On 8 August 2022, the White House released the United States Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa, heralding “a new vision for a 21st Century US-African partnership” and “reframing of Africa’s importance to U.S. national security”. The shift in prioritisation of the 54-nation strong continent comes nearly 19 months after the ONGOLO article Sub-Sahara missed in Biden National Security Council picks. So, what has changed?
The shift towards a partnership with Africa
“Africa will shape the future – and not just the future of African people but of the world“Anthony Blinken, US Secretary of State. November 2021
US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, launched the new strategy during a visit to South Africa, the first stop of his latest Africa tour which included Democratic Republic of Congo (home to some of the world’s most critical minerals) and Rwanda.
During a press conference with the formidable South African Minister of International Relations, Naledi Pandor, Blinken dismissed the narrative that the US is trying to counter the influence of its main geopolitical rivals in Africa, despite the strategy document mentioning Russia seven times and China once. For Africa, the revised strategy presents an opportunity for the continent to increase its bargaining power with the world’s most powerful nation.
What does the US really want from Africa?
One of the largest regional voting groups in the United Nations (UN)
The strategy document highlights the fact that Africa holds 28% of the UN General Assembly votes – a fact that was not fully appreciated until the UN resolution against the Ukraine invasion, when 26 African countries did not support the motion. Read our article Understanding Africa’s votes on Ukraine resolution to learn more.
“Russia uses its security and economic ties, as well as disinformation, to undercut Africans’ principled opposition to Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine and related human rights abuses”.US Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa. 8 August 2022
However, Minister Naledi shot down this patronizing view during the press conference, reminding the US that South Africa (and other African countries) have different views and foreign policy stances towards Russia, China, Palestine, and Israel. She clarified that countries do not support the war on Ukraine itself. She also expressed her disappointment with the recently passed Congressional bill on Countering Malign Russian activities in Africa Act, which would potentially punish African countries that maintain relationships with with Russia. This geopolitical conundrum is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
Shape the rules of the world on vital issues like trade, cyber, and emerging technologies
China may have only one mention in the strategy document but is a bigger geopolitical and economic threat in Africa than Russia.
“The People’s Republic of China (PRC)… sees the region as an important arena to challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken U.S. relations with African peoples and governments”US Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa. 8 August 2022
While the US remains the world’s biggest leader in innovation (measured by the number of patents filed), China threatens to overtake with emerging technologies, which are deemed a cyber security risk for Western countries. The US successfully persuaded some European allies to cancel Huawei 5G rollouts but many countries in Africa have maintained their relationships with the Chinese giant. Even China’s dominance of social media with TikTok has made its way into the cybersecurity realm, threatening Facebook’s long-held position as the leading social media platform in Africa.
The US recognises that Africa will represent 25% of the world’s population by 2050 and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) will create a $3 trillion economy. US-Africa trade value of $18b is dwarfed by the Africa-China trade value in excess of $250b. It would benefit African economies to have foreign direct investment from US companies and reduce the concentration risk of relying on China. It also benefits African consumers to have access to more products and services – for example the delay in rolling out Apple stores to many African countries was largely because of the weak trade ties.
Strengthen an open and stable international system
The Russian sanctions have accelerated efforts by the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) to break away from US dollar dominance. The BRICS countries announced plans at the end of June 2022 to create a new global reserve currency pegged to commodities. Russia started the trend when it started demanding payment for oil and gas in roubles, gold, or cryptocurrencies. This has helped the rouble defy doomsday expectations to become the best performing currency in the world this year.
It is unclear whether a basket of currencies consisting of the 5Rs (real, roubles, rupees, renminbi, and rand) can provide a real challenge to US dominance, especially after China failed to capitalise on its dominant trade position to push the renminbi. However, the threat has been noted in the strategy.
Reverse the global tide of democratic backsliding
The strategy document highlights the concern that democracy is flailing in Africa and the lack of strong institutions undermines good governance and increases the risks of corruption and human rights abuses. Freedom House noted in early 2022 that only eight countries are free – Botswana, Cabo Verde, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, and Sao Tome & Principe – which is the lowest number since 1991. The support will be much appreciated by citizens who bear the brunt of weak leadership and the lack of checks and balances.
What are the conditions for a successful partnership?
Firstly, the foundation of any partnership is mutual respect. Blinken stressed the US will no longer tell Africa what to do and this should include respecting African values and the longstanding geopolitical ties with rivals, China and Russia.
Secondly, Africa has long been kept on the fringes of global power with three non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council. It is time for that to change and real political power shared.
Lastly, as a show of good faith, the US needs to right past wrongs. The sanctions on Zimbabwe need to be lifted after they did little to remove the Robert Mugabe regime and crippled one of Africa’s leading economies, leaving millions in poverty. And how will the US and its allies fix the mess they created in Libya? The revised strategy is a good start but we want to see more positive action rather than just nice words.
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