—both in Mali and in the broader Sahel region.
While it is true that the United States cannot solve Africa’s challenges on its own—and that the primary responsibility for this lies with African leaders—it can help Africa find solutions that will eventually allow it to achieve self-sufficiency. It is in the best interest of the United States to ensure that conflicts that impede trade and development are resolved across the African continent, since Africa is becoming increasingly important to U.S. national security and trade interests. The AfCFTA, which is set to be operational in January 2021, will bring together nearly all 55 African Union member states and create a more integrated market with a total GDP of $2.2 trillion. This is an opportunity for the United States to accelerate its multilateral partnerships with Africa by contributing to the successful implementation of the free trade area.
The United States needs a multidimensional peacekeeping approach in Mali with the specific goals of helping to resolve the main sources of fragility—climate change, demographic growth, and economic hardship—both in Mali and in the broader Sahel region
This is particularly important because the AfCFTA is paving the way for the creation of a common African Customs Union, which will benefit the United States by reducing its transaction costs when trading with African countries bilaterally. The trade deal can be part of the solution, but the United States will have to provide robust technical assistance and capacity building to the AfCFTA secretariat to ensure its successful implementation.
Even amid increasing geopolitical aggression from other powers, American leaders now have a unique window of opportunity to substantially advance U.S. and African interests. They can seize this opportunity by focusing on areas where U.S. and African interests and values converge and where the United States has the advantage over its competitors, especially on free trade and democracy.
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