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Timely reflections on United States – African relations


Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes a statement on his departure from the State Department March 13, 2018 at the State Department in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump has nominated CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson to be the next Secretary of State. Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP ALEX WONG / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP

The “fly in” and “fly out” visit of Mr. Rex Tillerson to Africa by the now former Secretary of States of the United States was reminiscent, and indeed of a symbolic significance to the present state of United State- Africa relations.

Simply put, the reality today is that the perceived decline in the United States global strategic interests put Africa at the lowest rung of the country’s foreign policy priorities.

Hence Mr. Tillerson came to Africa with no real message or critical issues to discuss except rehashing old security and development issues of Africa and in both presentations he was amazingly an abysmal failure, particularly as he attempted to lecture African leaders on how to do business with China.


If one stands on the assessment of Mr. Tillerson’s visit, it clearly confirms what many scholars, politicians and some government officials in the United States and Africa are reflecting on at the moment.

That is, has United States “lost” or “losing” Africa? Or can US regain relevance in Africa? What brought United States–Africa relations to the present dilemma is that the United States policy makers failed to recognize that the global dynamic changes also reached Africa.

For example while other nations, particularly China and Russia were responding positively to a new era in Africa, the United States tarried behind.

Hence as United States continued to think of Africa as relatively irrelevant to its global strategic interests China, Russia and even the former colonial powers like Britain and France thought otherwise and took advantage of the events aided by United States lack of political will to compete in Africa.


It will be no exaggeration to say that Africa even with all the myriads of problems represents a complex new frontier in international relations, tempting to some and repulsive to others.

First and foremost, the United States must come to terms with the fact that no matter how terrible Africa’s conditions may be, after average of 50 years of independence, Africa can no longer be considered as only a humanitarian crises case.

Africa needs more than Refugee relief funds, small arms to contain insurgents and political opponents, and other routine mundane issues in the name of sporadic foreign assistance.

Time is ripe for the institution of meaningful instruments to guide a truly genuine diplomatic relations with Africa.

What the United States is doing in Africa over the years were same policies that failed to consolidate relations with South American and Asian States until they changed the style and content of their relationships with those regions.

Africa is ready for a genuine and mature relationship in accordance with international best standard practice on treaties and agreements based on their mutual interests, and respect to one another.


Indeed, lack of institutionalization of critical elements in United States–Africa relationships constitute a dilemma for both sides and left any real achievements in a flux.

Does it mean that the United States is afraid or reluctant of engaging African leaders in a long term mutual relationship? Indeed, relationships of the United States and many African leaders tend to be sporadic and principally on the basis of inter-personal variables and not institutionally grounded/based.

Consequently United States policy in Africa as a whole tends to be an appendage to that of the former European colonial masters political and economic interests and initiatives.

This American self-inflicted burden hinders genuine and meaningful relations with Africa, in comparison to either China or Russia. The United States should in considering relations with Africa do away with carrying Europe’s colonial excess luggage.

The United States should do more in the areas of security/strategic challenges facing Africa. In a way some analysts believe the United States traumatic experience in Somalia has had serious effects on United States response to African conflicts.

Yet United States participation preferably indirectly is inevitable in order to make peace possible in Africa.

The United States therefore should actively engage in preventive diplomacy to ensure peace which is crucial in Africa. Without peace, there will be no progress, no development and no growth.

Conflicts have done great damage to all the dreams of emerging viable African States. And many have become “failed”, or “failing” states because of endemic crises.


The United States should engage African leaders to ensure peace, security and political stability as part of its priorities. This means also constant monitoring of conflict and potentially conflict areas in Africa.

The United States has the ability to detect early warning signals of conflicts and flash points which will help to preserve and ensure peace in Africa.

The United States, it is generally believed although it has the capability does not have the political will to stay engaged in conflict Resolution in Africa.

The United States needs to know that the Somalia experience is history and commitment to other parts of the world is no valid excuse to Africa that needs intensive American attention to preserve peace, enhance security and political stability in the continent.

For many reasons mainly historical and political, the United States –Africa relations have been constantly “Uneasy” and unsettled’’.

In other words unlike United States relations to South America defined by the Monroe Doctrine of 1824 or Canada defined by Jays Treaty of 1794, Europe by Atlantic Alliance and Asia by SEATO Treaty, no such military, strategic, political and diplomatically determined doctrine exists between Africa and the United States.

The closest to this would probably be the negotiations and agreements leading to the establishment of AFRICOM which is relatively new, confusing and self-propelling.

The relationship between the United States through AFRICOM and Africa has no chance of being an agreement either between two equal partners, allies, or bound by any historical precedence. Indeed it remains an arrangement and not necessarily an enforceable agreement except in name and not in terms of equal capacity of enforcement by both sides.


On the economic front, what is most conspicuous is the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). AGOA was the initiative of President Bill Clinton and continued and relatively strengthened by President George W. Bush.

The Act was meant to enhance economic and trade partnership between African states and the United States through some form of concessional trade waivers for specified African products.

However, the conditions for effective participation and capacity to take advantage of AGOA provisions proved difficult for many African countries.

It became indeed a case of many are called but few were chosen, consequently in practice AGOA became a unilateral trade relations with individual African state and not actually multilateral trade relations with the United States.

Hence, Jan Van Vollenhoven of South Africa said to be an effective Trade Agreement, and beneficial to Africa, AGOA must move from “the US doing wonderful things for Africa” to US doing these same things “with Africa.”

Consequently if the United States has a real intension to improve relations with Africa, it must change its present approach and come up with a similar approach of Economic Marshall Plan which was used to revive Europe after World War II.

An African “Marshall Plan” that post-colonial African leaders expected from the United States in the 1960s is still relevant today as the only and most expeditious way to restore US-Africa relations to normalcy and competitive with China and Russia.

And finally African leaders must understand that international or diplomatic relations are about national interests of nations including China, Russia and others.

Consequently the leaders must make vigorous effort to better the conditions of their respective countries.

In this context, as the former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington said “the failure of Africa to fully realize its potentials has earned it scorn rather than respect in the comity of nations.”

African leaders should also wake up and recognize as some have done in Rwanda, Ethiopia etc. that there is no better respect than respect for what you can do for yourself. As observed by Carrington “the

failure of the Continent’s leaders to guarantee socio-political development was robbing it of an enviable place in the global scale.”

History teaches us that the very moment African leaders decide that “what they don’t give us we do for ourselves, they too would be enhancing the imperatives for both self-respect and respect by the United States and the international community.

Indeed, for far too long, United States–Africa relations look like a great orchestra on permanent rehearsal full of great expectations but no grand performance.

Amb (Prof.) George A. Obiozor, was Nigeria’s Ambassador to the USA, Israel and Cyprus.

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