the continent of Africa has 54 countries and almost all of them present, the nation that received the most attention at last week’s US-Africa Summit in Washington was China. That’s because the US is trying to catch up with and surpass the Asian superpower. To catch up with China, which invests twice as much as the US in Africa, the Obama administration must pivot from its traditional role of providing foreign aid to Africa—with strings attached—to one investor/partner.
By Amanuel Biedemariam,
ACCORDING to the Wall Street Journal, “China’s annual trade with Africa is about $200 billion, about twice the volume of U.S.-Africa trade.” China has been investing in Africa’s infrastructures, building schools, hospitals, manufacturing facilities, establishing markets, selling goods while unconditionally buying material and natural resources from Africa for some time now. China is indeed the equal opportunity investor in Africa, spending, dumping the US dollar in a fashion unseen in Africa ever. Where African roads connect, the bridges and rail system have China’s footprints.
The US had ample opportunity to establish itself in Africa. After WWII, the US conspired with its European allies and created a system to exploit Africa. The Soviet Union was the only power in the path of the US. After the Cold War, the US had another chance. However, instead of partnership, the US chose to have four anchor states in Africa to control Africa.
The US divided Africa into geostrategic quadrants, assigned four Anchor countries to help manage it. The US intended to control the political, military, economic, and diplomatic affairs using Regional Economic Communities (RECs) run by the anchor states.
The State Department, USAID, connected with multinational corporations and aided by massive support of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)s covered the Public Affairs and diplomatic interests. At the same time, it used the military, Africom, as the reinforcement.
With a heavy-handed approach, the US managed Africa. With the help of these anchor state leaders such as Meles Zenawi, the US had full access to African Union (AU). At one point, the US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs was sitting on AU’s meetings to ensure the agendas of interest make it through. The US used the United Nations extensively to give all issues international legitimacy as needed. The UN Security Council was one of the essential tools the US uses to pass punitive measures against countries that fail to kowtow.
The way the US and China approached Africa was completely different. After the Cold War, the US had opportunities to stamp Africa by doing what China does in an accelerated fashion. The US could have invested in Africa’s future by laying foundations such as building roads, dams, bridges, railways and helping establish the infrastructures that Africa needs. The US could have focused on the people by building schools, hospitals and helping them expand their technical and human resources capacities.
Instead, the US played the king-maker of Africa, determining who governs what nation and how while depressing the natural democracy-building processes all over Africa. The US saw its relations with Africa as resources, with the prism of the War on Terror and the military took center stage.
The US had unmatched advantages over China because Africa favored the US for its perceived democratic values, way of life, language, and culture that is widely accepted globally.
Africa received Americans well due to the connections the US established by using aid and programs such as the Peace Corps. In addition, the various Western artists, individuals, groups, and the African American population who fought hard to end the South African apartheid system have created a positive impression. These are amongst the factors that made America a favored nation.
However, successive administrations squandered time and opportunities while China slowly, methodically infiltrated Africa and seeded roots that could last. The AU’s Africa building in Addis Ababa serves as a testament to that. China-focused on creating economic partnerships everywhere. Most importantly, Africans recognized and welcomed China’s approach as an alternative to the West, which traditionally brutalized Africa.
Africa quietly cooperated with China by signing all sorts of agreements with long-term implications. China treated African nations equally and invited all African countries for the China-Africa Summit that put Washington on the defensive.
The US Africa Leaders summit was a reactive response to mitigate China’s advances in the continent.
The US Africa Leaders Summit was consistent with the US’s longstanding approach to Africa, paternalistic and disingenuous. It was forced, had no clear vision, and was shortsighted. It was a show. The Summit exposed that the Obama administration’s unwillingness to change to compete with China.
The Summit was not representative of all African nations. The AU has in its charters an agreement that stipulates; countries that call for Africa Summit to include all African leaders without exclusion.
To bypass that, the Obama administration called the Summit “US Africa Leaders Summit.” It does not say “African” leaders. Therefore, technically, it is not the African leaders’ Summit. This language allows the US to invite leaders it wants and reject those it did not. Unlike China that uses the AU Charter to invite all nations.
The critical question is who did it benefit or hurt. How will this change the US approach to Africa? How will it help the US and Africa?
The Summit exposed; the US to be in a much weaker position compared to China. US’s national deficit and debt to China limits US’s ability to spend freely. On the other hand, China is endowed with the disposable dollar to dump in Africa as a real investment.
China can move freely in Africa because Chinese companies are already established in many countries. It is normal to see Chinese companies run factories, construction sites, building commercial and residential buildings with Chinese personnel on the ground on large-scale operations everywhere in Africa. China has managed to make its presence acceptable in most African nations, even in high-conflict regions.
The way China approached Africa gave it full access and familiarity with the locals and their traditional customs. It provides a clear advantage over the US in Africa.
On the other hand, the US is not interested in helping transform African institutions and create bilateral relations with African countries. The US cannot overcome China’s advantages easily. That means the US has a lot of catching up to do.
The US’s primary focus is China. However, Africa is increasingly becoming an important business partner for many nations such as Russia, Brazil, and India, amongst the few notables.
It is a new advantage to the African nations. Because, for the first time in its history, the US is forced to deal with Africa as equals. It is a hard pill to swallow and not easily digested for a nation that has done things her way for centuries.
The Summit exposed all the weaknesses of the approach the US is taking in Africa. To make matters worse, Vice President Biden addressed Africa as a country.
Addressing Africa as one nation and disregarding its charter is shortsighted. The whole Summit was a one-way lecture shoving information to leaders that sat listening to speaker after speaker telling them how important Africa is.
While the rhetoric of investing in the future of Africa is well-intentioned, there needs to be some fundamental change of attitude and approach towards dealing with Africa for changes to mean anything. That shift begins with credibility. The US needs to reestablish a genuine, credible approach and give the African people a chance to bring the changes they want and not impose change upon them as it has for decades by force and coercion. Unfortunately, credibility was the key ingredient that the Summit lacked. In 2009, in Ghana, President Barack Obama said,
“Africa doesn’t need strongmen. It needs strong institutions.”
Five years later, at the beginning-of-the-end of his presidency, President Obama wined and dined these strong men and promised that he would give billions through them.
These leaders have turned the rich continent into perpetual beggar-states while hoarding national treasures into their coffers in banks all around. These men are taking food and life away from the children of Africa. Is president Obama unaware of the records of some of the leaders? In Ghana, President Obama also said,
” No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top”
Why then did Obama choose to invest in these places with these strong men in power?
Africa’s leaders are much weaker today than ever before because they cannot secure their countries from outside forces. They are under constant pressure from the West to comply, and if they fail, regime change policy is enforced by any means necessary. And if that fails, they hamper their ability to govern with sanctions and blockades. They force even the most well-intentioned leaders to bow to Western interests. The presence of China and others in the continent gives these leaders a fighting chance against the West
In addition, the US recognizes that the free reign it once had at the UN is effectively over. This realization prompted the Obama administration to address these leaders, the strong men of Africa, with a properly titled gathering called “US Africa Leaders Summit” and woo them away from China. In other words, Barack Obama is playing catch up.