J. Peter Pham Authors Africa Chapter in John Hay Initiative’s “Choosing to Lead” Book

This chapter originally appeared in the book, Choosing to Lead: American Foreign Policy for a Disordered World, released by the John Hay Initiative.

Africa is destined to present the United States with both significant challenges and extraordinary opportunities in the coming years, far more than has been the case in the recent past. It could hardly be otherwise thanks to the complex reality Africa presents. Divergent political, security, and economic trends exist across 54 African countries, presenting U.S. policymakers with a wide range of choices as they chart new partnerships in an increasingly dynamic region. While the United States has no formal alliances in sub-Saharan Africa, or even in Arab North Africa for that matter, it does have a bountiful variety of partnership relations, several of which contain a security component. That bounty is bound to increase in the years ahead.

In one sense Africa’s rising prominence represents a restoration of its place. America’s first established diplomatic relationship dates from 1777, when Morocco’s Sultan Mohammed III became the first foreign sovereign to recognize American independence. The subsequent 1786 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, America’s longest unbroken treaty relationship, is still in force. In the post-independence period, no overseas challenge had a more transformative impact on America’s political evolution than that posed by the Barbary Pirates of the semi-autonomous Ottoman regencies of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers. The first permanent overseas deployment of the U.S. Navy was its West Africa Squadron, established by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 and operative until the Civil War, wherein the United States committed to maintaining at least eighty guns off Africa’s Atlantic coast in conjunction with the Royal Navy’s efforts to suppress the slave trade.

In the ensuing years Africa largely disappeared from the U.S. strategic calculus. During the Cold War episodic alarms over Soviet attempts to secure footholds on the continent arose only to recede as quickly as they appeared. The zeitgeist captured in Hans Morgenthau’s 1955 diktat, that “the United States has in Africa no specific political or military interests,” has long assumed pride of place. [20] Five decades later the Clinton Administration’s Pentagon strategy document declared that, “America’s security interests in Africa are very limited.” [21]  Then-candidate George W. Bush asserted to an interviewer that, “while Africa may be important, it doesn’t fit into the national strategic interests as far as I can see them.” [22]

Yet once in the White House, it was Bush who, in 2007, directed the Defense Department to create a unified combatant command, the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), covering the entire continent (although primary responsibility for military relations with Egypt remained with the Central Command). And his successor, Barack Obama, convened in 2014 the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the largest gathering of African heads of state and government ever hosted by an American President. Why the relatively sudden shift?

At the end of the Cold War, all but a handful of the continent’s states were ruled by one-party—if not one-man—regimes. Until 1990, aside from the internal whites-only politics of the South African apartheid regime, exactly one African leader—Somalia’s Aden Abdulle Osman Daar, back in 1967—had ever left office through electoral defeat, and only three—Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal, Ahmadou Ahidjo of Cameroon, and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania—had retired voluntarily. In contrast, by the turn of this century, virtually every African state had opened up at least some space for political competition and many have subsequently become electoral democracies with regular peaceful transfers of power between governing parties and their opposition. Some countries have experienced such transitions multiple times in recent years. That said, the U.S. government has reduced its democracy support and promotion efforts in Africa in recent years. U.S. Agency for International Development funding for democracy assistance in Africa has declined nearly 40 percent since 2009, as noted in chapter 25. Likewise programs addressing corruption and poor governance—both obstacles to development—have seen their funding curtailed.

Africa’s economic progress since the end of the Cold War has been even more impressive than its political development. Today the continent is home to seven of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world this decade. [23] Demand from abroad, especially emerging markets like China and India, for its primary commodities had been partly responsible for the uptick. Africa holds 95 percent of the world’s known reserves of platinum group metals, 90 percent of its chromite ore reserves, and 80 percent of its phosphate rock reserves, as well as more than half of its cobalt and a third of its bauxite. Africa’s proven petroleum reserves have also increased by 40 percent in the decade in contrast to the downward trends observed almost everywhere else. That increase has boosted prices and, in turn, motivated new investment in exploration and extraction.

Moreover, African agriculture’s importance is also growing as demand for food by the developing world’s rising and increasingly affluent populations surges, even as local resources elsewhere diminish (Africa contains more than half of the world’s unused arable land). While the starting baseline for most African countries is relatively low and while, in some of them, much of the boom has been driven by potentially fickle demand for commodities, a significant proportion of the growth is due to deeper, long-term trends. Demographics is one. By 2050, one in four workers in the world will be African. The world’s fastest-growing urbanization rates also mean lower basic infrastructure costs and concentrated consumer markets. Africa’s communications infrastructure continues to grow at revolutionary rates: Mobile telephony and internet usage has grown at five times global averages over the past decade. Whereas African countries used to be written off as “risky” bets by investors or thought of only as sources for raw natural resources, robust GDP growth rates, coupled with improved regulatory and commercial environments, have made the continent an increasingly attractive place to do business.

