Over my years working on Africa – both in and out of government service – I have seen criticism of what many have described as a deficient U.S. policy toward Africa. To some extent, our government’s Africa policies and actions certainly have not been successful, and in some cases were disastrously unsuccessful no matter how well-meaning. Nevertheless, on the whole our government’s policies have been improving and have enjoyed measurable success in several aspects.
I was asked in a recent television interview what the U.S. Government should do to create and sustain a successful policy toward the nations of Africa. I believe such a policy should touch on four elements that are all interconnected. First and foremost is human rights. Without human rights being honored by African governments, no other element can succeed. Due process and basic rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and, of course, freedom of religion are essential to any society that hopes to promote the well-being of all its people.
However, in Africa, one is tempted to add ethnic freedom. The source of much of the conflict from which African nations suffer is caused by often age-old hatreds and mistrust among the continent’s many ethnic groups, and the more such groups exist in a country, the greater the possibility of internal strife. Countries with one overwhelming majority group such as Botswana (Tswana) or Swaziland (Swazi) may have internal conflicts, but they are not triggered by inter-ethnic competition. Meanwhile, a country such as Nigeria, with dozens of ethnic groups, has to map out a power-sharing plan, even though it has not been adhered to as promised.
Ethnicity trumps nationalism. I have seen in countries such as Kenya that all too many people see themselves as Kikuyu or Luo than see themselves as Kenyan. One Kenyan politician once told me why he felt the days of Kikuyu political and economic domination should end. “It’s our time to cut the national cake,” he said.
Second, there is humanitarian assistance. In this area, the U.S. Government has been most successful, spending billions of dollars to meet emergency needs and ongoing insufficiencies. Unfortunately, the old Peace Corps axiom (“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he can feed himself for a lifetime.”) is not as well observed as it should have been. The U.S. Government more often than not works through non-governmental organizations to provide for humanitarian assistance. The issue isn’t just corruption; it’s a lack of experience in managing funds efficiently and effectively. Of course, no one is born knowing how to do so.
Additionally, I’ve seen government deny humanitarian assistance to punish opposing ethnic groups or supporters of other political parties. I’ve also seen aid handed out to coerce support at the polls to reward votes for the ruling party. While observing elections in Kenya in 1992, a drunk man mistook me for a government official and said he was ready to vote once I gave him something.
That leads to the third issue, which is good governance and democracy. If government officials don’t have the skills to properly handle the nation’s business, and if they misuse national resources to reward supporters and punish opponents, and if they further steal national funds, then how can we expect there to be good governance? From education to health to many other sectors, the United States and other developed nations have provided over the past several decades technical assistance to African governments on public management. But if governments don’t sustain lasting bureaucracies that have trained and experienced people, preventing brain drain of those who take their training and experience to better conditions and pay in developed countries, then this technical assistance is for naught.
As for the elections part of democracy, I participated in the African Electoral Assistance Fund back in the early 1990s, when the U.S. Government provided election support across the continent. It was helpful in some cases, but it became clear to me and others that we really needed to be part of the entire election process – from registration of voters, parties and candidates to creation of constituencies to establishment of election rules – otherwise, elections would be manipulated beyond correction long before the first vote was cast. We must learn from past mistakes if we are to correct this flaw.
Finally, there is U.S.-Africa trade. The U.S. Government has focused on enhancing trade with Africa since the African Growth and Opportunity Act was written in the mid-1990s. Since then, programs such as Trade Africa, and more recently, Prosper Africa, have sought to stimulate two-way trade with nations on the continent. This is a vital aspect of trade since one-way trade is unsustainable – both politically and economically. Empty or half-empty ships carrying containers of goods will require those with goods aboard to pay for that empty space. That is the concern officials in Philadelphia have expressed about the landmark agreement by Maersk, a major global shipping line, to schedule regular ships between Cote d’Ivoire and Philadelphia.
Moreover, it is small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that create the bulk of jobs in trade, and unless more is done to facilitate connections between like-sized firms in the United States and African nations, broad-based wealth creation will not occur on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. The federal agencies working on Prosper Africa have directed most of their attention to commercial activities by large companies and their exports to Africa in order to prove that U.S.-Africa trade is a worthwhile venture on which to expend U.S. funding. If more is not done to assist SMEs to connect with their counterparts and engage in mutually beneficial trade, then there will be an unbalanced U.S.-Africa trade landscape that will not stand in the long run.
Since the National Security Memo 30 on Africa policy was written during the waning days of the George H.W. Bush Administration, the U.S. Government, headed in turn by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, has been increasingly successful in its efforts to enhance trade between the United States and African nations. In saying that, however, I am revealing a major disconnect in this effort. Trade is between businesses, not governments as it has been portrayed. The prevailing concept is that trade is like sports, in which governments are the rule-writers and referees, businesses are the players and civil society organizations (e.g. think tanks) are the “journalists” covering the proceedings and letting the public know what works and what doesn’t work. All three elements must be part of the process for it to work effectively.
The Joe Biden Administration can continue to construct from what the previous four Administrations did and “build better” from that platform. At the heart of this process moving forward must be a more effective effort to understand African societies and traditions in each country. I and others have long been told we don’t understand the situations in which we intervene. That is quite true, but that doesn’t mean that all those traditions benefit their people. To the extent that we can work with them to devise plans and processes that work best in today’s world rather than those created in another time and setting, so much the better for them and us.
With the onset of the African Continental Free Trade Area and the African Union’s outreach to Diaspora businesses, we are on the verge of a new day of successful commerce being conducted by business people in the United States in conjunction with their counterparts. If the Biden Administration can learn from the mistakes of past Administrations and build on the successes each achieved in their time, we will have bright days ahead of us.