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From fear to freedom and friendship: U S – Africa relations

By Ejeviome Eloho Otobo
04 December 2019   |   3:25 am
This article represents a continuation of my series titled “China, America and Russia’s Game of Influence in Africa”, published on this page on 10 July, 2019, which was followed...


This article represents a continuation of my series titled “China, America and Russia’s Game of Influence in Africa”, published on this page on 10 July, 2019, which was followed by “The Road to Sochi 2019— Russia’s Influence in Africa” published on 2nd October, 2019. This article’s focus is on USA-Africa relations. 2019 marks the 400thanniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in USA. As Nikole Hannah-Jones reminds us in her highly acclaimed piece, titled Our Democracy’s Founding Ideals were False When They Were written— Black Americans have Fought to Make Them True, published in the New York Times Magazine of 14th August 2019, “In August 1619, just twelve years after the English settled Jamestown, Virginia, and one year before the Puritans landed at Plymouth, the Jamestown colonists bought 20 to 30 enslaved Africans from English pirates [who] had stolen them from a Portuguese slave ship.” The arrival of that first batch of African slaves marked the beginning of the relations between United States –which was then still a colony of Britain –and Africa, that was relatively free of colonial exploitation. Thus, the relations between the USA and Africa were born in adversity and fear.

United States -Africa relations can be divided broadly into three phases: Pre-Cold War; Cold War; and Post-Cold-War era. Although the beginnings of the Cold War can be traced to the time when the former Soviet Union refused to participate in the Marshall Plan for Europe, its crystallization for the developing countries occurred, when John Foster Dulles, then US Secretary of State, famously remarked in 1956 that “Non-alignment was immoral and opportunistic”. He was reacting to the emergence of the Non-alignment Movement (for developing countries) after its founding conference held in Bandung, Indonesia in 1955. From that perspective, I date the Cold War experience for Africa from 1956 to 1991—when the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist. One may notice that virtually all African countries gained their independence during the Cold War era. In other words, African countries reclaimed their freedom at the peak of the intense ideological rivalry between the USA and the former USSR.

There were three significant developments in USA-Africa relations during the pre-Cold War era. The first was the decision to repatriate some African ex-slaves to, and settle them in present day Monrovia in 1822 during the tenure of President James Monroe for whom the Liberia capital is named. The second was President Franklin D. Roosevelt “insistence on guaranteeing sovereignty for those nations still controlled by colonial empires”. Roosevelt’s advocacy was consonant with the zeitgeist (spirit of the time) and provided inspiration, in more ways than one, for the first generation of African students who were studying in the US and Europe at that time and who later became leaders in their countries: It inspired them to organize Pan-African conferences abroad; to launch pro-independence movements in their respective countries; and to emphasise the inextricable link between the struggle by African-Americans for their civil rights and for the independence of African countries. The third was the pressure exerted by the US on Britain, France and Israel to end their brief occupation of the Suez Canal which had been nationalized by the Gamal Abdel Nasser regime in Egypt. United States’ action impelled Britain and France to accelerate their decolonization process.

It is difficult to overstate the impact that the Cold War era had on the nature of the relations between USA and Africa. In as much as the competing ideologies framed the contest and context of the Cold War, United States appeared to find more comfort in cultivating ties with some abhorrent regimes in Africa, who claimed to be anti-communist: DRC (Zaire) under Mobutu; Somalia under Barre; Apartheid regime in South Africa; and Liberia under Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, who President Reagan called Moe during a State Visit to Washington DC. More significantly, on the great issues that confronted Africa at that time, the general view was the United States was on the wrong side of history: US equated every liberation movement in Africa with a communist movement; resisted sanctions against Apartheid South Africa, instead promoted the idea of “constructive engagement” —as an alternative to the global economic sanctions and divestment campaign against the Apartheid South Africa regime; and showed distrust for, and reluctance to engaging with, the Organisation of African Unity (the precursor of African Union). On the positive side, the USA supported a number of agricultural research institutes in Africa; dispatched many professionals under the Peace Corps programme to teach in Africa; and offered scholarships and training opportunities for the second generation of Africans students –those who came to study in the US shortly after their countries’ independence. On their graduation, they returned to their countries to assume high positions in government, business and academia.

The Post-Cold war era has been marked by five distinct US policy orientations towards Africa. First has been United States’ interest in conflict management in Africa. This was first evidenced by US launching of Operation Restore Hope that was later transmuted into a United Nations approved and US-led Unified Task Force in Somalia from December 5, 1992 to May 4, 1993. Then, there was an effort to create an African Crisis Response Initiative during the Clinton Administration in the early 1990s. That effort was viewed with great suspicion by, and met resistance from, African countries. Subsequently, that initiative morphed, in 2007, into the African Command (AFRICOM) now headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany. United States is also currently helping many African countries to combat terrorism, resulting in its enhanced military presence in Africa. The second was the enactment of Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in 2000, which offered improved market access for African exports into USA, resulting in the growth of USA-Africa trade from US$38.60bn in 2000 to US$61.85bn in 2018. The challenge ahead is what happens when AGOA expires in 2025. Third is the assistance that United States has channeled to Africa through both the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), both created during the tenure of President George W. Bush.

The fourth policy orientation was the launching of several initiatives by President Obama to support governance, economic and social development in Africa. These included the Young African Leaders Initiative (2010), Feed the Future (2010), the Trade and Invest Hubs (2013), and the US Power Initiative (2013) aimed at doubling electricity for Sub-Saharan Africa, supported by US government pledged investment of US$7billion and private sector contribution of US$9billion.At the first US-Africa Leaders’ Summit held in 2014, President Obama announced $7billion for financing exports to and investment in Africa. However, these amounts pale in comparison to the estimated US$33billionthat China had committed to financing Africa’s power sector alone by 2016 (the last year of the Obama administration), by which time, US had committed just US$3.1bn of the $7billion for the power initiative. Not a few African policy makers and analysts of US-Africa relations remain disappointed that the funding for the Power Initiative was not significantly augmented and no follow-up mechanism for the summit was proposed. The fifth policy orientation is that the Trump Administration has proposed increases in defence spending and reduction in development aid for three years in a row –2018, 2019 and 2020.

At the same time, the Trump Administration has also launched a Prosper Africa Initiative which aims to deepen trade and investment ties between USA and Africa.The US government convened the first roundtable discussion between its senior officials on trade and investment and foreign ministers from six African countries in New York in September 2019.

African countries need to grow out dependence on aid. At the same time, the probable termination of AGOA combined with a reduction in US aid and increased military footprint in Africa mean that the manifestation of US power in Africa will be felt more in its military presence than in development support (aid and trade) to the region. The US is well placed more than the two other powers to help African countries through a variety of soft power resources and would do worse than framing its actions in Africa as countering China and Russia’s influence.

Otobo is author of Africa in Transition: A New Way of Looking at Progress in the Region—which was nominated for the Grand Prix of Literary Associations Award 2018.