It is fair to say that Africa has long occupied a marginal place in American foreign policy. Despite its immense size—the 49 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa occupy a land area three times the size of the contiguous United States—resource riches, and population of roughly one billion people, Africa captures only a small fraction of the grand strategic attention dedicated to Iran, the Koreas, or Eastern Europe. This must change.
It was not always this way. In the early days of the American Republic, for example, Africa was a considerably more important region in American foreign policy, albeit for an ugly reason. An enduring interest, the institution of chattel slavery, linked the early American economic system with slavers and slave ships roving Africa’s Atlantic coast. This brutal population transfer established a large African diaspora population in the United States—the only diasporic population to arrive in American territory by force, not free will.1 The Monroe Administration’s establishment of Liberia as a home for manumitted slaves also speaks to the importance of Africa in Antebellum-era foreign policy.
After the Civil War, however, American interests largely turned south, to Latin America, and east, to Japan and China, leaving Africa to Europe. An American delegate attended the 1884-85 Berlin Conference where European powers demarcated colonial boundaries in Africa, but the United States did not ultimately ratify the treaty. As late as World War II, the State Department did not even have an Africa bureau, leaving Europeanists in charge of African affairs.
In the Cold War and post-Cold War eras, American failures in Africa have been so staggering that they tend to overshadow the few successes. President Eisenhower’s authorization of the killing of Congolese PM Patrice Lumumba, for instance, as well as President Clinton’s jarring indifference to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, cast a pall over U.S. involvement in Africa. On the other side of the ledger, President Reagan’s much-pilloried policy of “constructive engagement” with apartheid South Africa actually turned out to be a great success, most notably defying its many critics with the 1988 Tripartite Accord. This agreement between Angola, South Africa, and Cuba secured Namibian independence and set the stage for a negotiated end to apartheid. George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief allowed millions of Africans to access prevention and treatment for HIV/AIDS, a worthy investment of American aid dollars that has won near-unanimous support from Democrats and Republicans alike, and has helped to turn the tide against a debilitating disease. But such African policy “wins” have been few and far between.
Africa’s status as a region little known and seldom followed in American foreign policy circles, however, may of necessity change in the not-too-distant future. Both the “Africa Rising” narrative of booming growth rates and the “Afro-Pessimist” images of war, famine, and corruption point to African futures that, by opportunity or threat, demand more concerted American involvement. Viewing Africa through dark shades or rose-colored glasses has a way of simplifying complex trends and hindering shrewd analysis. It is better to think of these trends as stories ever unfolding. This piece recounts five such stories that matter in Africa today, stories American policymakers would be wise to read before composing America’s next chapter of engagement with Africa.
Democracy and Its Discontents
Before the Arab Spring there was the “African Spring.” From 1988 to 1992, the number of sub-Saharan countries classified by Freedom House as “free” or “partly free” more than doubled from 14 to 32. Multiparty elections and peaceful transfers of power occurred for the first time in country after country. It was an optimistic time.
Over the 1990s and 2000s, those democratic gains stagnated, and recent years have seen the number of countries ranked “not free” increase from 15 in 2009 to 20 in 2016. While one of the most significant stories out of 1990s-era Africa was democratization, one of the biggest stories of our time is de-democratization. Even South Africa, endowed with one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, has seen its democratic institutions tested and eroded in recent years. President Jacob Zuma has repeatedly violated democratic norms, most egregiously in using $16 million in public funds to upgrade his homestead, Nkandla. The well-documented coziness between Zuma and the Gupta family, the sacking of respected Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, and Zuma’s call to amend the Constitution to allow for the expropriation of white-owned land all show Zuma’s inclination to weaken “a government of laws and not of men” and replace it with more personalized rule.
Outside of relatively well-institutionalized democracies like South Africa, the main driver of de-democratization has been the rise of “Presidents for Life”—leaders who change their countries’ constitutions and subvert the electoral process to stay in office. Kabila in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sassou-Nguesso in the Republic of the Congo, Kagame in Rwanda, Nkurunziza in Burundi, and Museveni in Uganda are representative of this phenomenon. The stage for civil conflict is set when leaders blatantly rig elections, as in Gabon in September 2016, or when the President seeks a constitutional amendment or court ruling to scuttle term limits, as in Burundi in May 2015. As Presidents for Life claim legitimacy under the veneer of democracy, they erode democratic institutions and make it more likely that electoral conflict or extended political crises will ensue. Burundi is a case in point; the slow-rolling political crisis and ethnically targeted assassinations there may escalate to ethnic cleansing or civil war.
