FOREIGN POLICY OP-ED
Return of leaders’ summit indicates a potential shift in US-Africa relations
Despite positive noises, African leaders and policymakers cannot afford to get swept up in the heady excitement of the promises of new investments just to find themselves still shackled to aid-dependent partnerships.
This week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken began a whistle-stop tour of Africa. He used his South African stop to unveil the new US approach to Africa and redirect the unabating downward trajectory of US-Africa relations.
Blinken’s visit could not be timelier – as US tensions with China and Russia continue to heighten, with America invested in ensuring that they dilute the influence of their rivals on the continent. To that end, in just more than four months, 50 African leaders will descend on Washington for the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit. This is only the second time this summit has been held, the last time being in 2014 under President Barack Obama. This summit represents a recalibration of US-Africa policy, which could only be described as apathetic to date.
The early days of Joe Biden’s presidency promised a renewed interest and commitment to the African continent. And, despite a slow uptick in investments and a revitalised African Growth and Opportunity Act, there are still several questions about whether Biden’s Africa policy will radically shift course from the trajectory set by his predecessors.
The current US-Africa policy rests on four central pillars: climate change, democracy promotion, Covid-19 pandemic response, and trade and investment. All four are hampered by domestic constraints, most importantly that the US is teetering towards a possible recession, and the country is still unable to stem Covid-19 infection rates within its borders.
According to figures from Johns Hopkins University and the World Health Organization, the US still has the world’s highest number of Covid-19 infections and deaths per day. Added to these challenges, a July 2022 Gallup poll found that Biden’s approval ratings were down to only 38%, the lowest approval rating in history at this point in office.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Geopolitical realities may shape the US’s ambitious ‘new strategy’ for engagement with Africa”
China has continued to lead in investments in Africa over the past decade. Considering US domestic challenges, to what extent can the US be realistically expected to deliver on such a desired development partnership? The answer lies in the recent history of this relationship. Notwithstanding the grand announcements of $600-billion pledged by the G7 in investments or possible opportunities for Africans in the Biden administration’s $6-trillion infrastructure plan, the current economic challenges in the US, as well as many unrealised promises and pledges, are sources of doubt.
Even more doubtful when the US appears to be focused on stopping China from being the leading economic power globally rather than a genuine partnership with investment destinations, especially in Africa. Africa does not head to the summit to seek democracy from the US or models and systems, nor does it need more army bases and violence.
As the Democrats head to the polls in November for the US midterm elections and Biden begins to build his war chest in the lead-up to the 2024 elections, African leaders and policymakers must make calculations of their own. They cannot afford to get swept up in the heady excitement of the promises of new investments just to find themselves still shackled to aid-dependent partnerships.
African leaders would do well to remind themselves that they do have a lot to offer potential investors. First and foremost, the continent has a young population that is set to reach 2.5 billion in 28 years. Second, it is rich in minerals for todays and tomorrow’s technologies.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “The return of Africom – A recalibration of Biden’s US-Africa policy?”
Blinken’s visit to South Africa, and Biden’s continued absence, do not bode well for the revitalisation of the US-Africa relationship. Indeed, there may be a new policy, but the policy doesn’t seem substantially familiar, particularly as the tone of language does not point to true partnership.
For Africa to truly benefit from the December summit and renewed interest in the continent, its leaders need to consolidate their efforts to break through their public image of being simply conflict-ridden territories in constant need of charity. African leaders must engage with investment partners willing and able to add impetus to the 15 AU flagship projects.
Most importantly, we must ensure that the teams supporting our various African leaders are well informed and agile to identify partners serious about offering quality investment rather than continuing the status quo. DM
Dr Odilile Ayodele is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg. Mikatekiso Kubayi is a PhD candidate and Research Fellow at the institute, and Researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue.