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.