Robert Mugabe is the godfather of the Presidents for Life, an African fraternity that seems to induct new members with each passing year. The nonagenarian dictator has been in power since 1980, when he was celebrated for leading a coalition government that included opposition parties. Mugabe even received a knighthood from the British Crown in 1994. It is an understatement to say that government-perpetrated massacres in the Matabeleland region, the violent land seizure campaign, and hyperinflation have since damaged Mugabe’s image. At 93, Mugabe is not giving up yet; he plans to stand for re-election in 2018. Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes jockeying by Mugabe’s wife, Grace, and his Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa is already making its way into public view. It is unlikely, however, that political conditions in Zimbabwe will much improve after the old man’s parting. Like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Mugabe has powerful charismatic authority, and has so vitiated the country’s institutions that a less charismatic successor will, like Nicolás Maduro, have to rely even more on coercion to maintain power. Sadly, the death of a dictator leaves little reason to hope things will get much better—and raises the chances that they will get substantially worse.2
Even where democracy takes root in Africa, it is not without its issues. In emerging democracies like Kenya, parties form along ethnic lines. When ethnicity is a major source of identity, it is only logical that political organizations pander to ethnic chauvinism. These tendencies are especially toxic in places where the state dispenses jobs and payments in a patronage system and the winning electoral coalition gets the spoils, with little left behind for everyone else. The winner-take-all nature of governance means that disempowered ethnic groups might lash out, as in Kenya after the 2007 election. U.S. policy could play a more substantial role in mediating conflicts after disputed elections if it bothered to anticipate them, but such anticipations rarely break into the consciousness of higher-level decision-makers. Kenya’s August 2017 elections will test the commitment of American actors in the region.
One bright spot for African democracy in recent years is Nigeria, which had its first peaceful transfer of power in 2015 when incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan lost the presidential election and stepped aside for Muhammadu Buhari. Nigeria has worked out institutional arrangements to reduce its major source of electoral tension, between the Muslim North and the Christian South: Running mates come from different regions and religious traditions, and the winning ticket has to secure at least 25 percent of the vote in 75 percent of Nigeria’s states. These rules force political parties to build coalitions that bridge divides. Countries with stark cleavages might profit from the Nigerian example.3
Our God Is Better than Your God
Our next story begins in the hinterlands of a hinterland: the northeast corner of the Central African Republic (CAR), a sparsely populated country the French once deemed the cul-de-sac of their African empire. There, an alliance of Muslim militias calling themselves the Séléka (“coalition” in Sango, the language of CAR) swept to power, marching all the way to the country’s southern capital, where they installed their leader, Michel Djotodia, as President. What is so striking about this story is how suddenly the tectonic plates of Central African politics shifted; for decades prior, CAR’s main fault-lines had been ethnic, not religious. An enterprising ethnic leader would rouse his people, organize militias, and oust the sitting President, sometimes with French backing. The next decade, a rebel leader from another ethnic group would emerge on the national scene and act out much the same routine: A Yakoma leader ousted a M’Baka, then a Sara replaced the Yakoma leader, and then a Gbaya supplanted the Sara. To the winners went the spoils: plum jobs in the military, diplomatic corps, and state-run businesses.
What changed in 2012 was that Djotodia was able to capitalize on the powerful bonds of religious identity.4 Djotodia’s Muslim troops pillaged Christian villages, fostering intense resentment. In response, Christian militias calling themselves the anti-Balaka (“anti-machete” in Sango) took up arms against the Séléka, committing equally egregious crimes against Muslims, destroying almost all of the country’s mosques, and driving thousands of Muslims to flee the capital, Bangui. Djotodia fled, the Séléka retreated to the distant northeast, and the Central African elite installed a caretaker government in Bangui. But now that religious identity has become so salient in CAR, it is unlikely that these wounds will heal quickly, and extremists could fan smoldering resentments to radicalize populations there.
Religious polarization has a way of imposing global conflicts onto local contexts. Conflicts that were not originally religious in nature get tugged in that direction; others with a clear religious dimension escalate with international repercussions. South Sudanese rebels play up their Christian identity to win support from American Evangelicals, and suddenly the conflict in Sudan is about “black Christians” versus “Arab Muslims”; the Iranian Foreign Minister condemns the killing of 347 Shi‘a Muslims in clashes with the Nigerian military, and Nigerian Shi‘a leaders appeal to Iran for protection and support; Boko Haram, initially waging a localized campaign against Western-style education, eventually declares its allegiance to the Islamic State and expands into a regional menace.
