The US scramble for Africa

Washington must restore lost trust and credibility in order to compete with Beijing in Africa — starting this week.

Senegal President Macky Sall arrive for the G20 Leaders' Summit in Bali,
Senegal President Macky Sall, who is the current head of the African Union, at the G20 Leaders' Summit in Bali, Indonesia, on November 15, 2022. The US has indicated that it will support the AU's formal inclusion in the G20 during the US-Africa summit hosted by President Joe Biden in Washington from December 13-15, 2022 [MAST IRHAM/POOL/Pool via Reuters]

The Biden administration is convening a United States-Africa summit in Washington this week after having announced a new strategy for the continent in the summer. Now comes the hard part: restoring lost trust and credibility in their relationship which suffered terribly under the Trump administration.

The new scramble for Africa is part of President Joe Biden’s effort to shore up dwindling American influence in various parts of the world from Latin America to the Indo-Pacific through Africa and the Middle East, where other powers, notably its nemesis, China, are making considerable inroads, economically and strategically.

Beijing’s success in Africa has been of particular annoyance to Washington. During the past 20 years, China has grown its influence on the continent at the expense of all Western powers, including the former colonial powers, Britain and France. The latter’s neocolonial project, Francafrique, has also suffered setbacks in recent years in Mali, the Central African Republic and the broader Sahel region because of Russia strengthening its presence. Other countries such as Togo, Gabon and Rwanda — once a part of the French sphere of influence — have chosen to align themselves more with Britain or China in recent years.

China’s direct state involvement in Africa, through loans and mega infrastructural and technological projects — from ports to power stations — has made it harder for others like the United States to compete.

The investment fervour may cool off as more governments struggle with paying back their loans following the pandemic — creating the risk of a Chinese takeover of their national assets like ports and airports. But despite COVID-19 and its related supply-chain challenges, bilateral trade between China and Africa had in fact risen by 35 percent from 2020 to $254bn in 2021, due mainly to Chinese exports.

To make headway, China has prioritised development over democracy and human rights, which suits authoritarian regimes, but undermines Biden’s agenda, as one coup d’état after another has plagued the continent over the past two years.

After the coup in Mali in 2020, there was a failed coup attempt in Niger in March 2021, and then a successful one in Chad in April. Guinea followed in September and Sudan in October 2021. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called it “an epidemic of coup d’états.”

Let me be clear. The US is no beacon of human rights. Far from it. Indeed, the US has long prioritised geopolitics over human rights and continues to place its interests above its proclaimed values. Still, today’s democratic backslide on the continent does not serve American, let alone African interests.

Good governance is paramount for any good to come out of the continent’s bargaining with rich and powerful foreigners, or for any good to trickle down to those who need it most. Besides, why let the Biden administration off the hook when it could be held accountable for its commitments to strengthening human rights globally?

If Biden needed a wake-up call, it may have come earlier this year when, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US failed to enlist the support of African nations at the UN, where they represent more than a quarter of the General Assembly’s members.

When voting on a draft resolution to freeze Russia’s membership at the UN Human Rights Council, only 10 out of 54 African nations voted in favour, nine voted against, and the rest either abstained or did not show up for the vote. Worse, South Africa, among America’s leading partners on the continent, championed the abstention drive.

Now the Biden administration says it wants to resume the work of the Obama administration, which held the first US-Africa summit in 2014, by pursuing an African agenda free of the usual paternalism and based on mutual interest and mutual respect. It pledges to listen to instead of lecturing its African partners and to pursue sustainable policies that are in the best interest of the continent.

In that spirit, the US will not bring up the 800-pound gorilla in the room, China, during the summit. US officials have indicated that they will not ask African nations to choose sides, but that the US strives to be the continent’s “partner of choice”. That is smart, considering that many would probably choose China.

But America continues to command goodwill on the continent, as, polling by Afrobarometer, shows 60 percent of Africans believe the US has had a positive economic and political influence on their country, just behind China (63 percent) but far ahead of Russia (35 percent) and the former colonial powers (46 percent).

This also indicates that Africans do not see their foreign relationships as a zero-sum game, and do not want to become dependent on any foreign power. They have gone hybrid, choosing and mixing from among the various outside parties, be it the US, UK, EU, China, Russia, France, India or Turkey.

To be a partner of choice, the US must first commit to the relationship at least as the Chinese have done. But the US has waited eight years before convening a second summit, with little follow-up in between. Instead, Africa had to put up with former President Donald Trump’s racism, no less his reported 2018 remark describing African nations as “shithole countries”.

After years of neglect, the Biden administration now says it wants to help with Africa’s mounting challenges. The US Department of Defense list includes “political instability, armed groups, democratic backsliding, pandemics, environmental degradation and climate change”. The continent is also plagued by poverty, insecurity, poor governance and frustrated youth with no horizon to speak of.

In response to these pressing challenges, the US Department of State has articulated a new Africa strategy that steers away from too much talk about security and combating “terrorism” to address the root causes of instability and violence, such as fostering economic engagement, promoting food security, and promoting education and youth leadership.

But such lofty and generic diplomatic jargon raises questions about the Biden administration’s seriousness to do more than just talking big.

That is why Washington must take concrete measures, such as increasing investments in the private and public sectors, rewarding better governance, supporting the African Union’s inclusion in the G20, and committing to another US-Africa summit in the next couple of years, to follow up on this week’s decisions.

It is vital for the US to convince the continent that it is not going to forget Africa for another eight years. Or Africa might decide to forget Washington.