What Obama’s re-election means for US Africa Policy

On the 14th of June this year President Obama outlined his policy for Sub-Saharan Africa. Included in the policy statement were four key strategic objectives: (1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security; and (4) promote opportunity and development.

In my view, of the four aspirational goals the one that will receive the most attention in the near future will be the third (especially security).

US strategic security interests in Africa mainly involve two key concerns: (1) China’s growing economic presence in the region and (2) the spread of Al-Qaeda linked groups in the region, stretching from Somalia to Mauritania (This is why Mali featured more prominently than the EU in the Presidential foreign policy debate). Before talking about China, here are my thoughts on the US campaign against  al-Qaeda in Africa.

While I don’t foresee any success in the creation of an African base for AFRICOM, the US will continue to cooperate with AU member states in fighting Islamist extremism in the region. The “successful” AU mission in Somalia could provide a blueprint for future operations against potential terror groups. The biggest lesson from Somalia is that the US cannot just pick one nation (in this case Ethiopia) to fight its wars in the region, and that a collaborative effort with the blessing of the regional umbrella organization (the AU) and others such as IGAD can deliver results.

Having helped (both directly and indirectly) in the ouster of Al-Shabaab from strategic locations in Somalia, the next big task will be dealing with the mushrooming Islamist extremism in the Sahel (especially in northern Mali but also in Niger and Nigeria).

The problem of extremism in the Sahel is further compounded by the link of some of the groups to the drug trade flowing from Latin America and into Europe. There is significant evidence that drug money has financed the activities of separatist groups in northern Mali. The fight against these groups will necessarily involve dealing with this crucial source of finance. This means that for the operation to succeed the US will have to engage in capacity building and the strengthening (and clean-up) of security institutions (especially the armies) in states like Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, South Africa, Kenya, among others, in which officials in the security sector have been implicated in the drug trade.

The Sahelian challenge might yet prove more formidable than Somalia. The latter case had relatively stable neighbors that served to contain the anarchy. The Sahel (Sahelistan, if you will) is much larger and includes some of the least governed spaces on the planet.

On China, the US (and for that matter, the rest of the West) has to change its present approach of total freak-out overt suspicion over Chinese involvement in Africa. Africans need protection from China only as much as they need protection from the West. China is not out to “exploit” Africa any more than the West has. Nobody should expect China to engage Africa more benevolently than the West did for the better part of the last 60 years (Mobutu and Bokassa were not that different from Bashir and Mugabe).

A constructive approach ought to include policies designed to strengthen African states so that they can engage China on their own terms. It is ultimately African leaders who mortgage their resources and sovereignty to China (or the West). Instead of focusing too much on China, a better approach might be one that creates strong regional organizations (like the SADC or the EAC) that can improve the bargaining power of African states.

The other policy objectives outlined by Obama appear to fall in the business-as-usual category. Democracy promotion will not yield much in the face of other more pressing priorities (notice how security has triumphed over democracy in Mali). And unless the US is willing to get involved in massive infrastructure projects like China has (last time I checked they were in 35 African states), I don’t see how it can help spur economic growth in the region (AGOA was great, but Africa needs something better). Plus the US continues to be hampered in its development-promotion efforts by its aversion to state industrial policy. It’s about time Foggy Bottom realized that it is really hard to have a thriving private sector and American-style free enterprise in places with bad roads, very few (and bad) schools, and governments that are run by personalist dictators. In these instances some corruption-laden developmental state policies may be the best way to go.

More on economic development

Brookings has two pieces worth reading on the state of Africa’s economies.

The main takeaways are that: 1) there are many Africa’s; some states are doing well while others continue to run around in circles 2) Governance, Governance, Governance. You cannot have a thriving business sector amidst high levels of unpredictability and 3) Trade, both intra-continental and to other regions of the world, is the key to African development.

You can find the reports here and here.

coup claim in madagascar

UPDATE: The BBC reports that soldiers loyal to Rajoelina have stormed the barracks where the mutinying soldiers were ensconced to restore order and discipline. It is not clear how many casualties, if any, resulted from this operation.

 

Military officers in Madagascar have announced that they are in charge and have dissolved all government institutions on the day of a crucial referendum to lower the age requirement for president. Col Charles Andrianasoavina made the announcement. The country’s Premier, Camille Vital, has however denied the coup claim in a statement supported by the country’s top military brass. The situation is still unfolding.

Current president, former mayor of Antananarivo and DJ, Andry Rajoelina, took power in a 2009 coup and wants to lower the age limit to 35 so that he, 36, can legally be president.

Madagascar, the island nation off the east coast of continental Africa, has 21.2 million people, half of whom live below the poverty line. The country’s per capita income is US$ 1000 and life expectancy is just over 63 years. 80% of the country lives on agriculture, including fishing and forestry. Early this year, Antananarivo unfairly lost its duty free access to the US under AGOA* for hypocritical political reasons.

*Africa Growth and Opportunity Act

AGOA, African trade and development

Nairobi is currently playing host to delegates from all over the Continent and the US attending the 8th AGOA conference. I had time yesterday to listen to Sec. Clinton’s and President Kibaki’s speeches (President Kibaki, please fire your speech writers and hire a speech therapist). Despite the embarrassing delivery, President Kibaki’s speech struck the right tone. The US should open up more to African business and Kenyans (and Africans in general) should be quick to take advantage of the existing trade opportunities – even as they continue to tackle governance problems (which, contrary to Premier Odinga’s comments, is a major road block to African development).

I felt like Clinton’s comments were a bit too vague. It is high time the US stopped treating trade with Africa as  something that only happens at the pleasure of Washington (for more on this see Aid Watch). The one thing that hit home in the speech was the call for an increase in intra-continental trade. The last time I checked this accounted for a paltry 10% of all trade on the Continent. Poor transcom infrastructure is to blame. But political risk (read deplorable governance) is also to blame. I hope the many African delegates present took this point seriously.

I don’t know what deliverables come out of such AGOA gatherings so I will wait till the end of the conference to comment on its relevance. For now I am happy that United Parcel Services (UPS) has pledged to buy staff uniforms from the Kenyan market.