A few hundred miles south of the Sahel, the wide belt of scrub that marks the transition from Sahara to savanna, another line runs clear across Africa from Liberia in the west to Ethiopia in the east: the transitional zone between the Muslim North and the Christian South. Countries like Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire are bisected by this line, polarized into majority-Muslim norths and majority-Christian souths linked by sometimes-fractious mixed middles and urban areas. In the Sahel, the next wars may well be crusades.
Religious polarization in Africa is not only occurring between Islam and Christianity, but also within these two Abrahamic religions. Within Christianity, Pentecostal churches are gaining at the expense of Catholic and mainline Protestant denominations. Uganda and Zambia in particular have seen their domestic politics come under the increasing influence of conservative Christian groups; for global human rights groups, the future will bring only more wrangling with Christian-dominated regimes that, reflecting internal public opinion, criminalize homosexuality and link state and church in ever-closer union. Meanwhile, Wahhabi mosques and madrassas, their funding originating in the Gulf States, have gone gangbusters in the Sahel. Since the 1990s, a growing minority in Africa has come to embrace hardline Wahhabi teachings over the milder Sufi interpretations of Islam that have endured there for centuries.5
One factor that makes it increasingly difficult for Christians and Muslims to coexist within the same borders is that both religions are universalist and evangelist: Christianity and Islam both profess to provide God’s absolute, revealed truth, and adherents of both faiths fully expect the eventual conversion of the world.6 Ecumenical and interfaith organizations exist in many countries, but to date inter-religious dialogue remains too weak and infrequent to effectively combat polarization.
Fragile States, Nascent Nations
The nation-state is a European cultivar that has been grafted onto Africa with only limited success. In Europe, states emerged only after centuries of brutal, unrelenting violence that forced the centralization of power and the creation of tax-financed bureaucracies. Because a state could more efficiently mobilize the resources of a given territory toward the ends of defense and expansion than other forms of political organization, states outcompeted their smaller and less centralized rivals, such as principalities and duchies. Some 400 years ago, microstates like Liechtenstein and San Marino were common; today, almost all of them have been swallowed up by centralized states.
Africa’s history of statehood is very different. Centralized kingdoms like Dahomey, Kongo, and Rwanda as well as empires like Songhai and Great Zimbabwe did exist before European colonization, and these political units and their successors may well have developed into modern states given enough time, conflict, and political wrangling. But European colonization meant the conquest or co-optation of Africa’s existing regimes, and just as often as earlier kingdoms were kept intact—the Kingdom of Rwanda, for instance, became part of German East Africa—they were divided among multiple colonizing powers. What was once the Kingdom of Kongo today straddles four independent states: Gabon, Angola, the Republic of the Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Today’s African states more or less correspond with the territorial borders determined by European powers in a series of conferences, starting with the Berlin Conference. These borders lumped together people of considerably different linguistic, ethnic, and religious identities, most of whom had never lived before in the same political unit. Post-independence, many of these former colonies were ruled by small coteries of elites who relied on violence or the threat of violence to repress would-be competitors. Power-sharing is not a viable option for these elites because it would mean empowering another group which in turn could repress their own.
Nationhood, broadly speaking, is not as internalized a concept in sub-Saharan Africa as in some other regions. Nationalism did take off during independence movements in places like Cameroon and under charismatic post-independence leaders like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, all of whom promised rapid development and sought to foster a sense of national pride. National soccer teams and media broadcasts of state ceremonies also work to inculcate nationalist sentiment. Compared with religious or ethnic identity, however, national identity remains less important.
Linguistic diversity is another challenge for African nationalism. Where citizens speak many different languages, it is more difficult for co-nationals to communicate and for politicians to campaign and earn the trust of different groups. With many different languages spoken within a single country, it is also harder to build markets for mass media like radio and television that might otherwise knit a nation together. Public schooling is another challenge; where schools function poorly and student and teacher absenteeism runs rampant, it is hard to endow young people with the sort of civic education that inculcates a strong sense of national identity.
South Sudan represents one extreme of the nation-state spectrum in Africa: Both state and nation are fragile. The country is very young, with porous borders, a tiny and predatory ruling clique, and a weak sense of nationhood. In 2016, South Sudan called off its Independence Day celebrations, citing budget concerns. Meanwhile, over what would have been the holiday weekend, Dinka militias shelled displaced Nuer civilians in camps, an ominous reminder of the weakness of national identity and the strength of ethnic identity. On the state side, with almost all national revenue coming from oil rents, not taxation, and with the national military little more than a loose alliance of militia groups, the institutions of state in South Sudan are especially weak and not at all dependent on public opinion. The Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic all fall on this end of the spectrum. Violent flare-ups and outright rebellions are more likely to occur in these fragile states than anywhere else.7
South Africa represents the other extreme: State and nation are much sturdier there. While deep political, racial, and regional cleavages continue to divide South Africa, there is also a genuine sense of national pride. Nelson Mandela serves as a unifying symbol and so does the South African flag. A Google search for “Proud to be South African” returns more than 3 million results, compared to under 360,000 for “Proud to be Congolese,” even though the two Congos together have a population more than one-and-a-half times that of South Africa. The South African state paves roads, collects taxes, and delivers services more or less reliably. Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, and Senegal are other examples of relatively cohesive states in Africa.
Ethiopia typifies another kind of African state—the brittle state, where the government is strong but the nation is weak. The Ethiopian state has a powerful military and a technocratic ruling class that governs through a single-party regime not unlike that of China (which, along with the United States, is an important backer of the Ethiopian regime). Even though Ethiopia famously resisted Italian invasion and has the windfall of thousands of years of history for national mythmaking, today the bonds of Ethiopian nationalism are strikingly weak. One reason for this is the ethno-federalist system adopted at the end of the Ethiopian Civil War in 1991, which drew administrative divisions along ethnic lines in an attempt to assuage ethnic concerns, but has ended up substantially increasing ethnic tensions. For years, Oromia and Amhara, the two regions home to Ethiopia’s largest disempowered groups, have seen hundreds of protesters killed at the hands of security forces; at six percent of the population, the ruling Tigray minority is relying on repression to maintain power. For now, the Ethiopian regime is holding, but the state is brittle enough to snap under pressure. If it does, Ethiopia could become Africa’s Yugoslavia, with years of civil wars and secessionist movements involving regional players and great-power backers. The present carnage in Syria would pale in comparison to a future civil war in Ethiopia; refugee flows would destabilize the entire Horn of Africa and quickly reach the Mediterranean.
Paradoxically, as bad as terrorism may be for states like Nigeria and Kenya, it may also play a positive role in increasing both national solidarity and state capacity. Devastating terror attacks can provoke a wave of nationalist solidarity, as in Kenya following the 2013 Westgate Mall attack. In other cases, embarrassing or high-profile defeats for national militaries—as with the Kenyan military at Garissa or the Nigerian military in much of the campaign against Boko Haram—can prompt internal reforms, stronger oversight, and higher levels of taxation. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” may well hold true for nation-states fighting terrorism.
Of Commodities and Corruption
In the mid-2000s, an optimistic image of Africa began to take shape. In any given year, in a list of the world’s top ten economic performers, one would spot five or more African economies, such as Ethiopia, Botswana, Rwanda, or Côte d’Ivoire. Books published in the late 2000s boosted the idea of “Africa Rising,” and soon Time and The Economist followed suit, dedicating covers to the narrative of an upwardly mobile continent. But by the summer of 2016, per capita income was falling in sub-Saharan Africa for the first time in 20 years. The two largest economies in Africa, Nigeria and South Africa, had begun to contract, pulling down growth for the entire region. With Chinese growth slowing, the commodities boom that had sent many an African economy skyrocketing came to an abrupt halt. Without the economic anesthetic of commodity-led growth, more Africans are feeling the underlying pains of poor governance that have been there all along.
The resource curse is real. It may be counterintuitive, but ceteris paribus, the more abundant the resources of a given country, the less likely it is to enjoy broad-based development. After all, if resources alone determined the wealth and poverty of nations, the Democratic Republic of the Congo would be among the richest nations in the world. Instead, more than 50 years after independence, Congolese incomes are stagnant at $800 a year and the Congolese people have little to show for decades of copper, cobalt, and coltan mining.
Social scientists have documented several reasons for the resource curse. For one, as a country’s resource exports boom, the value of its currency appreciates, and suddenly its other exports—such as manufactured goods—become more expensive and less competitive in international markets. In this way, resource exploitation can actually drive deindustrialization, as happened in the Netherlands after the discovery of oil—hence the economic term for this phenomenon, “Dutch disease.” Dependence on resources, especially on a single resource, means that a country’s budget will balloon in years of good prices and collapse when prices fall. In developed countries, this is a recipe for economic distress and populist politics, but in countries without liberal democratic institutions, bankruptcy and civil unrest may ensue.
