The Problem with America’s Africa Strategy: What is Wrong and How to Fix It

Image Source: BBC

It’s been two months since the Biden administration unveiled its “Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa” and two months remain until the administration hosts the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington. It is, thus, an opportune time to review America’s Africa strategy and make revisions if needed. The strategy outlines four key objectives aligned with traditional U.S. policy priorities: fostering openness and open societies; delivering democratic and security dividends; advancing pandemic recovery and economic opportunity; and supporting conservation, climate adaptation, and a just energy transition. Nothing is surprising here; these goals have been consistent across the last several administrations’ Africa strategies (See here for the Trump and Obama administrations’). Adequate evaluation of the strategy requires a closer look. Although the administration stresses that the strategy is about Africa, not China or Russia, it is quite the contrary. The Biden administration should focus on providing more attractive options to Africa, not criticizing what other powers are doing. 

We do things differently”

In its new strategy, the Biden administration tries to differentiate itself from the Trump administration as well as from other great powers, notably China. Emphasizing “African agency,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that Washington will work “with” African nations and people, and will “not dictate Africa’s choice.” Blinken also promised to “stop treating Africa as a subject of geopolitics.” This seems like a welcome departure from the Trump administration, which saw the region largely as an arena for great power competition with China and Russia.  Introducing the Trump administration’s Africa strategy, then National Security Advisor John Bolton referenced China 15 times and Russia six times, but seldom mentioned individual African countries or the African Union. Mindful of past policy mistakes, Blinken proudly said that “we do things differently.” 

However, there could be a stark difference between the administration’s view of its policy and the opinion of those it affects. Reading the strategy and listening to Blinken’s speech, it is hard to miss that the great power competition is the elephant in the room. Commenting on Secretary Blinken’s Africa Tour, a Lagos-based journalist Oluwatosin Adeshokan criticized his visit as “a show of power in this new iteration of a Cold War: China versus the United States.” Aggrey Mutambo, from the Nation Media Group based in Kenya, said that America is “playing catch-up to China.” Even a former U.S. career diplomat, specialized in Africa, argues that the administration’s “talking points” are not convincing. 

It is deserved criticism. The strategy mentions China and Russia ten times and the need to counter their “harmful activities,” but fails to fully reflect the needs of the African continent. For example, there is only one reference to Agenda 2063, the continent’s aspirational plan for the future, in the whole document. The return of Africom and the draft bill to monitor African governments working with Russian entities also suggest that the United States is engaged in a Cold War-like competition in the continent. It is clear the United State is trying to advance its geopolitical interests while rolling back other great powers’ influence on the continent. To be successful in that goal, the United States needs to take a more nuanced and refined approach. 

It’s About Africa

To make its Africa strategy more effective and win their hearts and minds, the Biden administration needs to work on two things. First, it needs to listen to the voice of African people and understand what their needs are. Second, it should provide adequate resources to meet these needs. 

First, the Biden administration should understand that African people want economic development not ideological competition. According to an Afrobarometer survey of 16 African countries, a majority of Africans view the Chinese influence, especially economically, favorably. This, however, does not mean that they see America negatively. Ordinary Africans welcome cooperation with both Beijing and Washington—or Moscow, New Delhi, and Brussels for that matter—as they can help uplift underdeveloped economies in the region. The Chinese influence also does not lead to democractic backsliding as Washington fears. So it will be counterproductive for the U.S. government to cut the region’s economic ties with other great powers. It is also not financially feasible for the United States to outcompete China in offering development assistance given the United States is currently providing an unprecedented level of security assistance to Ukraine and the U.S. economy is “headed” for a recession. The United States should learn how to coexist with other great powers in the region and simply provide better options to the governments. The U.S. government can serve as a model for economic development and democracy, but it should not try to dictate to others. 

Second, the Biden administration needs to put sufficient resources into Africa to address these issues. First and foremost, Washington needs to address the chronic staff shortage in U.S. missions in Africa. According to the Lowy Institutes Global Diplomacy Index, China now outnumbers the United States in terms of the number of embassies in Africa. The government needs people on the ground to build lasting relationships, maintain a sense of the current climate, and provide valuable insights on each country.  If the strategy is driven by only the top officials at the White House, it will have little relevance to the situation on the ground. The U.S. government also needs to implement projects that create economic opportunities and bring prosperity. Thankfully, Washington does not need to do it alone. The G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) initiative can be a good starting point for bringing noticeable changes to the region. 

Simply put, the strategy should center Africa in order for it to be beneficial for the continent as well as for the United States. The strategy that focuses only on competition with China and Russia will not succeed. The U.S.-Africa Summit in December is an opportunity for the Biden administration to show that the policy is truly about Africa, not merely another part of broader strategic competition. . 

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