Although the story of Africa is increasingly one of economic dynamism, there are very real security, humanitarian, and developmental challenges that remain to be confronted, and that the United States has a stake in helping to tackle.

The potential for Africa’s poorly governed spaces to be exploited to provide facilitating environments, recruits, and eventual targets for terrorists and other non-state actors has long been recognized. As the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America noted, “Weak states… can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states. Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers. Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.” [24] With the possible exception of the wider Middle East (defined to include Afghanistan and Pakistan), nowhere has this analysis seemed more applicable than Africa, where, as the document went on to acknowledge, regional conflicts arising from a variety of causes, including poor governance, external aggression, competing territorial and resource claims, internal revolt, and ethnic and religious tensions all “lead to the same ends: failed states, humanitarian disasters, and ungoverned areas that can become safe havens for terrorists.”

Al-Qaeda’s 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi—as well as the countless attacks that have followed—focused attention on the deadly reality of the terrorist threat in Africa. This threat has come in several varieties. The “rebranding” of the Algerian Islamist terrorist organization GSPC (Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat) as “the Organization for Jihad in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb” (“Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” AQIM) illustrates one variety. The attack on Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant by one of the group’s factions in January 2013 left at least 39 foreign hostages dead and sent shivers through energy markets. The ongoing activities of various militant Islamist movements in the territory of the former Somali Democratic Republic illustrate another. Al-Shabaab’s attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in September 2013 and on Garissa University College in April 2015 left more than 67 and 148 dead, respectively. The fall of the Qaddafi regime in Libya created a vacuum in which still other jihadi terrorist groups have flourished, including several affiliated with the so-called Islamic State. Given how many of these groups increasingly interact with each other, terrorism will likely remain one of the top security challenges in North Africa and the Sahel for the foreseeable future.

Nor is terrorism in Africa exclusively Islamist in character. The Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda spread terror and death for years. A U.S. military training effort in-country helped bring it to heel. New violent cults could form amid the wrenching “creative destruction” the continent is now experiencing.

Closely related to terrorism is the danger posed by a lack of effective sovereignty that bedevils some African governments. In Mali, ethnic Tuareg fighters tried, on the heels of the Libyan war, to carve out a separate homeland in the country’s north. That effort precipitated the overthrow of the constitutional government and abetted the takeover of more than half of Mali’s national territory by AQIM and aligned Islamist movements. (Both setbacks were reversed following a French-led military intervention in 2013.) In Nigeria, militants from the extremist Boko Haram sect, which recently aligned itself at least symbolically with the Islamic State, have seized control of a remote area along the country’s northeastern borders and used that enclave to launch not onlyassaults against government forces in Nigeria but also cross-border raids into Niger, Chad, and Cameroon.

In addition to insurgents seeking to overthrow established regimes or carve out new policies, criminal syndicates also ravage Africa. Piracy and other brigandage, as well as human and material trafficking, is rife. While the Somali piracy threat has been heavily diminished due to the ramped-up presence of armed guards on ships, international naval patrols, and U.S.-backed efforts by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to re-establish a functional government in Mogadishu, attacks on commercial shipping have been on the uptick in the Gulf of Guinea. Moreover, an explosion in drug trafficking has afflicted West Africa. It has increasingly become a site for transshipments into Europe and other destinations, and local consumption is rapidly growing. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo recently teamed up to produce a report that estimated the scale of the cocaine trade through West Africa alone at more than $1.25 billion per annum—a sum that dwarfs the combined state budgets of several countries in the subregion. [25]

While these depredations are technically security challenges, they can only be addressed effectively in an integrated fashion. Solutions must embrace a broader notion of human security that encompasses social, economic, and political development—which, often enough, also must transcend national and other artificial boundaries. Nevertheless, the core security dimension remains and cannot be ignored. The 2010 version of the National Security Strategy emphasized the need to “embrace effective partnerships” in Africa, and indeed, a growing number of African countries—Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Senegal, and Uganda stand out—have improved the professionalism of their armed forces and subsequently have taken the lead in regional peacekeeping and other security efforts. Since 2005, more than 248,000 African troops have benefited from training provided through various U.S. training and equipment programs.

That said, even as the United States has its expanded security engagements across the continent, Africa’s increasing strategic importance has also attracted the attention of other global powers, including China. Aside from vigorous efforts to lay claim to African commodities, China has significantly ramped up its own military posture in Africa. [26] In this sense, China’s rising international posture mirrors in Africa what has also become true for Latin America, as well as the rest of Asia. Just as the Cold War ultimately knew no strict boundaries in U.S.-Soviet competition, so Sino-American competition in future will no doubt go on in Africa.

Amid the many challenges, however, the next Administration will find abundant opportunities—if it makes it a priority to move beyond the current ad hoc arrangements and cultivate alliance relationships across Africa.