Dependence on resource rents also hinders state formation, for governments that can profit from a state-run oil and gas company or from mineral royalties can avoid extracting taxes from their people. Governments can thereby circumvent some of the accountability that would come with taxpayer scrutiny; rulers can rely on a small economic elite, use resource rents to pay off allies or co-opt potential rivals, and plow revenues into security forces to repress rebellions. Resource-based rulers do not stay in power despite widespread corruption, as is often said, but rather because of it. Thus price collapses pose a threat to security in resource-based regimes. As the money flowing through patron-client networks dries up, political entrepreneurs assess the situation and seek to peel off government supporters by promising fatter benefits. Old allies can defect and new networks form, threatening existing regimes with insurgencies or full-blown civil war. Even in good times for commodity prices, militias can seize control of mines or oil wells and use the revenues to power their insurgencies.
As powerful as the resource curse is, it is not impossible to escape. Botswana has successful reinvested the revenue from diamond mining into providing public goods like education, healthcare, and infrastructure—all while keeping corruption levels down and strengthening democratic institutions. Today, the country’s per capita income is 10 times higher than in neighboring Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe was three times richer in 1966, when Botswana gained independence.8
Judicious management of natural resources alone, however, is seldom enough to reach developed country status. Some countries can follow a path of small and medium-sized enterprise growth—as is happening in Kenya, where the entrepreneurial culture is strong—and this may take them far. But apart from a few petro-states like the United Arab Emirates that have managed to diversify their economies to include tourism and banking, no country has successfully developed without industrializing first. Development in Africa, as in other regions, will require industrialization.
As Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley, argues persuasively in The Rise and Fall of Nations, only industrialization can generate the mass employment, export earnings, and capital accumulation that in turn spur sustained economic growth and allow countries to climb the rungs in the development ladder. Manufacturing creates a virtuous circle: Entrepreneurs accumulate capital and finance new businesses, while their employees purchase more products and pay more taxes with their higher wages.
Africa has tremendous manufacturing potential. Consistently high unemployment rates and the massive informal sector—made up of street peanut merchants and itinerant jean-trimmers, among others—point to a poorly paid, underutilized workforce that could be harnessed to power an Industrial Revolution in Africa. Many of these workers would leap to take a factory job, which would provide a steady income to cover expenses like school fees and health bills. Furthermore, the 50 percent of African college graduates who struggle to find work might land management and marketing positions at new companies. What is holding Africa back from industrialization, then, is not necessarily its workforce—instead, it is the legal and regulatory uncertainty investors face when they consider opening factories in countries where caprice reigns.
All the Continent’s a Stage
Sub-Saharan Africa remains more than any other region of the world a place where the otherwise vague and much-abused phrase “international community” actually conjures up vivid images: the French regular patrolling your street, the American Fulbrighter teaching English in a local school, the Chinese engineer supervising construction of a hydroelectric dam. Regional powers like South Africa, Nigeria, and Ethiopia will continue to exert influence and help to mediate neighborhood disputes, but geopolitics in Africa will continue to be largely dominated by powers outside the continent, namely France, China, and the United States. Until more strong states emerge in Africa, sovereignty will remain a polite fiction, and Africa will furnish a stage for the great-power performers to act out the global political dramas of our times.
Former Gabonese President Omar Bongo once remarked, “Gabon without France is like a car with no driver. France without Gabon is like a car with no fuel.” Although the Élysée has considerably less sway in Gabon these days now that Bongo’s son is in power, the days of la Françafrique have yet to pass entirely. Unlike Great Britain, France long maintained cordial ties with many of its former colonies and even moved to induct former Belgian colonies like Burundi and the DRC into la Francophonie, the French-speaking club. For Francophone Africa’s elites, France remains a choice destination for real-estate investment and higher education. France, with its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, represents its African partners (or clients, depending on how you see it) in matters of international peace and security. France’s great power status depends in large part on its Africa policy, particularly its willingness to intervene in humanitarian, terrorist, or post-election crises. In the past seven years alone, the French military has intervened in Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, Somalia, Mali, and the Central African Republic. Given Mali’s precarious security situation these days, and President Macron’s visit there mere days after taking office, France’s involvement in Africa looks to remain steady, if not expand.
