Historically, Africa has largely remained in the periphery of American foreign policy interests except where American security is at stake.
Egypt alone, which is of significant security interest to the United States, receives about 20 percent of U.S. aid to Africa. The limited U.S. interest in Africa is also evidenced by the fact that despite the free trade policy efforts of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, US commercial interests in Africa remain very low. In 2009, of the $282bn foreign direct investment outflows from the US, less than 2 percent went to Africa – the majority of which went to the oil and extractive minerals sectors.
A few months into his presidency, President Obama appeared to signal a new dawn in US-Africa relations. In speeches he made in Ghana and Egypt, Obama articulated a relationship based on partnership and mutual interests. While making it clear that Africans were solely responsible for their destiny, President Obama indicated his administration’s desire and commitment to support Africa’s development efforts. Although his speech in Egypt was directed at the Muslim world, it did resonate positively with some Africans who saw a president willing to engage them with respect and dignity.
The President’s early signals on his interest in dealing with Africa solidified the high expectations that the continent held following his election. Africans expected that with their ‘native son’ as president of the most powerful nation in the world, their interests would feature more prominently in America’s policy space as evidenced by more development cooperation through trade and investment; increased aid flows and support initiated in previous administrations.
These expectations were largely misplaced: the president inherited a dismal domestic economy which means he had to focus on economic recovery. In addition he did not have resources at his disposal to support Africa. But more importantly, what seemed to have been missed is that Africa does not have any constituents who deliver votes and thus there are no substantive political returns for focusing on the region. For a president keen to be re-elected, a focus on Africa is hardly an optimal political investment.
To be sure, programs inherited from previous administrations have largely remained intact and there have also been some new initiatives such as Feed the Future and the Global Health Initiative. Nevertheless, these are small in scale and scope. To a large extent, there has been little change in US-Africa relations during the Obama administration, contrary to what many Africans had hoped. Furthermore, there has not been any major change in how Americans view Africa generally–tourists to the region and U.S. foreign direct investment to Africa remains low and declining relative to other countries – especially China. In addition, while the U.S. was quick to intervene in the crisis in Libya, it was largely absent when it came to Sudan; again reflecting the dominance of security interests in US engagement with Africa.
Notwithstanding the fact that there has been limited change in US policy towards Africa during Obama’s presidency, the expectation is that, like in the case of past presidents, Africa will be more of a priority if Obama is re-elected. Increasingly, there are indications of heightened interest – both commercial and security related – which could imply a more strategic positioning for the US in Africa. This is exemplified by recent visits to Africa by the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January and one by the assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson in February. A visit by the First Lady late last year, while of less policy impart, did at least communicate to Africans that the Administration had not forgotten the continent.
Secretary Clinton’s visit took in four West African countries: Liberia, Cape Verde,Cote d’Ivoire, and Togo. This visit targeted countries that recently made democratic transitions through competitive elections. The support of democratic transitions and improved governance are at the core of Obama’s administration’s stated relations with Africa. The Secretary’s visit to these countries was to signal the its support for such reforms. The visit to Togo was also most likely motivated by the fact that that country now has a seat on the United Nations Security Council and the U.S. is keen to have some influence on how the country votes. Togo is also the home of the largest single U.S. foreign investment, a $200 million power plant in Lomé.
The Secretary’s visit was also calculated to serve other purposes. Increasingly, the Obama Administration is facing criticism of its neglect in prioritizing Africa at a time when other emerging countries have taken aggressive strategies to entrench their commercial interests in the continent. Specifically, China appears to be strategically and consistently cornering vital African markets. Although the president was categorical in his State of the Union address that America is not ceding its leadership role in the world, it is not lost on many observers that American influence and dominance in Africa has been significantly eroded by China, Brazil, India and others.
These other countries see Africa as a budding place for investment, a point well confirmed by the frequent interactions by officials of these countries with African governments and the private sector. President Hu Jintao has visited about 20 African countries since he came into office. India and Iran are also stepping up their engagement with Africa. Last year India pledged $5bn in aid to help support Africa’s push to meet the Millennium Development Goals. In 2009, Iran pledged investment to build a car factory, chemical plant, oil refinery in the West African nation of Senegal.
The Secretary’s visit to Africa and also that of the Under Secretary of African Affairs reflect the increasing realization that the US is losing commercial ground on the continent. Assistant Secretary Johnnie Carson’s February trip to the region is of note because he is accompanied by American investors, with the primary purpose being to explore commercial opportunities for American firms. This is evidence that the administration realizes that engaging Africa has great promise for mutual benefit.. Senator Chris Coons, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, who accompanied Secretary Clinton on her visit, recently stated on his blog, “We’re missing an important strategic opportunity for the United States. China is taking advantage of our absence as a major funder of infrastructure and is advancing their economic and, I think, policy agenda across the continent.” These are words of wisdom that President Obama and his team are well advised to take seriously.
By: Mwangi S. Kimenyi
Mr. Kimenyi is a senior fellow and director of the Africa Growth Initiative, The Brookings Institution.