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How Africa should treat the Trump administration’s strategy for the continent


Michael Khorommbi is a researcher on regional integration and peace building in Africa. He is also a part-time lecturer in history at St Augustine College of South Africa. Moreover, he is an intern at/with the Political Economy of Southern Africa, as a junior regional analyst. PESA is a political economy think tank focused on SADC regional integration and African development. Last, he is currently studying for a Master of Science in Governance and Regional Integration at the Pan-African University Institute for Governance, Humanities and Social Sciences, hosted within University of Yaoundé II, Soa, Cameroon.

The Trump administration’s Africa strategy – which is not about fostering the socio-economic development of Africa, but to play Cold War politics with China and Russia – will fail because it does not seek to address the shortage of financing for infrastructure.

Internationally, no single issue or event in recent decades has provoked so much controversy and unified hostility and opposition in the West than China’s loans and investments to African countries.

The intensity and sheer unprecedented scale of both Western mainstream and scholarly analysis on this “debt trap” are not surprising considering that China managed to have 44 heads of state at the same venue during the 7th Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation. During the gathering, China’s president Xi Jinping dispersed $60-billion in the form of assistance, investment and loans for roads, railways, ports and other mega infrastructure projects as part of China’s One Belt One Road infrastructure initiative.

Why the sudden interest in African indebtedness to the Chinese? What about the debt owed Western nations and Western-led lending institutions? Are these criticisms legitimate considering that since the 1960s, Western nations and Western-led international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have “plundered” Africa and fostered conditions that made it difficult or impossible for African countries to repay their debts?

The “debt-trap narrative” which Western experts and pundits sought to promote emerged from Western nervousness about China-Africa co-operation, and was systematically and meticulously planned to discredit Chinese economic and political influence.

There is a multitude of research that illustrates that Western nations and Western-led financial institutions are the major proprietors of African debt, not China. Although, at present, China is one of the main lenders on the continent (and undoubtedly not the only one) and its share of the debt is substantially increasing, nonetheless it is not the largest.

In light of these criticisms; the Trump administration had an opportunity to develop a consistent and long-term strategy which clearly states how it intends to:

  • deepen and strengthen its multifaceted engagements with the continent, and;

  • collaborate with Africa’s global partners in fostering inclusive growth and social and economic development.

Thus, On 13 December 2018, John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, revealed the Trump administration’s “New Africa Strategy” at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. Bolton began the presentation with benevolent grandiloquence by declaring that “stability, prosperity, independence and security on the African continent are in the national security interest of the United States”.

The strategy had nothing to do with Africa and was all about countering sub-Saharan Africa’s main trading partner and the region’s main source of aid and investment. Bolton went on to point out that the justification for countering Chinese influence on the continent and promoting US national security interests is:

They are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States… China uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands.”

Driven by a desire to confront China’s growing influence, one of the key battlegrounds for global economic contest, Bolton did not acknowledge Africa’s own efforts to address myriad challenges such as corruption, poverty reduction, terrorism, trans-border crimes, illicit transfer of funds, over-dependence on foreign aid, food security, urban development, and access to finance for infrastructure (such as transport (roads, railways, ports), energy (renewable sources), water and sanitation), and information and communication technology.

Many scholars researching Africa’s international relations have emphasised that the Trump’s administration’s African strategy, which seeks to counter China and Russia’s economic and political influence on the continent, reveals the re-emergence of Cold War politics. The battle for influence is disguised as being equal partnerships to enhance Africa’s socio-economic development. Moreover, they maintain that Africa, as a battlefield for influence, remains as significant as it was seven decades ago. However, Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki dismissed these misguided claims and emphasises that Africa determines its partnerships narratives. In a tweet, Moussa argues:

Stop this stereotypical idea of Africa as a hapless terrain where Europe, China or others have free rein to battle for influence! We choose our partnerships and create conditions based on mutual interest and benefit. Do not infantilise an entire continent!”

The tweet by Faki clearly shows that African countries are willing to offer any country equal opportunities to demonstrate how they intend to partner with them in collective efforts towards socio-economic development, peace and security. African countries are willing to collaborate on the basis of mutual benefits.

Bolton’s announcement of the strategy sparked a media frenzy about two core issues:

  • Is it viable, in terms of the merits of opportunities that it will bring to the continent? and

  • Does this strategy present a paradigm shift in US foreign policy with Africa? Further, what does the strategy say about the strategic relevance of the US on the continent. Does this strategy reflect renewed commitments considering Trump’s “shithole countries” remarks? The Trump administration argues that the focus, purpose and motivations of the strategy are new and thus fundamentally different from the engagement of Obama’s administration with Africa.

There is nothing new about this strategy. It is just a simple re-orientation of US Africa strategy under a regime with a radical nationalistic and anti-multilateralism agenda. It is just a strategy formulated by a global superpower to cope with and respond to the stiff competition from China for access and control over resources. The US seems to be falling behind, as China, India, Russia, and the European Union are deepening and strengthening their engagement with Africa.

