America Courts Africa
The recently concluded inaugural U.S.-Africa leaders summit has been hailed as the United States' strongest step yet to counter runaway Chinese investment on the continent. U.S. trade and investment with Africa has fallen an average of around 15% over the past three years, dwarfed considerably by Chinese trade growth, which has risen steadily, peaking with volumes of $210 billion last year (roughly 2.5 times as large as U.S.-Africa volumes). In the three days that it took place, trade deals worth up to $33 billion—coupled with numerous aid and military projects—were announced. This has been a thorn in the side of the Obama administration, and the impact of this conference is bound to be significant—at least in the short run.
The nature of the relationship between the U.S. and most African nations can be best labelled as uneasy. Although the U.S., in its role as the world’s superpower, is willing to partner with most African countries in projects and provisions of aid, it is also quick to give them the stick. Muammar Gaddafi, who had opened Libya's economy to Western investment, was quickly deposed after his heavy-handed response to the unrest in Benghazi. Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, one of five leaders not invited to the conference, was formerly seen as the model African leader, but his government was quickly placed under sanctions in 2000 after implementing a now-infamous land redistribution program that led to the world-famous hyperinflation of 2008. And most recently, the U.S. restricted aid to Uganda in a clampdown over its anti-homosexual legislation.
The United States' firm stance on democracy and human rights has limited its investment on an African continent plagued by rights violations. China, America's global competitor, has chosen to ignore these violations, and thus has outpaced U.S. investment in Africa. In an apparent case of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” the top five destinations for Chinese investment are the pariah state of Zimbabwe and the extractive economies of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This disparity in African trade between the two superpowers also highlights another aspect that has allowed Chinese investment to flourish: the nature of its economy. America’s economy is strongly service-oriented, with the main raw material it requires being oil. China’s manufacturing-based economy, on the other hand, has a greater direct use for raw materials, and thus it has had more ventures on the continent.
However, China has not just beaten the U.S. to extractive industries, it has also rushed to offer cheap and quickly completed construction projects to countries that are desperate for infrastructure. To add onto this, China has not set stringent debt conditions on its loans to African nations, which Western institutions generally require. China has also offered extremely cheap consumer goods, especially electronics, to countries mired in poverty. In combination, these strategies have turned China into the darling of most African leaders.
Yet, China is not dominant in Africa. In fact, it is America’s greatest ally, the European Union, that has emerged as victor in this regard. From the remnants of Françafrique to the expansive Commonwealth, ties between African nations and their former colonizers have remained vibrant and strong. Transnational companies from the EU, such as BP in Nigeria, have utilized historic partnerships, the lack of a language barrier, similarities in the business culture, and even shared time zones, to build a strong, and very profitable, trade relationship. Indeed, so strong and significant has this relationship been that reports have emerged indicating that a reversal of the brain-drain tide may be occurring: one report claims that up to 150,000 Portuguese nationals have moved to emerging Angola to take up office jobs.
The ties between the EU and Africa have not been limited to trade. Political and military ties have been preserved, led by France’s recent interventions in West Africa. In most of these interventions, America signs off on the plans, but they are carried out by the European partners. Indeed, through its AFRICOM system of military bases, the U.S. maintains one of the largest military presences of any country on the African continent. To supplement this, at the just-ended conference, President Obama announced $110 million a year in funding for peacekeeping operations in conflict zones. These measures will no doubt help to cement Washington’s influence on the continent.
Yet, the best and only way in which the U.S. can and should approach Africa has been consistently clear: divorce politics from economics. The U.S. recently did this with Ethiopia, which has a one-party state, and continues to do this strongly with Kagame’s regime in Rwanda, which has suppressed opposition parties in its country. However, this does not seem to be happening soon as a broader policy. Obama reiterated in his opening and closing remarks that an invitation to the recent summit was not an endorsement of the rights record of some of the leaders, emphasizing that the U.S. will not relent in its drive to ensure rights are respected and democracy is promoted. All in all, there is no doubt that this conference will cause a short-term spike in U.S.-African trade, but for longer term sustained and solid growth, the U.S. has to enact a paradigm shift in its foreign policy.