Rethinking US – Africa Engagement

By Winston Favor

Winston Favor is a master’s student in the Public Policy program at the George Mason University. His research interests are in U.S.- Africa relations.

ACADEMIC INCUBATOR — There have been many articles and studies written recently about the continent of Africa. The focus of these articles is on Great Power competition between the U.S. and China. Why Africa is so important?

The Cipher Brief’s Academic Incubator Program partners with national security-focused programs from colleges and Universities across the country to share insights from the next generation of national security leaders.  The views expressed are those of the authors.

Africa sits at the crossroads of U.S. interests economically, diplomatically, and militarily. The 54 nations comprising the African continent are the largest voting bloc in the United Nations. China has steadily increased its economic influence in Africa and is looking to improve its political influence on the continent. Four of the world’s economic chokepoints are around the continent of Africa. The population is youthful, increasingly connected, and predicted to growViolent extremist organizations (VEOs) and various public health issues threaten the well-being of those in Africa and possibly beyond.

This convergence of U.S. interests highlights the importance of a new U.S.- African engagement strategy that better addresses the evolution that is happening on the African continent. This essay will suggest three areas that Washington should consider while developing its African engagement strategy. The areas of consideration include: U.S. visibility on the continent, confronting authoritarianism, and combating terrorism.

Current Strategy

Under the current strategy, the U.S. military, the State Department, and USAID partner to engage with countries in Africa in a whole-of-government approach. USAFRICOM has built military relationships with African countries like as Kenya and Somalia and has monitored VEOs operating in the Sahel region and in the Horn of Africa.  The State Department and USAID have led the American effort in Africa to reduce disease, strengthen educational systems, support democratic elections, and encourage economic growth. While the current engagement strategy has worked, a revised approach reflecting a changing Africa would benefit future U.S.-Africa engagement.

Suggestions for Improving U.S.-African Engagement Strategy

The first suggestion for the U.S.- African engagement strategy is a change in U.S. visibility on the continent. Currently, The U.S. military is the most visible symbol of U.S. commitment in Africa. USAFRICOM has helped expand U.S. influence on the continent and has established itself as the most reliable form of U.S. engagement on the Africa continent. In addition, USAFRICOM has set the conditions upon which The State Department and USAID can work. However, as a civilian-led government, the State Department should be as visible as the U.S. military. Our ambassadors and foreign service officers are the primary U.S. civilian government officials in Africa. They should be as much a symbol of American commitment to Africa as the military. They are the officials who should speak about the rule of law and civilian control of the military.

Does this mean the military is to be subordinate to The State Department? No. The military and The State Department can and should both be a visible sign of American commitment. The engagement strategy of shared visibility between the State Department and the U.S. military will signal a reset in engagement with Washington for the African continent.

The second suggestion for the U.S.-African engagement strategy is how to confront authoritarianism. President Joseph R. Biden, in a speech before the State Department in February of this year, spoke about American leadership meeting the moment to counter the advance of authoritarianism and engage in an effort “to rally the nations of the world to push back authoritarianism’s advance . . . .” Confronting authoritarianism is a critical aspect in the development of U.S.- Africa engagement strategy.

According to the Freedom House Global Freedom Status database, all but three of the Sub-Saharan African countries are listed as either “not free” or “partly free,” with many of those countries having a negative “freedom score.” Many of the presidents in Africa have held onto power through legislative changes to presidential terms and age limits, suppressing dissent, jailing opponents, and controlling the media. Despite this turn toward greater authoritarianism, the average African citizen rejects it.

According to an Afrobarometer paper from February 2019, 68 percent of Africans believe democracy is the best form of government, while more than 70 percent disagreed with abandoning multiparty elections in favor of having a one-party state or military rule. This desire for democracy creates an opportunity for the U.S. to promote democracy to the younger African population. Encouraging democracy can be accomplished by promoting liberal democracy on the African continent. Promoting free speech, free elections, multiply political parties, supporting presidential term limits, and an independent press. In addition, the U.S. should encourage people-to-people cultural exchanges. These exchanges will expose the youth of the African nations to the United States and its values by allowing them to live briefly in the U.S. for academic or professional purposes. This direct exposure to U.S. democracy will help plant the seeds of African democracy for the next generation.

The last suggestion is encouraging technological investment in Africa. As mentioned above, the population of Africa is youthful and increasingly connected as the digital divide in Africa narrows. Technology is changing how the African continent does business. The health and agriculture sector is utilizing advanced technology along with the financial sector. This trend toward digitization allows the U.S. the perfect opportunity to support technological investment in Africa. This investment could be in the form of expanding reliable and affordable internet, as the U.S. Trade and Development Agency announced in June. Additionally, the investments could be technical devices needed by the increasing number of tech startups to run their business. As Landry Signe’ wrote in his testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy: “As a world leader in technological innovation, digital transformation, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the United States is well-positioned to play a leading role in the African digital space and contribute to Africa’s pursuit of now-vital technologies.”

In conclusion, a review of U.S.- Africa engagement is necessary. A convergence of U.S. interests on a changing African continent necessitates an effective engagement strategy. President Biden met virtually with world leaders (including five African leaders) for a summit on climate. More recently, President Biden met with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has virtually traveled to Africa and physically traveled to London to meet with South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor. The State Department released statements supporting free elections in Somalia, opposing the arrests of political opposition leaders in Benin, and engaging on humanitarian aid response to Mozambique.

As the Biden administration formally creates its African strategy, observers are hopeful that it will include improved engagement that equalizes State Department and U.S. military visibility, confronts authoritarianism, and promotes technological investment on the continent. This will put Washington in a position to improve its standing with Africa and improve life on the continent.

Peer Reviewed by: Matthew Fay, PhD Candidate, George Mason University

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