Africa was never part of the Trump administration’s national interest and foreign policy. It regarded Africa, not as a terrain of opportunities, but another aid burden for US taxpayers and chiefly one of the main contributors of illegal immigrants. With the second superpower’s increasing influence, the administration has become aware of the relevance of Africa’s strategic resources in the international division of power. Africa is the largest continent, with an estimated 750 million people and rich in natural resources. Whichever superpower has a coherent long-term strategy that emphasises areas for partnerships will definitely tip the scale of global power in its favour.

Post the China-Africa Summit, India is considering hosting a similar summit, but engaging the private sector as opposed to China’s state-centric approach. In 2019, Russia will host its first Africa-Russia summit, as it seeks to strengthen existing “partnerships and forge new alliances by offering security, arms training and electioneering services in exchange for mining rights and other opportunities”.

Any country with economic, military and political influence in Africa will add political leverage and relevance in international affairs. The anti-Chinese sentiments sweetened up as “debt trap” arise because of the political leverage that China has gained since its engagement within the continent.

Considering these developments the Trump administration’s Africa strategy was in a way something was forced on them — to recognise Africa’s strategic significance after his indifference and neglect, which was backed up by the “shithole” remarks. Africa will always be of strategic relevance to any global superpower, not to feed into the stereotype of a theatre for the battle for influence. The US needs to continue engaging with Africa through the African Growth and Opportunity Act, security issues such as counter-terrorism efforts and peacekeeping.

John Stremlau, visiting professor for international relations at the University of Witwatersrand, says that “Trump’s Africa strategy should have cast China as a regional partner, not a global adversary”. There is nothing that the US can do about China’s growing influence except to work closely with African states in ensuring that they do not fall into a debt trap.

To begin with, the US could be vocal about ensuring Chinese projects are negotiated with full transparency. Or seek to provide viable funding solutions to the infrastructure deficit on the continent. Bolton highlighted that the US had limited resources to contest with the billions of dollars China is pouring into Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa requires investments to build infrastructure, which is necessary for their development, and China is willing to give these loans. According to the World Bank, in order to address the infrastructural deficit, the sub-Sahara region would require “$93-billion a year until 2030”. McKinsey estimates that it will require $1-trillion.

The Trump administration’s Africa strategy, which is not about fostering the socio-economic development of Africa, but to play Cold War politics with China and Russia, will not be viable because it does not seek to address the shortage in the financing of infrastructure.

The key impediment to infrastructure investments on the continent is not the nonexistence of available financing, given the abundant capital in world markets at low long-term interest rates. The challenge which the US could have sought to recommend in its strategy is how can African countries’ infrastructure projects be feasible long-term investable projects?

l undertook a course on Infrastructure: Financing Management and Regulations in 2018 and undoubtedly Chinese loans are a debt trap, but there is a sense of uneasiness among governments in terms of the growing demand for infrastructure in already under-resourced countries.

For example, most African countries are facing a rise in urbanisation and this puts political pressure to deliver on promises. And in developing countries the government is perceived as the sole provider (at very low cost), subsidiser, coordinator, and/or regulator of traditional infrastructure, for example, transportation systems (highway systems, railway systems, airline systems, and ports.

Africa’s infrastructure is lagging behind others in the developing world; about 60% of the continent’s inhabitants “lack access to infrastructure, which isolates communities, prevent access to health care, education and jobs, and impedes economic growth”. Another challenge is transcontinental infrastructure that will promote intra-African trade because this infrastructure has significant spill-overs which are being predicted as part of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.

Due to infrastructure deficit and the urgency for mega trans-continental to promote regional integration and the realisation of the African Free Trade Agreement, China is willing to give away the funds (of course with conditions). China has the right ingredients in the form of state-backed financial lending institutions, construction consortiums, an indifference to the internal politics of African states and loans gambled against assets with potential to expand its geopolitics strategy, for example, seaports and land for military purposes.

Whereas almost all Asian emerging economies are increasing their commerce and trade-related influence the US has a nationalist agenda that argues that “we will not fund anything which does not allow us to set up military bases to counter China and Russia influence”. It will be recalled that in 2018 Trump threatened to withdraw the US aid it contributes to the United Nations peacekeeping missions. Furthermore, he characterised it as ineffective, considering that some of these African countries are governed by corrupt or ungrateful authoritarians.

And when John Bolton says that “in America’s dealings we ask only for reciprocity”, he means that the administration will not use its taxpayers’ money to fund African countries that are not willing to co-operate in its quest to counter and contain China.

Thus, what really matters in Africa’s strategy is not how it would seek to remedy two decades of misjudgments and miscalculations, but to seek to do things differently. DM


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