An increase of investment and innovation in Africa has made the continent a rising power on the global stage and an essential partner for the United States in facing today’s myriad global challenges, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs, said at the Atlantic Council on March 9.
“The truth is we can’t meet today’s global challenges without Africa,” said Thomas-Greenfield. “When one thinks about ending poverty, fighting extremism, and boosting economic growth, Africa is central to these efforts.”
Despite the many challenges the continent has faced, Africa “is the next frontier for global opportunities,” she said.
Thomas-Greenfield delivered a valedictory address, the day before the conclusion of her term in office, focused on Africa’s place on the world stage and how the international community, and Africans themselves, can help the continent overcome existing challenges and capitalize on current opportunities. Her remarks were followed by a moderated discussion with J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
“Looking ahead, where Africa ends up on the world stage in the next century will depend on how well the continent tackles its own challenges this century,” according to Thomas-Greenfield. However, “it will also depend on how the United States and the international community partner with Africa to help achieve its promise.” She outlined five major trials currently facing African countries, and how they might be addressed.
Africa’s rapid youth bulge presents a potential source of instability, which must be recognized and catered to. Currently, half of all Africans are under the age of nineteen, and harnessing the potential of this immense human capital “starts with creating opportunity for Africa’s youth,” said Thomas-Greenfield.
“Africa’s youth are its single-greatest resource, and they are a force for good,” she said. “If we can ensure Africa’s youth are engaged and contributing to their countries, Africa’s economy will grow, its people will prosper, and stability will be the order of the day.” This will require increased investment in education and job creation.
These issues are closely linked to the challenge of boosting Africa’s economic growth. Thomas-Greenfield called for increased foreign investment in the continent, from not only the United States, but other countries such as China as well, claiming “we need to correct the misperceptions of risks and educate companies about opportunities.”
However, Thomas-Greenfield said, “while we’ve seen progress in some places, too often we see African leaders clinging to power.” For example, Yahya Jammeh, former president of the Gambia, initially refused to step down when he was not re-elected in December 2016. “When leaders refuse to prepare for transition, sooner or later instability, if not outright civil war, is the result,” said Thomas-Greenfield. However, she said that “this is an area where regional organizations can play a significant role, and they are doing so.” In the Gambia, when Jammeh attempted to hold on to power, the Economic Community of West African States stood up for democracy and forced him to stand down.
Thomas-Greenfield described how democracy and governance go hand in hand with the necessary eradication of corruption. “Corruption actively works against justice and it promotes exclusion and poverty by denying the most vulnerable in Africa basic needs and security,” she said, adding: “It stifles development.” She called on international officials to “call out” corruption. “We all have to stand up against corruption. We have to hold people accountable. We all have to call a spade a spade.”
The instability caused by lack of democracy and rampant corruption leads to the security challenges facing the continent, primarily posed by Boko Haram, an extremist terrorist group in Nigeria. Thomas-Greenfield described how Boko Haram rose out of internal issues in Nigeria. While the US State Department and the African Union (AU) are collaborating to counter Boko Haram in Africa, “the long-term solution to ending violence will depend on addressing the root causes of conflict,” said Thomas-Greenfield, illustrating the interrelated nature of the challenges facing Africa.
“This is the work that the United States must engage in, and we have to succeed,” she said, “not just for Africa’s immediate security, but for Africa’s future and our own security.”
The United States plays a key role in addressing the repercussions of terrorism in Africa by providing humanitarian assistance. However, it is not enough for international partners to provide aid. “We have to look at what their threats are and the extent to which their threats can be dealt with internally,” said Thomas-Greenfield. She called on African leaders, as well as outside actors, to focus their efforts on improving infrastructure and capacity-building on the continent, saying this is the most effective way to solve the challenges facing Africa. “If we don’t build the infrastructure, we will continue to deal with crisis issues,” she said.
“I think we are already on the right track in providing the kinds of infrastructure that will lead to Africa making a difference in the lives of Africans in the future,” Thomas-Greenfield said of US efforts in the region. However, “we have to work with the regional organizations and other partners, because this is not something we can do alone. This is a team sport and everyone has to participate.”
She also outlined US influence in terms of soft-power programs, such as exchange programs between US universities and African partners, as well as the Peace Corps. “These are soft programs, but these are the programs that truly make a difference to the people of Africa,” she said.
However, she said, these efforts to improve infrastructure and increase capacity-building need international support and foreign investment. Not only that, said Thomas-Greenfield, “there has to be a home-grown, Africa-based private sector.” The combination of the two can help provide capital to young African entrepreneurs, leading to job creation and a wealth of opportunities.
According to Thomas-Greenfield, this cannot take place unless African leaders take care of their people. Investment in education, increased participation of women in society, and a focus on human rights will allow countries throughout the continent to begin to capitalize on their vast human capital and natural resources, thereby seizing the opportunities available to them, and making Africa a much strong player and partner on the world stage.
“Working with these governments on dealing with human rights… and taking care of their own people,” is paramount, according to Thomas-Greenfield.
However, she said, “ultimately Africa’s success depends on a strong US-Africa relationship and continued engagement.”
While there is an immense amount of opportunity on the continent, challenges remain, and according to Thomas-Greenfield, the new administration of US President Donald J. Trump must pick up the legacy of old efforts and initiate new solutions. She expressed her optimism regarding the future of US engagement in Africa, saying, while “we are too early in this administration to know what the trend lines will look like, from everything I’ve seen… we are going to remain a committed partner to Africa.”
Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.