/ 17 September 2020

US foreign policy may be creating instability in Africa

Ethiopia Sudan Egypt Energy Electricity Dam Water Economy Diplom
This handout picture taken on July 20, 2020, and released by Adwa Pictures on July 27, 2020, shows an aerial view Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River in Guba, northwest Ethiopia.


During dispute resolutions, whether in arbitration or in a court of law, agents of the legal system are required to maintain a certain distance from the proceedings. The law thus provides an off-ramp for actors with conflicts of interest — recusal. Even in the violence of war and peacekeeping, this principle holds. 

During my home country’s civil war, the then-rebel Liberian leader Charles Taylor mounted a rigorous campaign to harass and bait the regional Economic Community of West African States peacekeepers into conflict with his National Patriotic Front. Newspapers and radio stations in his controlled area published and aired stories of peacekeepers engaging in artisanal mining and other chicanery. Taylor’s goal was simple: to reduce the peacekeeping force to just another faction in the war and erode their legitimacy, at least in the eyes of civilians. The peacekeepers exercised superhuman restraint so as not to muddle the line between themselves and combatants.

This principle of rising above is instructive because it is seemingly lost on United States treasury officials leading the current “negotiations” among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over water usage on the Nile and the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam. First, it was Egypt which invited the US to resolve the issue — not an overwhelming choice of all parties. 

Starting from this trust deficit, one would expect the US to ensure that it is perceived as an honest broker, a disinterested third party. But this was not to be. The first sign that these talks would not go as planned was the choice of the US treasury to lead these talks. This was incongruous on two counts: one, the US has no financial stake in the project and two, the treasury does not oversee transboundary water rights issues. 

Disappointed that a water rights problem, centuries in the making, did not lend itself to a tidy resolution in a few months, the US government signalled that it was not, after all, an objective arbiter but had rather picked a side and was now a party to the conflict. 

When the US threatened to withhold aid in an effort to pressure Ethiopia on the matter, the US unnecessarily became a vector of instability in an already volatile situation. There is a risk now of an emboldened Egypt doing something provocative.

None of this was necessary and is only occurring because the US needlessly inserted itself into the situation. This ahistorical approach to foreign policy is dangerous. It reveals a lack of policymaking depth since it appears not to take knock-on effects into account. It is equally possible that the effects were assessed, acknowledged and then dismissed. Either scenario is frightening. 

Elsewhere in the region the US continued this approach when it introduced a potentially destabilising dynamic to Sudan’s fragile transition. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo flew into Khartoum with a massive ask: that Sudan would regularise relations with Israel. A country where the political space is violently contested, has bloody tribal clashes and armed factions still remain outside the reform process. 

Growing impatience with the transition does not need any more accelerant. Any worsening of Sudan’s litany of problems could tip the balance and even a cursory knowledge of the country’s history or the dynamics of its fragility would have advised against this request. In August, when the Sudanese foreign ministry spokesman, Haider Badawi, “implicitly acknowledged the existence of contacts with Israel,” the government scrambled to issue an official denial and dismissed Badawi. 

The transition under way in Sudan was expensive, paid for in the lives and blood of ordinary Sudanese. Pompeo’s request trivialises their sacrifice. It was a further element of destabilisation in a country that has more than its share of difficulties. Other regions of the world may have institutions both at the national and regional levels to absorb and resolve disruptions. This is not the case in sub-Saharan Africa. The region’s institutions are stretched thin, under-resourced and not seeking new challenges.

Finally, the US government just announced that it would not be joining Covax, the effort to create a pool of promising vaccine candidates and guarantee access of successful vaccines to every country in the world. For countries across Africa without the financial wherewithal to make advance purchases of prospective vaccines, to the tune of billions of dollars, as high-income countries have done, Covax was an equitable path. 

Africa, as a region, will disproportionately benefit from this initiative since, like the rest of the world, it is awaiting a therapeutic countermeasure to return to full normalcy. The US has decided not to support this initiative.

The US has acknowledged the goal of the African Union to become more integrated through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), but remains ambivalent at best about the project and has, against the wishes of African policymakers, concentrated its efforts on developing a “model” bilateral trade agreement in Africa. While the AfCFTA allows members to negotiate third-party agreements with the proviso that the most generous terms are extended to AfCFTA parties on a reciprocal basis, most African policy makers understand that bilateral free-trade areas disrupt the continental integration plan and introduce a confusing dynamic. 

The US inexplicably introduced plans to withdraw US security assets from the Sahel at exactly the moment the security situation was deteriorating, and US policy has choked off crucial funding to UN programmes (many across the continent) and continued to deport Africans even with borders closed during a pandemic

Taken in total, these policy outcomes raise questions about the true intent and objectives of American foreign policy in Africa. It is entirely plausible that what we are witnessing is not the result of deliberate, comprehensive, coherent strategy but rather haphazard transactional choices based on perceived short-term wins. 

Either justification is deeply regrettable. Whatever process produces these policies, it is now time to ask if US foreign policy in Africa is creating, not preventing, instability.

W Gyude Moore is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, and a former minister of public works in Liberia