THE inauguration of the President Joseph Biden administration has gener- ated much global interest. Its implica- tions for Africa are highly anticipated. It helps, therefore, to examine United States’ current national context, the views of its leaders on Africa, and the recent history of Africa-United States relations. The Biden administration has come to power at one of the most trying national moments in recent U.S. history.
The U.S. has an exploding CO- VID-19 crisis, accounting for about 20 per cent of global COVID deaths and 25 per cent of all COVID infections. The resulting impact on unemployment and income inequality has been devastating. The U.S. recently witnessed a mob at- tack on the Congress, one of the major pillars of its constitutional democracy. There is also the issue of racial injus- tice that the new administration must grapple with.
This combination of domestic chal- lenges could adversely impact U.S. disposition towards Africa, but will not constrain its commitment to reassert its global leadership role. Indeed, as a pres- idential candidate, Biden made clear in his article published in the March/April 2020 edition of Foreign Affairs, the U.S. “will rebuild confidence in our leader- ship, and mobilise our country and allies to rapidly meet new challenges.”
Among those challenges, he listed strengthening democracy around the world, with particular focus on three priorities: fighting corruption, defend- ing against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights. He also indi- cated that the U.S. would “need to do more to integrate our friends in Latin America and Africa into the broader network of democracies and to seize opportunities for cooperation in those regions.”
These concerns were echoed by Antony Blinken, Secretary of State- designate, and members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee during Blinken’s recent confirmation hearings. In addition, some members of the committee expressed deep concern about the backsliding on democracy in Uganda and Ethiopia and the deteriorat-
ing political situation in Cameroon. Lessons from history provide some
useful guide on what African countries can expect from the Biden adminis- tration. In the last quarter century,
U.S. policy towards Africa has centred on three main policy areas: conflict management, including combating terrorism, economic assistance through a variety of instruments, and humani- tarian medical support. To help combat terrorism in Africa, U.S. deployed military assets in the region, including in Somalia and a few Sahel countries wracked by terrorist violence.
Three important economic initiatives have stood out: the enactment of Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in 2000, which offered improved mar- ket access for African exports into the U.S.; Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) aimed at helping countries that perform well on governance; and U.S. Power Initiative aimed at doubling electricity for sub-Saharan Africa, sup- ported by U.S. government and private sector contribution.
The humanitarian medical initiatives consisted of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), in which many African countries were major beneficiaries, and United States dispatched a huge contingent of troops, policy experts and health officials to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to support these countries’ response ef- forts on Ebola disease.
The past is often a prologue to the future. Africa faces a combination of persisting challenges from the past
and a daunting array of new problems. The consolidation of democracy in Africa identified by President Biden
in his Foreign Affairs article is a prime example of a persisting challenge. The mob attack on the Congress will likely make a few political leaders in Africa
to question the moral authority of the Biden administration to “lecture” Africa on the virtues of democracy. They would be wrong because, as Biden said in his inaugural address, “democracy prevailed.”
The lesson from that experience should inform U.S. democracy initia- tives in Africa to strengthen institutional resilience to better respond to challenges to democratic constitutional order, in addition to advancing the cause of the human rights of citizens. But a U.S. policy towards Africa that fo- cuses predominantly on democracy will elicit derision by segments of the elite and dissatisfaction by citizens who long for improvements in their livelihoods.
Africa’s needs are varied and huge. Hence, U.S. support for Africa should transcend the promotion of democracy and include actions on a range of eco- nomic issues, in particular support for Africa Continental Free Trade Area;
“Inevitably, the U.S. will apply hard power and soft power as its strategic interests warrant. Yet there are many opportunities waiting for the U.S. to seize in its renewed cooperation with Africa.”
re-newal of AGOA , which is set to expire in 2025; support for combating COVID in Africa, in particular through the COVAX arrangement that the U.S. has now joined; and a strong commitment to supporting Africa in its economic transformation.
The past few years have witnessed a bi-partisan concern on China’s growing influence in Africa. The Biden adminis- tration will be making a big mistake to perceive China’s role in Africa through the prism of malevolent intent akin to the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. China’s economic influence in Africa has grown largely because it has shown greater commitment than the U.S. in supporting the region’s economic transformation by assisting in building infrastructure, establishing model economic and industrial zones and nurturing the relationship by the periodic convening of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). China has convened a meeting of FO- CAC on triennial basis since 2000 and met at heads of state level since 2006. By contrast, U.S. convened the first and only U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit in 2014.
War against terror: The Buratai years
Not long ago, the fear was that the U.S. reduced aid to Africa and increased military footprint in Africa might translate to U.S. power in Africa being felt more in its military presence than in development support. Today, the likely combination of reduction in aid and draw down of military support to combating terrorism in Africa will lead to diminished U.S. overall assistance for security and development.
Inevitably, the U.S. will apply hard power and soft power as
its strategic interests warrant.
Yet there are many opportunities waiting for the U.S. to seize in its renewed cooperation with Africa.
•Otobo is a non-resident senior expert at the Global Governance Institute, Brussels; Obaze is managing director, chief executive officer, Selonnes Consult, Awk