We have asked some of Africa’s leading academics and thinkers to reflect on what the inauguration of a new US president means for Africa. This series is produced In collaboration with the University of the Witwatersrand’s African Center for the Study of the United States.
Since American agricultural commodities’ demand for slave labour brought the United States and Africa together four centuries ago, the US-Africa relationship has been mainly defined by economics and the shifting strategic value of the continent to America.
As President Joe Biden takes office, it is time to consider how to elevate US-Africa relations through policies that can bring more prosperity to ordinary Africans and Americans.
When Ronald Reagan began his presidency in 1981, gross domestic product per capita in the US was $13 917, $2 913 in South Africa, $2 180 in Nigeria, $1 004 in Côte d’Ivoire, $700 in Senegal and $463 in Zaire. Nigeria and South Africa had a higher GDP per capita than South Korea ($1 883) and China ($197).
Four decades later, the 2021 GDP per capita of Nigeria ($2210) and the Democratic Republic of Congo ($477) have barely inched forward. GDP has risen a little more in South Africa ($5 240), doubled in Côte d’Ivoire ($2 570) and Senegal ($1 596) but the values quite lag behind the GDP per capita in the US ($66 140), China ($11 710) or South Korea ($32 310).
GDP per capita statistics tell us that, despite positive prospects such as mobile technology, fin-tech, entrepreneurship and FDIs (foreign direct investments), the vast majority of African nations still lag far behind the prosperity of Asia’s leading economies. Yet, the US has poured more than $143-billion in official development assistance in sub-Saharan Africa since 1981. In this context, taking a hard look at US engagement with Africa and re-imagining it for the better is not only an imperative, but an opportunity that the incoming Biden administration would be wise not to pass up.
Biden campaign’s stated objectives for Africa policy were vague and lofty: promoting and expanding democracy, diplomatic relations, diversity and inclusion and youth leadership development. The Biden team should start addressing the problematic aspects of how the US engages with Africa.
First, a lack of nuanced, in-depth analysis can lead to policy blunders, with disastrous consequences. Often, US policy ignores local complexities, leading to protagonists being cast in simplistic terms. Although perhaps serving US interests in the short run, this approach has led to lasting devastating consequences (in Libya, Rwanda, DRC and Somalia, to cite a few).
Second, most US administrations tend to leave African policy in the hands of the same small number of bureaucrats, who recycle the same old thinking about the continent. Fresh faces could bring greater diversity in perspectives, more competition of ideas and innovation.
Third, the US government claims it wants to increase private sector engagement with Africa. However, these business engagements typically look more like aid. We know that, in addition to human capital development, no country has increased its wealth without a large and thriving private sector. Yet, whenever the US arrives in Africa to perform a patchwork of well-intentioned activities they do not eradicate poverty but instead increase dependency on aid.
In his speech in Ghana in 2009, Barack Obama said that “we must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans”. The Trump administration based its aid policy on the notion that recipients of aid must build their local development capacity. Frankly, it has never mattered who is in charge in Washington DC; the commitment of African leaders to serve their citizens’ interests is more pertinent. In turn, it is up to Africans to demand accountability from their leaders and take charge of their development.
Consequently, the US can be a partner to Africans already creating meaningful change. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that African governments and their partners should not continue to ignore critical investments in the fundamentals — healthcare, education, infrastructure, energy and water and sanitation.
The Biden administration should consider a number of policy options to address critical areas of mutual interest.
- In the wake of Covid-19, encourage African governments to prioritise budgetary spending in public health; reverse President Trump’s Global Gag rule which imposes anti-abortion rules to family planning programmes; forge a global coalition on pandemics that would leverage African countries’ expertise with HIV, Cholera and Ebola — for instance by highlighting the critical use of community health workers.
- Improve existing trade agreements such as African Growth and Opportunity Act, negotiate free trade agreements and support the ratification and implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. To reverse the declining trend of US-Africa trade, more needs to be done to help more US companies recognise the business opportunities in a region with the fastest urban growth in the world, where three quarters of the population is under the age of 35, and which recorded the world’s largest volume of retail crypto transactions below $10 000.
- Strengthen existing educational exchange programmes such as the Mandela Washington Fellowship and support African higher education institutions through accreditations and technical assistance. Encourage partnerships between US universities and their African counterparts by funding the University Partnership Initiative (UPI) in the US State Department.
- In compliance with the Leahy law, suspend security assistance to repressive governments that commit human rights violations; use the global Magnitsky Act to impose sanctions on human rights abusers; lift the Trump administration’s sanctions against International Criminal Court officials.
- Reinstate the “Publish What You Pay” rules repealed by the Trump administration in 2017, which required US oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments for rights of exploration and extraction of natural resources; collaborate with African governments to curb illicit financial flows and recover stolen assets.
- De-militarise US security co-operation with Africa, as the last two decades have proven that military action alone cannot end terrorism and extremism. Instead, re-pivot resources that promote democratic governance across the continent, applying the same standards to all governments and inclusive economic development.
- Increase investment in agricultural programmes to adapt to climate change; support US international agencies’ monitoring of corporate and governmental compliance with environment protection agreements.
- Restore the Obama-era target number for refugee resettlement in the US and support US-based refugee resettlement agencies.