Why the US is re-engaging with Africa — Financial Times

Don­ald Trump thought it was full of “shit­holes” and coun­tries with names such as “Nam­bia”. Barack Oba­ma, for all his elo­quence and fam­i­ly ties to Kenya, was under­whelm­ing when it came to defin­ing a prac­ti­cal strat­e­gy towards Africa — a con­ti­nent that always slipped behind oth­er regions in the list of pri­or­i­ties. You have to go back to George W Bush, par­tic­u­lar­ly his prin­ci­pled stance in fight­ing the Aids epi­dem­ic, or Bill Clin­ton, with his Africa Growth and Oppor­tu­ni­ty Act, a pref­er­en­tial trade pact, for an Amer­i­can leader with a com­pelling offer­ing. If the US has been rel­a­tive­ly low key, oth­ers have not. Since the turn of the cen­tu­ry, Chi­na has moved from a bit-part play­er to the main investor and trad­ing part­ner for many coun­tries from Ango­la to Ethiopia. Much of the infra­struc­ture that has sprung up across the con­ti­nent has been built by Chi­nese com­pa­nies. Out­side the extrac­tive indus­tries, Amer­i­can com­pa­nies have been slow­er to see com­mer­cial oppor­tu­ni­ties than those from emerg­ing nations such as Turkey and India. More recent­ly, Rus­sia has pur­sued a cut-price diplo­ma­cy, send­ing mer­ce­nar­ies to Mali and the Cen­tral African Repub­lic to prop up dic­ta­tor­ships and shady companies.President Joe Biden is now seek­ing to redress the bal­ance. The ret­i­cence of African states to vote with the west in con­demn­ing Russia’s inva­sion of Ukraine (26 refused to do so) may have sharp­ened his think­ing. Diplo­mat­ic engage­ment has been stepped up. Wash­ing­ton will hold a US-Africa sum­mit in Decem­ber, the first in eight years. Biden has reversed a deci­sion by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion to draw down US troops from Soma­lia and the Sahel, both regions of per­sis­tent ter­ror­ist threat. Antony Blinken, sec­re­tary of state, has made two tours of the con­ti­nent, the lat­est in August when he swept through the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of Con­go and Rwan­da. In South Africa, he launched what was billed as a reset of rela­tions. As he said, the 54 coun­tries that make up the con­ti­nent play a more impor­tant role in world affairs than is wide­ly recog­nised. By 2050, one in four peo­ple on Earth will be African. If a major­i­ty are flour­ish­ing, they will be a source of huge dynamism and ideas. If many are floun­der­ing, they will fuel the prob­lems of uncon­trolled migra­tion and unstop­pable deforestation.A third of the min­er­als that will be need­ed for the tran­si­tion to sus­tain­able ener­gy lie beneath African soil. African peo­ple — and not just their elites — must ben­e­fit from the poten­tial wind­fall with more trans­for­ma­tion of raw mate­ri­als on the con­ti­nent itself. In the Con­go Basin rain­for­est, cen­tral African states host the world’s sec­ond-largest lung. African cap­i­tals mar­shal a quar­ter of UN votes. A Niger­ian heads the World Trade Orga­ni­za­tion and an Ethiopi­an leads the World Health Organ­i­sa­tion. The pol­i­cy paper that under­lies the new approach lays out broad strate­gic objec­tives. Wash­ing­ton will sup­port open soci­eties, democ­ra­cies, recov­ery from the shock of the pan­dem­ic and a just ener­gy tran­si­tion (for which read: it won’t oppose gas). Wash­ing­ton will work with its “African part­ners”: a phrase intend­ed to con­vey that it is lis­ten­ing, not hectoring.The US offer­ing is posi­tioned in delib­er­ate con­trast to what it calls China’s “nar­row com­mer­cial and geopo­lit­i­cal inter­ests” and the Russ­ian view of Africa as a play­ground for pri­vate mil­i­tary com­pa­nies. What are African gov­ern­ments to make of this? Many were not impressed with US lead­er­ship dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, when the west gob­bled up avail­able vac­cines and left Africans to fend for them­selves. (Biden’s sup­port for over­rid­ing intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty on Covid vac­cine tech­nol­o­gy was seen as an impor­tant excep­tion). The US — with its con­test­ed elec­tions and rolling back of lib­er­ties — has also some­what lost the demo­c­ra­t­ic high ground.Chidi Odinkalu of the Fletch­er School of Law and Diplo­ma­cy at Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty detects a cold war throw­back. “The US has come to the con­clu­sion that, if they don’t re-engage, they will be aban­don­ing Africa to Rus­sia and Chi­na.” Still, Alex Vines, direc­tor of the Africa Pro­gramme at the UK think-tank Chatham House, sees an oppor­tu­ni­ty for the con­ti­nent. “This is Africa’s moment,” he says of the multi­na­tion­al engage­ment. How­ev­er shaky, the US with its deep well of wealth, inno­va­tion and demo­c­ra­t­ic ideals is a part­ner worth court­ing, he says. If diplo­ma­cy is trans­ac­tion­al, then the coun­tries of Africa should get ready to deal. david.pilling@ft.com