Uncle Sam’s ‘dialogue of the deaf ’ with Africa
America’s ties with South Africa were recently shaken by the explosive but unproven allegation by the US Ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, that Tshwane had shipped arms to Russia. Nine months ago, US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, unveiled a new “Strategy towards sub-Saharan Africa,” for which some African analysts have acted as cheerleaders.
The new US Strategy promises to “reset” relations with Africa through fostering open societies; delivering democratic and security dividends; advancing pandemic recovery and economic opportunity; and supporting the climate agenda.
But this strategy is deeply flawed. First, the US cuts Africa off at its head, and then contradicts itself in wanting to work closely with the African Union and the African Continental Free Trade area which both have North African members. Second, even as Washington undermines African interests at the WTO, the World Bank, and the IMF, its Strategy perversely calls for African agency. Third, with no sense of irony, the US touts its “long and proud history …with African countries,” as if the sordid four-century Transatlantic slave trade which greatly facilitated America’s industrialisation – at the cost of 450,000 enslaved Africans – never happened. More recently, president Donald Trump described Africa as a “shithole.”
The new Strategy explicitly warns Africans about China’s “malign” activities in Africa. However, between 2016 and 2020, Washington was the largest arms exporter to the continent accounting for 37% of sales, compared to Beijing’s 5%. China’s $4 trillion Belt and Road initiative has built roads, bridges, and railways across Africa, while the American-led Group of Seven Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment remains on paper. China is Africa’s largest trading partner at $254 billion, and accounts for 20% of the continent’s industrial output. Even as Africans are warned to beware the Chinese dragon, Beijing is the largest exporter to the U.S. and Washington’s second largest creditor.
America self-righteously claims to be pursuing “values-driven and transparent investments”, while accusing China of using Africa to “challenge the rules-based international order [and] advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests.” While Beijing does sometimes pursue one-sided interests and has a military base in Djibouti, Washington is reported to have a military presence in over a dozen African countries. Was it also not illegal U.S. military interventions in Grenada, Panama, and Iraq that have damaged the rules-based international order? Has Washington not historically backed autocratic regimes in Liberia, Somalia, and Zaire, and today in Chad and Egypt?
Though Uncle Sam has been generous in rendering humanitarian assistance to Africa, poorly funded aid programmes like Prosper Africa have left Africa poor, Power Africa has left the continent in the dark, while Feed the Future is not even feeding the present. Washington has subsidised its farmers at $20 billion a year over the last decade. Why preach free trade while practicing unfair trade?
Much has been made of the renewal, in 2025, of the US African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which allows duty-free access to the American market for over 1,800 African products. However, none of the 36 eligible African countries have been able to take full advantage of these opportunities largely due to a lack of capacity. Much of AGOA’s exports have also consisted of oil, with only 1.3% of total US imports in 2021 coming from Africa.
On climate change, the U.S. and its allies have yet to fulfil their annual $100 billion pledge to the global South. Instead of concrete funding, US policy towards Africa has often degenerated into periodic “photo-ops” like last December’s US/Africa summit: an optical illusion which many Africans appear slow to understand, blinded as they are by the trappings of US power, even as its global dominance declines. Uncle Sam needs to switch on his hearing aid, and listen to the voices of Africans.
Professor Adebajo is a senior Research Fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.
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