Tighten US-Africa links
American President Barack Obama is expected to focus more on Africa in 2011. This comes none too soon. Africa has become a competitive terrain as emerging powers accelerate their economic diplomacies on a continent considered the “last frontier” for trade and investment opportunities in the West-to-East shift in global economic momentum.
The unfinished business of Iraq and Afghanistan and Obama’s reaching out to the Muslim world and re-engaging with neglected vital interests in East Asia inevitably pushed Africa on to the back burner. The “Great Recession” reinforced his domestic focus and interrelated with his administration’s initial Asia-Pacific emphasis. Yet, simultaneously, Obama’s opening move saw Asia as Sinocentric and meant acknowledging the rise of emerging powers and regions. The orchestrated emergence of the G20 (including South Africa), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s opening foray into the continent and Obama’s symbolic visit to Ghana, including his “tough love” remarks for Africa’s leaders, seemed a harbinger of things to come.
Meanwhile, having assembled an expert Africa team under Ambassador Johnnie Carson, the administration’s main concerns were crisis-managing Darfur and the north-south Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan, reviewing prospects for reassembling the Humpty Dumpty of Somalia and keeping a nervous eye on unsettling developments in Kenya and Nigeria. As Obama surveys the horizon leading up to 2012, many of the early initiatives in Asia, the Middle East and the Hindu Kush have settled into a pattern of engagement, even if not satisfactory resolution. The same goes for closely interrelated areas of strategic interest: the Russian “reset” agenda and navigating ambivalent transatlantic ties including the troubled eurozone. This leaves two areas devoid of Washington’s strategic attention: Latin America (and the Caribbean, save for Haiti) and last, but not least, Africa.
In the Americas much depends on Obama’s relations with the Dilma Roussef administration in Brazil and how the cautious relaxation of restrictions on a post-Castro Cuba is navigated. Closer to home, there is the urgency of cross-border management of relations with a Mexico battling a drug cartel insurgency, plus an immigration challenge that has made Arizona a flashpoint of violent reaction. But the penultimate test for Obama, is going to be the extent to which he charts a new course in Africa.
Opening a new chapter in US-African relations will not be simple. Overall, relations between the US and Africa are already on a good footing—complacently and boringly so. The end of white rule in Southern Africa mainly accounts for this. As such, US-Africa policy is a non-controversial terrain of bipartisan consensus. But it is also by and large in a holding pattern, devoid of strategic vision.
As Africa becomes the focus of competitive economic strategies from traditional and emerging powers alike, the Obama administration’s challenge will be to break out of this holding pattern into something more dynamic. This is a challenge for African leaders too. How will they exploit the fact that the world’s lone superpower (in relative decline though it is) is led by “one of their own”, with roots in the continent? The fact that Obama is of Kenyan descent ought to suggest a broader strategic vision converging with a pan-African strategic impetus. The unfolding East African Community (EAC) integration project could result in the five-nation bloc becoming Africa’s first regionally integrated political federation, but this seems as yet unregistered on Washington’s radar.
The vision of converging US and African agendas on the continent should be one of regional and continental integration. Unless Obama can, in consultation with Africa’s leaders, grasp this, his exhortations about African leadership, responsibility and democratic good governance amounts to little for a continent that must overcome its fragmentation. In practical terms this means revisiting the Southern African Development Community-US Forum or initiating a forum for the US and the Southern African Customs Union. This could lead to new trade agreements. In West Africa, it means establishing an Economic Community of West African States-US forum with a sense of urgency informed by the likely break-up of Côte d’Ivoire, a case of “elite sovereignty” defying “popular sovereignty”. Unlike in Southern Africa, there are already structured relations between Ecowas and Africom (as with the African Union as well).
Friends if the SADC
Then there is the break-up looming at the eastern end of the Sudano-Sahelian geocultural fault line. South Sudan has just concluded its self-determination referendum. An EAC-US forum could explore South Sudan’s joining EAC. Such a prospect could also offer Somaliland an integrationist option while guiding the Somali region into a greater East African federated community.
The break-up of Sudan and, possibly, Côte d’Ivoire means that Africa may see more fragmentation on the road to integration. But both crises present opportunities for exercising the pan-African imagination. Rather than South Sudan and/or north and south Côte d’Ivoire being recognised as fully sovereign states, their respective regional economic communities could integrate them as self-governing autonomous areas, accelerating regional integration.
Then there is the African diaspora. There is no reason why there should not be a “Friends of Ecowas” among West African immigrants in the US, or equivalent “Friends of the EAC” and “Friends of SADC” in their respective diasporic communities. African Americans could boost their African interests through such constituency-building structures. The US is one of the major African diaspora states.
In short, the creative possibilities emanating from a joint US-African integration project are endless. The US must reposition itself as the strategic partner of a continent that will eventually outstrip both China and India in population. If Obama fails to place US-African relations on a more dynamic footing it is difficult to imagine anyone coming after him who will.
Francis A Kornegay is a research associate at the Institute for Global Dialogue.