In confronting the range of security threats it encounters in Africa, the U.S. government would be well served by the establishment of a regional military structure with responsibility for the continent as a whole. But AFRICOM itself remains severely under-resourced and, in any event, is unlikely to acquire the fixed assets characteristic of other combatant commands in the near future. Hence it is imperative that “special” relationships be developed with key African partners as well as better coordination with treaty allies like France and the United Kingdom, which have maintained security ties with some of their former colonies. Currently, only three African countries—Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia (the latter added only in July 2015)—enjoy the status of “major non-NATO ally”. With reforms and increased capacity, there is no reason why other African states such as Nigeria (especially in the wake of the landmark democratic transition in mid-2015), Ethiopia, and Kenya could not achieve some sort of advanced status, even if not necessarily at the “major non-NATO ally” level. In the meantime, the U.S.-Morocco Framework for Cooperation Agreement, signed in 2014, illustrates, the considerable potential in “triangulation.” That Framework is aimed at developing Moroccan training experts, as well as jointly training civilian security and counterterrorism forces with other partners in the Maghreb and Sahel regions. It is a good model for other triangular relationships.

If the security architecture can come together, the allocation of geographical responsibility is inconsistent across the U.S. government. The State Department, the Pentagon, and various agencies adopt different administrative divisions when it comes to Africa, some of which spectacularly fail to conform to political, security, and economic realities.

Likewise, while the United States has responded generously and repeatedly to the humanitarian crises, both man-made and natural, that afflict Africa at a disproportionate rate, America’s foreign aid structures are at best inefficient as ways to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives, as chapter 7.7 illustrates. For one thing, U.S. government efforts are rarely linked to trade and private investment flows, which are changing the landscape of Africa. Even some of the best-intentioned U.S. efforts, like the 2003 President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), are unsustainable over the long term unless Africans themselves develop the capacities to take their own futures into their hands. The same may be said for the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s system of funding based on positive performance. The MCC has done much good, not least in shifting the concept of aid from one of charity to one concerned of self-help. But the program has increasingly become something of an entitlement.

Increasingly, trade and investment need to become the points of emphasis in U.S. discussions of development partnerships in Africa. That would mesh well with the entrepreneurial dynamism that characterizes much of African business these days. U.S. policy can help change the optic from old images of charitable handouts to new ones of mutual aid and investment. Since the original passage in 2000 of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which substantially lowered commercial barriers with the United States and allowed sub-Saharan African countries to qualify for various trade benefits, bilateral trade has boomed. This has fostered African countries’ integration into the world trading system, while creating more than one million African jobs, as well as an estimated 120,000 export-related jobs in the United States.

Since 2009, China has overtaken America as Africa’s largest bilateral trading partner. Several other countries—including India, Brazil, Russia, and Turkey—are emerging as important economic actors on the continent, too, alongside its traditional European partners. Nevertheless, AGOA continues to generate considerable goodwill for the United States. Congress recently reauthorized the legislation for ten more years, but it will fall to the next Administration to transform the program from what amounts to a unilateral concession that primarily benefits the energy sector to a sustainable program that encourages African integration, as well as laying the foundation for a future free-trade agreement between the United States and Africa as a whole. As things stand now, Morocco is the only African country with a free-trade agreement with the United States; we can do better than that.

The June 2012 U.S. Africa strategy affirmed rightly that, “Africa is more important than ever to the security and prosperity of the international community, and to the United States in particular.” This is so not only because U.S. citizens and businesses hope to join with their African counterparts in grasping the continent’s burgeoning opportunities, but because it is in America’s strategic interests. U.S. policymakers should cultivate key African allies and partner closely with them in managing the challenges and overcoming the threats to security that may otherwise block the path to a promising future.

(20) Hans J. Morgenthau, “United States Policy Towards Africa,” in Africa in the Modern World, ed. Calvin W. Stillman (University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 317.

(21) U.S. Department of Defense, Office of International Security Affairs, United States Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa, August 1, 1995.

(22) George W. Bush, interview by Jim Lehrer, NewsHour, PBS, February 16, 2000.

(23) The seven African countries are Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Congo, Ghana, Zambia, and Nigeria; the other three “top ten” countries are China, India, and Vietnam. See Lois René Berman & Sakina Balde, Business Challenges and Opportunities in Africa (Euromonitor International, 2013); also see “Africa’s Impressive Growth,” The Economist, January 6, 2011.

(24) The White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 17, 2002. 

(25) West Africa Commission on Drugs, Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa, June 2014. 

(26) See J. Peter Pham, “Pirates and Dragon Boats: Assessing the Chinese Navy’s Recent East African Deployments,” Journal of the Middle East and Africa 4:1 (2013), pp. 87-108. Since January 2009, as part of the international response to Somali piracy, China has maintained a task force consisting of at least three warships off the eastern littoral of Africa at all times, using the deployment to hone the long-range expeditionary capacity of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.

J. Peter Pham is Director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. 

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