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.

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Briefing from Malabo

The club of African autocrats African Union has its biannual summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea this week (This guy is the current AU Chairman, no joke).

The struggling AU has a lot on its plate at the moment (subject of an upcoming blog post). It is in the middle of trying to put out new fires in Sudan and Libya, while ignoring/recovering from the humiliation of its failures in Somalia, Cote d’Ivoire, and Zimbabwe – not to mention the region’s other problems.

All this while insisting on “African Solutions to African Problems,” despite the organization’s infamous reputation for incompetence.

Top on the agenda at the summit has been the ongoing hostilities (Obama might disagree) in Libya. According to the Oman Daily Observer, the AU has come up with a plan that

“envisages a ceasefire, humanitarian aid, a transition period, reforms towards democracy and elections, but the position on the future of Gaddafi has not been made clear.”

In other words the heads of state in Malabo, led by their Chairman Obiang, are hoping to do a Zimbabwe: Have Gaddafi in charge of the same reform process that is supposed to phase out his 42-year rule. I need not elaborate how this story ends.

Africa needs zuma (to have a coherent foreign policy)

This week the Economist rightly called out South African president Jacob Zuma on his country’s lack of a coherent foreign policy. South Africa was reborn in 1994 with the moral authority and international goodwill to be Africa’s shining light in the world. Instead, under Mbeki and now Zuma, the country has squandered all that away.

Mbeki did it with his intransigence against reason on the issue of HIV/AIDS and support of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Mr. Zuma is doing the same with his support for Mugabe and equivocal pronouncements against other murderous tyrants on the Continent. Since his election he has not spoken strongly against any injustices or electoral fraud on the Continent; this task has been left to Ian Khama, president of tiny but relatively prosperous Botswana.

Sub-Saharan Africa is desperately in need of a regional hegemon to help it chart a coherent path in global politics. Latin America has Brazil. South Asia has India. East Asia has China. Even Europe has Germany. In Africa, Nigeria (pop. 150+m), South Africa (~40m, biggest economy), Ethiopia (85m) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (~70m) – all potential regional leaders – have woefully underperformed.

Nigeria is Nigeria. Ethiopia is dirt poor and needs to clean its own mess, Somalia’s and Eritrea’s, before it can venture further afield. The DRC is struggling to keep itself afloat. South Africa, by far, has the capacity and the requisite soft power to take up the job of regional guiding light. The country is slated to become a BRIC country soon, making the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

It is a shame that Mr. Zuma has chosen to abdicate his role as the Continental leader. He alone, among the members of the Continent’s club of kleptocratic autocrats (a.k.a AU), has the clout to stand up to the evils we continue to see in Cote d’Ivoire, Darfur, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.

More instability in Guinea Bissau

After killing their president earlier this year, the military strongmen in Guinea Bissau seem bent on eliminating his surviving allies. The BBC reports that the tiny West African nation’s army killed a number of suspected coup plotters, including Baciro Dabo, a minister and former close ally of the late president Vieira. Mr. Dabo had expressed interest in running for president in elections that are due later this month. The elections will now more than likely not take place.

The latest episode of violence just illustrates how much out of touch the army is with reality. The impoverished West African nation of 1.5 million has seen slow recovery from a disastrous civil war in the late 1990s. With a per capita GDP of $ 213 ($ 600, PPP) it still has a long way to go. It is heavily dependent on farming and fishing, with cashews being the major crop. Political instability and insecurity are only going to make matters worse. And perhaps the saddest part of all this is that no one beyond the Guinean borders cares. ECOWAS will not help, the UN has its gaze fixed on the many conflicts in Central Africa and the AU, under the leadership of Muamar Gaddafi, would rather not be bothered – beyond issuing statements.