Much has been made of China’s influence in Africa. Beijing has extended billions of dollars in loans for infrastructure investments, many of them designed to facilitate the export of commodities like oil and rare earth minerals to Chinese factories. With Chinese total debt coming in at 249 percent of GDP—perilously high for a developing country—and Chinese elites preoccupied by economic troubles at home, Beijing may scale back its investments in Africa, paring them down to the essential projects that will guarantee influence in African capitals and the continued flow of resources.
No Cold War-level geopolitical conflict between the United States and China so far exists in Africa. China does invite promising political leaders from single-party regimes, such as Ethiopia, to come to China for conferences. African guests study China’s political system, learning methods for “managing” tricky issues like political dissent. China once exported Maoism to Africa and supported rebel groups like Angola’s UNITA and Zimbabwe’s ZANU, but today there is no single coherent, compelling ideology China is attempting to promote, only a vague predisposition toward state capitalism and against democracy.
Beyond France, China, and the United States—the foreign policy of which will be discussed in detail in the next section—a few other outsiders play important roles in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu is the first in Jerusalem to take Africa seriously in decades, despite the large numbers of Africans who have long made pilgrimages to the Holy Land. In summer 2016, Netanyahu completed a four-country swing through East Africa, where Israel’s desalination technology, military hardware, and counterterrorism know-how are in demand. Israel would also stand to gain from African member states’ abstentions on key votes at the UN. It is also conceivable that Israeli venture capital firms could benefit from cozier ties with Africa’s more entrepreneurial economies, such as Kenya.
Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye toured East Africa in summer 2016 as well, in a bid to counter North Korea’s existing ties with Uganda. She also scoped out new sites for Korean multinationals to set up factories. Meanwhile, in the absence of a military primed for offense, Japan has staked much of its international reputation on its ability to deliver high-quality foreign assistance. In 2014, the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) convened in Yaoundé, Cameroon, the first time in its 20-year history that the conference took place on African soil.
Russia’s involvement in Africa has receded considerably since the Soviet era. But Russian arms, small and large, still remain broadly popular across the continent. Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan, for instance, has purchased dozens of attack helicopters and MiGs from the Russians over the past two decades. Russia, like China, invests in large infrastructure projects and does not attach pesky democratization-and-human-rights conditions to its aid. Only if—and this is a big “if”—Russia manages to consolidate its desired spheres of influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East will it play a major role south of the Sahara, except when exercising its Security Council veto.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to quash Gülenist influence in Africa, where the Hizmet movement has set up more than a hundred schools; beyond this domestic-politics-writ-large issue, however, Turkey is pursuing other soft-power goals in Africa. Turkish Airlines, for instance, is angling to become Eurasia’s leading carrier for Africa travel.
Finally, India has substantial and growing interests in Africa. For one, there’s the large Indian diaspora—estimated at around three million—that makes up much of Africa’s much-ballyhooed rising middle class. India’s burgeoning population will increasingly rely on African food exports; Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently signed a deal to import more Mozambican lentils. Piracy watchers might also recall that it was the Indian Navy that decisively captured dozens of Somali pirates in 2011. Policymakers in New Delhi are reading Alfred Thayer Mahan; they know that to prove their mettle rising regional powers must police the straits and chokepoints of global commerce. For India, this means protecting Indian Ocean trade off East Africa.
What, then, is the meaning of these stories for U.S. foreign policy?
It is fair to say that the United States does not currently have much of a grand strategy in Africa. Instead, it has a mish-mash of African policies, some of which work well, some of which work poorly, and few of which work in concert with each other. At the moment, the lack of strategic foresight and coordination is not too damaging to American interests. But as Africa’s population grows, and as Africans become more connected to the world economy through higher education, mobile banking, and trade, the continent’s strategic significance will increase. To begin building an effective strategy in the sub-Saharan region, the United States must invest considerable resources and thinking in three primary dimensions—military, economic, and diplomatic—to shape developments there as in other regions of strategic importance. Corresponding with those three dimensions are three roles for the United States in Africa: Security partner, investor, and mediator.
A major step forward for American foreign policy in Africa came in 2008 with the establishment of AFRICOM, the Unified Combatant Command (UCC) for Africa. The logic behind the creation of AFRICOM was remains compelling—before AFRICOM, responsibility for Africa was divided among three UCCs, but Africa is its own continent, deserving of its own UCC. Transnational issues like terrorism threaten neighboring African countries and it only makes sense to address such regional issues through a single command.
