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A ‘less is more’ policy for Africa

Greg Mills

Second look

Former United States president Bill Clinton has said: “The worst sin America ever committed about Africa was the sin of neglect and ignorance.”

Under his presidency Africa’s profile rose in the US. Clinton made the first proper visit by a US president to Africa in 1998, and followed this up with the passing in 2000 of the African Growth and Opportunity Act linking trade preference with political and economic reforms.

However, in the eyes of critics, the raising of Africa’s profile and the extent of diplomatic activity was used to justify US policy rather than actual results achieved. Trying to do too much using a weak team, the experts argue, undermined US policy on Africa.

Whereas the engagement of Democrats with Africa was said to have been based on “enlightened self-interest”, Republican foreign policy is traditionally taken to be focused on US “geo-strategic interests”.

Republicans have, however, admitted that there are few US strategic interests in Africa. Although it is early days, Washington insiders see the deployment of National Missile Defence, peace in the Middle East, the need for a new cooperative formula for European defence and, especially in the light of recent developments, the US relations with China, Taiwan and Japan as the foreign policy priorities for the Bush II administration. Or, as one US United Nations diplomat has put it: “US vital interests are in the Persian Gulf, Western Europe and Northeast Asia … but not Africa.”

But this should not imply an Africa policy of benign neglect indeed, anything but. When it comes to Africa, according to the Africa director at the National Security Council, Dr Jendayi Frazer, the Bush administration has three policy “pillars”.

The first is a strategic approach through sub-regional organisations, such as the Southern African Development Community, the Economic Community of West African States and the East African Community, focusing on developing the capabilities and role of “anchor” or “key” states, notably South Africa and Nigeria.

A second pillar focuses on the need to prioritise the issues of HIV/Aids, trade and conflict resolution.

HIV/Aids is said to have “captured the attention of US policymakers”. Of the world’s 25 countries with the highest infection rates, 24 are African, with seven Southern African states having a sero-prevalence rate above 20% South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

The imperative to develop markets and commercial ties recognises the link between stability and prosperity. Here the African Growth and Opportunity Act provides a new paradigm for economic development through investment capital rather than aid. But, although the Act calls for the creation of a US/Africa economic cooperation forum, this is unlikely to be realised in the foreseeable future.

US engagement in resolving Africa’s wars is more likely to be surrounded by controversy, given the African belief that the international community pays only lip-service to its conflicts while expending more time and resources on areas such as Kosovo and Bosnia. In this area the Pentagon has developed its own “three-legged” approach, encapsulating US support for African countries in the areas of defence reform, military infrastructure and capacity building, underpinned by the belief that a good economy demands investment, requiring, in turn, a stable environment provided by effective police and security forces.

The third pillar of Bush II African policy, according to Frazer, is a need “to build on success” and support those non-anchor countries such as Botswana, Ghana and Mozambique that are “making economic and political progress”.

What do these priorities mean in practice?

Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Commission has argued persuasively that when it comes to US policy towards Africa “less is more” or as one Pentagon staffer put it, “fewer things done better”. The development of stronger ties with pivotal states such as Nigeria and South Africa, rather than a blanket policy towards Africa, would apparently coincide with this mindset.

Should this imply support for President Thabo Mbeki’s Millennium Africa Recovery Plan?

Although the plan will, with the uncertain future of the South Africa/US Binational Commission, definitely be on the agenda when Mbeki visits Washington in June, there is, frankly, scepticism about an approach that in the eyes of some in the US government is more “a programme of entitlement than one that addresses the root causes of conflict and mismanagement”. Washington analysts are keen to point to the widening difference in perception between the West and Africa, given the latter’s preference to stress the “past and colonialism rather than the impact of subsequent bad governance on the continent’s fortunes”.

The commission seems most likely to be downgraded from a vice-presidential committee to one headed by the two foreign ministers and on which responsibility is increasingly devolved to officials rather than political actors. And expect broad support for the Millennium Africa Recovery Plan proposals, but little in the way of real external assistance in the absence of internal African action towards promoting human rights and democracy. South African policy towards Zimbabwe, US Africa hands point out, is in apparent direct contrast to the ideals professed in the Africa recovery plan.

What about problem areas?

One problem with the “anchor” or “key” states approach is simply that this presumes connivance between partner state and US interests, whereas in reality these are sovereign entities with independent sets of concerns. Currently, US Africa policy is thus not isolationist but, rather, unilateralist. For the key states approach to be truly workable, it requires a coincidence of interests.

This policy is also predicated on using the key states to influence their regions positively. As the Zimbabwe contagion has shown, however, the problem is also that these states might themselves, as one UN official termed it, “be irradiated by their regions”.

Another potential policy weakness is the apparent lack of coordination between the different arms and agencies of the US government. In this regard, areas over which to expect possible disquiet include Washington’s policy towards solving longstanding African conflicts such as Sudan and Angola.

Sudan is the one area of African policy where a broad consensus exists in the US between those on the left, who argue for a more proactive inter-ventionist Africa policy, and those on the otherwise isolationist religious right, who are critical of the acts perpetrated by the largely Muslim Sudanese north against the Christian south. However, although this coalition supports increasing Khartoum’s isolation, US policy is, ironically, more likely to move in the opposite direction towards greater engagement, recognising the failure of the Clinton policy in making progress in ending the 30-year civil war.

Finding a solution to the Angola war also continues to present a tricky problem, given the absence of consensus about whether or not to attempt to negotiate once more with the embargoed (and discredited) Jonas Savimbi. The disagreement divides Congress (where the overall mood is apparently more sympathetic to this notion) from the State Department and NGO/think-tank community (which propounds the UN line on sanctions and strengthened isolation) and the Pentagon (which attempts to find some middle-ground).

But, as with Sudan, there is apparently a broad understanding that current policy is unlikely to help bring an end to the Unita-MLPA stalemate either through military means or negotiations. And here, arguably, the sentimental attraction that Savimbi has for the previous Bush administration could provide a window of opportunity for the veteran guerrilla leader to make a graceful political exit.

Walter Kansteiner, the incoming Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, is unlikely to attempt any radical solutions to African problems, however desirable these may appear. Already comments attributed to him about the possible creation of a Tutsiland to solve the problems of the Great Lakes have raised a storm of protest among Congolese-based pressure groups.

Bush has assembled a strong Africa team, and one with close ties with South Africa in particular. Frazer wrote her graduate thesis on civil-military relations in Kenya under the supervision of her Stanford University professor Condoleezza Rice, now the National Security Adviser. Kansteiner served in the Bush I administration in the policy planning staff, and has worked closely on Southern African issues. Mark Bellamy, his likely principal deputy, was a political counsellor at the US Embassy in Pretoria during the early 1990s. Charlie Snyder, the other deputy, is a former military officer with extensive African experience. The Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Affairs in charge of Africa, Bear McConnell, also served at the Pretoria Embassy in the 1970s as air attach. Tom Callahan, who is tipped to take over the Africa post in the policy planning section in the State Department, was, from 1996 to 1998, head of the International Repub-lican Institute in Johannesburg.

The conventional wisdom about US/Africa relations is that the Democrats are a more sympathetic lot. However, if the results of the Clinton administration are anything to go by, this belief is influenced more by intentions than action, and by the overwhelming support given by the African-American community to the Democratic Party cause. In practice, this Republican administration might be low on rhetoric but higher on more focused delivery.

Dr Greg Mills is the national director of the South African Institute of International Affairs based at Wits University in Johannesburg and has been doing research in the US

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