Africa from the Washington Perspective – Looking Back, Moving Ahead

Washington, DC — With the presidential election taking place today, it is time to reflect on the Trump administration’s Africa policy and consider what’s in store for the next four years – either with a second Trump term or a new Biden presidency. Since the Clinton administration, U.S.-Africa policy has been marked by bipartisan continuity, focused on promoting good governance, economic development, and trade between the U.S. and African countries. Will these priorities continue, and should they? What does the future hold for U.S. business on the continent? Associate Garret Nash recently spoke with KRL President and CEO Riva Levinson and Senior Advisor Tom Sheehy, two long-time Africa watchers, on Africa and U.S. policy.

The most significant development in Africa this year, unfortunately, has been the COVID-19 pandemic. What are your impressions of its impact, throughout the continent?

Tom: Without question, the pandemic has done significant damage throughout Africa. Energy-producing countries, including Nigeria and Angola, have taken a big financial hit, as have all tourism-dependent economies. The pandemic continues to strain government budgets, which may lead to debt crises, and donor aid is stretched thin. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost, and the fight against poverty tragically has been set back.

Fortunately, the pandemic doesn’t look to be as widespread and deadly as initially feared. The impact varies from country to country, but overall infections and deaths appear to be dropping. Economies are opening up. Ghana’s international airport, complete with on-the-spot testing, has been operating since early September. South Africa’s airports are opening to international traffic, which will help the region. It’s certainly not time to be complacent, and Africa needs more international aid, but there are positive signs, partly because many African governments have been proactive in combatting the pandemic.

Riva: From a health security standpoint, Africa has defied the odds, kept illness and death low, by a combination of cross-continental coordination in deploying tests and equipment, early and aggressive protocols and some luck. But emerging from the pandemic economic recession will be beyond the capacities of individual nations and their institutions. A coordinated global effort on debt will be needed, and China, the largest debtor nation, will need to participate, with transparency.

It’s a tough time for democracy and the rule of law on the continent. How do you view these issues and a possible change in U.S. policy? 

Tom: It’s a tough time for democracy worldwide, not just Africa. Freedom House has measured democracy’s decline for over a decade now. We saw bad elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique last year. This month’s election in Tanzania looks like it’ll be badly flawed. Aged leaders in Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, and elsewhere are shattering term limits to cling to power. The pandemic has placed another stress on good governance.

There’s encouraging news, though. Civil society in many countries is pushing back, aided by social media. Africa’s growing population of young people resent political dynasties and repression. The emergence of African women in politics is very encouraging too, as they are demanding greater political accountability.

From an economic development standpoint, some argue that business can be done just as well, or even better, in authoritarian countries. This is the China model that some Africans look to. But my bet is that investment is safer, less subject to capricious treatment, when the host country is striving to build democracy and the rule of law. It’s naïve to believe that a government would only abuse its own people but would leave foreign investors alone. It’s no coincidence, for example, that Tanzania’s drift toward authoritarianism has led to many abuses of U.S. investors.

Riva: Considering possible changes, I’d expect a Biden administration to put greater emphasis on democracy and governance issues in Africa. House Africa Subcommittee Chair Karen Bass, who’d be very influential with a Biden administration, recently held a hearing on democratic backsliding in Africa. Both Democrats and Republicans were focused and concerned. At the end of the day though, it is Africans themselves who’ll be, and have always been, most effective in pressing for political freedom. In this regard, it has been encouraging to see ECOWAS demand the return to civilian rule and democratic elections in Mali.

The African Growth and Opportunity Act is 20 years old now. What is the future of U.S. trade policy toward Africa, and will we see continued preferential trade or free trade agreements (FTA)?

Tom: The Trump administration clearly prefers negotiated trade agreements, like the potential FTA with Kenya. But while Kenya is a good partner, there are many challenges to getting that FTA done. Also, the administration’s ambitious goal of growing the Kenya agreement into an Africa-wide pact seems remote.

It can’t be assumed that the Biden administration would follow the FTA path with Africa, even with Kenya. There are many who don’t want to see AGOA expire in 2025. I share concerns that removing AGOA preferences risks setting back U.S. trade with Africa on the whole. Yes, African governments may have less of an incentive to negotiate trade agreements with the U.S. if they can rely on AGOA benefits, but there is a downside to moving beyond preferential trade for Africa. Africa remains the world’s poorest continent, its physical infrastructure and institutional capacity for trade is still very weak, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic remains to be seen. AGOA has support in the Congress, and I think a Biden administration would be open to renewing the program.

Riva: It’s encouraging to see Africa move toward freer trade with its continental trade agreement, the AfCFTA which comprises 54 countries. The realization of this ambition will be fundamental to Africa’s ability to manage its youth bulge and its emergence as a force in an ever-changing new world order. To succeed, the AfCFTA must be driven by a rules-based trading system and anchored in national and continental institutions that provide continuity and consistency for businesses over time.

Much attention has been paid to the role of China in Africa. How do you see this development, and the U.S. policy response?

Tom: For Africa, there is some good in China’s emergence on the continent and some bad. China is bringing capital, mainly for much needed infrastructure projects. Of course, there are concerns over the sustainability of the debt load, environmental impact, and whether Africans are being employed. Corruption is also a challenge. The underreported good news is that Africans are increasingly willing and able to make informed decisions about the merits of various Chinese-backed projects and investment. The U.S. should continue to help African states and even civil society improve their technical capacity to make clear-eyed assessments of proposals from all foreign investors, including China.

The Trump administration has made countering China worldwide a central focus and is a big part of its reelection campaign strategy. A second Trump administration would continue with this confrontation as a key priority in Africa. But it’s not just the Trump administration – there is bipartisan congressional concern over China in Africa. While a Biden administration probably wouldn’t focus as intensely, China would still be a priority.