Nearly a decade after AFRICOM’s creation, there is only one manned U.S. military base in Africa: Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti.9 AFRICOM’s headquarters is actually at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany—far away from the region it purports to police. The European location of the headquarters is unfortunate from a public relations point of view, but understandable; as plans for AFRICOM took shape in the mid-2000s, a number of African nations, uncertain of the mission’s intentions, balked at the prospect of hosting American troops. But if the U.S. government wants to double down on its strategic investment in Africa, it will eventually need to move AFRICOM headquarters to Africa. Liberia would be a good candidate, as would South Africa, provided U.S.-South African relations improve.
Why should the U.S. government invest more in military facilities in Africa? The trends we explored earlier—such as religious polarization and fragile states—suggest that conflict will likely be as much a part of Africa’s future as its past. And as the United States will remain a superpower for the foreseeable future, it is likely that it will be dragged—willingly or unwillingly—into involvement in future conflicts. Better, then, to adopt a preventive strategy of shoring up fragile state structures and quelling insurgencies. And this “pivot to Africa”—less a temporary shift and more a long-term reorientation—need not be expensive.
Big-ticket arms deals or giveaways are not a necessary part of this strategy, and might actually be counterproductive. Focusing on counter-narcotics missions and military training instead of arms deals is a wiser use of scarce resources, for a RAND Corporation study found that arms deals were not cost-effective at promoting stability, while counter-narcotics and military training were substantially more cost-effective means of shoring up fragile states.10 For example, maritime law enforcement training activities like the March 2017 Obangame Express exercise, which brought militaries from 32 different countries together, cost comparatively little and can easily be scaled up to include partners from many different African militaries. Cutting back on expensive arms giveaways of questionable efficacy would also mean freeing up more resources to invest in personnel and equipment—such as hospital ships and mobile field hospitals—that could be primed to respond to pandemics like Ebola that pose major security threats.
The United States is well positioned to pursue what Walter Russell Mead would call a “Hamiltonian” foreign policy in Africa, one emphasizing commercial ties as the foundation for cordial relations.11 Although Alexander Hamilton himself was far from a free-trader, he understood the importance of trade and manufacturing, as well as foreign investment. Just as British investors financed American and Canadian canals and railroads in the 19th century, in these early decades of the 21st century American investors can provide the capital African entrepreneurs need to launch large-scale ventures, like rail lines, energy production, and manufacturing centers.
Fortunately for the American foreign policy establishment, it would not be particularly difficult to sustain a Hamiltonian foreign policy in Africa; the private financial infrastructure already exists, and government need only play a supporting role. American expatriates and venture capitalists are already working and investing in the region. For example, an American businessman has partnered with a Kenyan entrepreneur, Navalayo Osembo, to found Enda, a company that plans to manufacture running shoes in Kenya. Osembo says his goal is “to create a way through which Kenya can economically benefit from the running industry, given its reputation on distance running.” With the right conditions, partnerships like this could become ubiquitous.
One area where the Trump Administration’s skepticism of trade deals could work to improve Africa policy is in reconsidering the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Signed into law by President Clinton in 2000, AGOA has fallen short of achieving its high-minded promises of reducing reliance on commodity exports and sparking industrialization in Africa. According to a 2014 GAO report, petroleum accounted for 86 percent of AGOA imports in 2013, meaning that AGOA may actually be contributing to resource-curse dynamics in Nigeria, Angola, and Chad, the three largest oil exporters under AGOA, and contradicting regional foreign policy goals, such as promoting good governance and reducing corruption.
What’s more, AGOA is not reciprocal trade agreement—it is actually a one-sided arrangement that gives African economies preferential access to the American market, albeit for a limited number of items, while allowing African countries to maintain high tariffs on American manufactured goods, like automobiles and farm equipment. The Trump Administration should work to replace AGOA with a two-way trade pact that would increase trade between the United States and Africa (It would not hurt that the major beneficiaries of such a pact, like Caterpillar and Ford, employ a number of Trump voters in key swing states). Should AGOA partners prove reluctant to participate, President Trump should consider using tools embedded in AGOA, particularly the ability to put partner countries “on notice” for unfair trade practices, to pressure partner countries to negotiate a new agreement.