Former Clinton administration Treasury Secretary Larry Summers recently warned the U.S. and others not to “cede relevance in Africa to China,” claiming that to do so would “a tragic error of historic proportions.” He’s right. Both congressional Republicans and Democrats realize that U.S. companies should be in Africa, competing with China, which is a challenge given the advantages Chinese companies in Africa have. That’s why the U.S. Development Finance Corporation’s capacity was doubled, to help U.S. companies better compete. A Biden administration might seek out some areas of cooperation with China in Africa, maybe in peacekeeping and other security issues, but those opportunities aren’t much evident these days.

Riva: Chinese-held debt is proving to be a big problem for COVID-19 resilience and recovery. Zambia has now defaulted on its Eurobonds, largely because of the economic decline of the pandemic. In turn, the country sought relief from China, which was inflexible. Other countries will follow – the fiscal stress is unsustainable. The U.S. position, and increasingly the G-7 stance, is no comprehensive relief so long as China isn’t doing its share. The Trump administration doesn’t want to see China getting bailed out by U.S. taxpayers. There will be an increasing call for full transparency of Chinese debt, no matter who is elected.

Which African countries are getting attention in Washington these days?

Riva: Right now, there is a big legislative push to take Sudan off the State Sponsor of Terrorism list. Sudan’s current transitional government badly wants to part ways with Iran, North Korea, and Cuba, the only others on the U.S. list, to attract more foreign investment. The administration has been pushing for this, and there is strong bipartisan support in Congress. This is the right move, as the U.S. should be doing what it can to help Prime Minister Hamdok in this very delicate time in Khartoum. But there is key congressional resistance tied to the compensation terms. I’d hope that if this doesn’t get done in the current Congress, it’d be taken up again early in the new Congress.

In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy is walking a tightrope, facing deep ethnic tensions that threaten his government and the nation’s unity and stability. There is great commercial potential in Ethiopia, one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, but that’s at risk now. The dispute with Egypt over the GERD dam’s impact on the Nile River is a major regional threat that got the attention of President Trump himself. I’m hopeful that creative diplomacy can make the GERD a win for all countries, being a unifying force for the region. But that will require great diplomatic commitment and skill.

Tom: People are very concerned about the insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region. The government in Maputo has grossly underestimated this threat, and badly needs help combatting the militants. The U.S. has backed ExxonMobil’s very large offshore gas investment there, including a hefty $5 billion U.S. EXIM Bank loan. The northern Mozambique crisis is a complex issue of bad governance, weak security forces, and foreign-backed militants, fueled by global drug trafficking. A solution will require a major, well-resourced, multinational effort. It’s worth the effort, though, as the economic and humanitarian stakes are very high.

What about the U.S. Congress’ engagement on Africa policy? 

Tom: Congress has long been important in driving Africa policy. Many of the major initiatives that define U.S. engagement with Africa originated in the Congress, including AGOA, President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and Power Africa. Congress has been pushing an agenda of working with African countries on conservation issues too. When I was a Foreign Affairs Committee staffer, we pushed relentlessly, and successfully, to get Liberian warlord Charles Taylor brought to justice. So Congress matters. Unfortunately, Congressional activity on Africa today has taken a dip. It’s a strange time on the Hill, with virtual hearings, ever more intense partisanship, and the upcoming elections. Any administration needs the watchful eye and policy contributions of Congress. The new Congress should coalesce around a major new bipartisan initiative toward Africa, being creative and making its mark. I’m hopeful that it will.

What’s your advice on Africa for a second Trump or Biden administration?

Tom: A good bipartisan course has been set, focused on promoting good governance, trade and investment. That should continue. The U.S. should be supportive of civil society seeking democratic change, including better public diplomacy. U.S. policy needs to be better resourced, so it can do more in Africa, with more programs and people. But State Department personnel need to get out and about in their countries, so they can better learn and make more meaningful contacts, including for U.S. businesses. Too often in Africa our diplomats stay in the capital cities and miss key developments elsewhere. The administration’s “deal team” concept is a good one, but it needs more energy. The State Department needs major organizational updating to meet challenges in Africa, and worldwide, which key people around Washington are discussing.

Riva: The reality is that more and more countries are engaging in Africa. It’s not just China that’s stepping up its economic and diplomatic presence, but Turkey, Israel, India, South Korea and many others. Some 150 embassies have been opened in Africa by other countries in the last decade. The U.S. has to engage aggressively in Africa or risk becoming a marginal player. The U.S. should work more with like-minded countries to solve problems. Unfortunately there is no shortage of crises in Africa that could benefit from aggressive, U.S.-led diplomacy.

The Biden campaign has focused on Africa in a way I’ve never seen in a campaign before. It sees the Diaspora as a constituency, and that is an important pivot. A Biden administration would aim to “reset” Africa policy, at least the tone, including an early-on summit with African leaders. This would fit some of its campaign themes, including its focus on multilateralism. It would also reflect U.S. domestic politics surrounding issues of racial equality. But in terms of actual policy toward Africa, Biden policy would likely be more similar than different, building on the last several administrations, both Democrat and Republican. Regardless of which administration is in power, we need to be more focused on this continent of great importance and potential.

Garret: Thank you, Riva and Tom.

The big question we discussed is what will change in U.S. policy towards Africa after the election, with either a Republican or Democratic led government? According to Riva and Tom, that there could be tactical shifts, new programs could emerge, but at the end of the day, foundational bipartisan legislation and programs like AGOA, and an expanded DFC, will likely remain the backbone of U.S. strategy.


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