The most vexing issues in Africa policy come about when American values—especially democratic pluralism—conflict with our overriding interest in reducing conflict and promoting stability in the region. An Africa of stable, democratic states is clearly in the long-term interest of the United States. But nations, states, and democratic governance do not spring up overnight. All liberal democratic orders take decades of work to establish and require constant maintenance and episodic reform. Even so, success quite possibly depends on preconditions that take even longer to form—notably the evolution from patrimonial to post-patrimonial social orders. The last decade and a half of American intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan have given “democracy promotion” a bad name, in great part because such high hopes have seldom met with such devastating resistance and disappointment. With America’s own political history and the recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan in mind, patience and humility should be the orders of the day when it comes to democracy promotion.
As it stands, existing American foreign policy in Africa only gives lip service to democracy promotion. In the past few years, no fewer than six countries in Central Africa have seen their budding Presidents for Life blatantly rig elections and demolish term limits, with American policymakers standing idly by or, at best, issuing a sternly-worded press release. President Joseph Kabila’s reluctance to schedule elections, much less step down, in the DRC spells only further uncertainty and violence in a country of 80 million that lost upward of 5 million people in its last civil war. Despite having in Susan Rice a credentialed and high-ranking Africanist, the Obama Administration did essentially nothing about any of this.
Perhaps that was wise, for let us not deceive ourselves: The United States cannot in the short-term transform countries into functional liberal democracies. But it can support the two-term norm, starting with American allies. It would not be the first time the United States exerted behind-the-scenes pressure in a country’s transition to democracy. The examples of Taiwan and South Korea both speak to America’s capacity to work with autocrats in the short term and press for democratization and liberalization in the longer term. Of course, this strategy of continuous engagement and behind-the-scenes pressure, like the economic and military strategies considered earlier, requires more consistent engagement with Africa than previous administrations have been willing to commit. Whether the Trump Administration will shape a coherent grand strategy in Africa remains to be seen, but if in this it fails, it will not have been so different from the administrations that came before.
1The enduring importance of this demographic connection should not be overlooked. Today, some of the most consistent proponents of American engagement in Africa are members of the Congressional Black Caucus. On the other side of the Atlantic, shootings of African Americans by police receive widespread media coverage, contributing to the impression that America, as a country, does not much care about Africans.
2See Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, “When Dictators Die,” Foreign Policy, September 10, 2015. “Compared with other forms of leadership turnover in autocracies — such as coups, elections, or term limits — which lead to regime collapse about half of the time, the death of a dictator is remarkably inconsequential.”
3Donald Horowitz calls Nigeria’s system, in which political parties are forced to forge multiethnic coalitions in order to be successful, a “centripetal” arrangement. For further reading on this subject, see Horowitz’s 2014 article for The Journal of Democracy, “Ethnic Power Sharing: Three Big Problems.”
4Even though Kanchan Chandra’s theory of “activated” identities refers to ethnicity, not religion, the same concept applies here—a previously latent identity became more salient over time, and political entrepreneurs took note of this change to activate once-latent identities, resulting in political mobilization and conflict.
5These tensions within Islam are personified in the story of Abdel Kader Haidara, the Timbuktu librarian and preservationist who is credited with saving some 500,000 documents from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) during Timbuktu’s occupation in 2012-13 Northern Mali conflict. For further reading on this topic, see Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu.
6A 2010 Pew Research Center poll revealed widespread preferences among both African Christians and Muslims for imposing religious law as the law of the land. In Nigeria, 71 percent of Muslims surveyed wanted sharia and 70 percent of Christians surveyed wanted biblical law. In Ethiopia, 65 percent of Muslims and 55 percent of Christians wanted religious law. In Ghana, it was 58 percent of Muslims and 70 percent of Christians.
7For a primer on fragile states, see Seth Kaplan’s January 2017 article for The American Interest, “Weak States: When Should We Worry?”
8Astute Southern Africa watchers may object to the Botswana-Zimbabwe comparison, and not unfairly, as Botswana and Zimbabwe’s different colonial histories and ethnic makeup help to explain some of the differences in economic performance. However, the purpose of the paragraph is to show that there already exists an African model for negotiating the vicissitudes of the resource curse—Botswana.
9The U.S. government is currently building sophisticated drone facilities across Africa, notably a $100 million facility in Niger, but Camp Lemonnier is the only manned military base.
10Michael J. McNerney et al., “Assessing Security Cooperation as a Preventive Tool,” RAND Corporation (2014), 73.
11Mead’s Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (2001) sketches four schools of American foreign policy thought, among them the Hamiltonians. Mead notes that over the course of American history, Hamiltonians switched from favoring Alexander Hamilton’s own system of high tariffs to supporting free trade, and it is this sense of “Hamiltonian” I employ in this piece.