Africa: Creating a New Foreign Policy Agenda for Africa-U.S. Engagement

I think that the U.S. could work with Africa to build a better world.

I think that the U.S. could work with Africa, either under the auspices of the African Union or indeed through individual countries like Nigeria, to build a better world. Africa should not be seen or used as a pawn in great power games nor as an arena in the contest to secure strategic minerals and natural resources but rather as a partner in building a more secure, a more peaceful and prosperous world.

The timing of this conversation is auspicious for a number of reasons. First, President Biden’s speech in February to African leaders at the African Union (AU) summit signaled a new and more robust partnership, to quote him, “in solidarity, support and mutual respect”.

Second, at the top of the new administration’s foreign policy agenda are two topics of crucial importance to African states – the COVID-19 pandemic, its fallouts and what to do going forward, and climate change.

Third, are the positive signals from the U.S. Congress. The Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, George Meeks, in his first public statement, called for a new Africa Policy, which he said would be his top priority.

Fourthly and more broadly, is a view expressed by many who have given the matter some thought, that the 21st century will be the African century.

In other words, for good or ill, the fate of Africa will impact on the rest of the world in this century because of its increasing share of humanity and because of its indispensable contribution to managing the global commons, be it to improve human security, to avert pandemics, or indeed to tackle the crises caused by climate change.

Let me expatiate on this. It is estimated, for instance, that Africa will account for 25 per cent of global population by 2050, up from about 17 per cent today; that is an 8 per cent increase.

Indeed, my own country, Nigeria, is projected to be the third most populous country in the world by that date (2050), after India and China. If this increasing share of the global population is reflected in economic productivity and increased material well-being, then it surely augurs well for the world.

If, however, it brings about increased poverty and misery, then Africa could become a hotbed of restive youth who are vulnerable to the negative promptings of maniacal populists and religious radicals. And, also, for the other global concerns such as climate change, distractions such as worsening poverty, violent extremism and dysfunctional governance, these can only worsen matters.

As such, I think that a resetting of the U.S. policy agenda with Africa should promote a partnership that brings about economic prosperity, increases security, combats disease, improves governance and mitigates the effects of climate change.

Africa is in many ways the last frontier for economic development and it has the potential to be a global growth pole. Indeed, as other parts of the world are looking inwards, Africa is moving confidently to integrate its economies through the African Union Agenda 2063, as well as the recent establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement.

As Asian countries move to producing more sophisticated goods and services and as labour becomes more expensive there, Africa has a good chance to become the new factory of the world. This would require investment in machinery, skills and technologies to improve productivity and increase returns.

So, I think the United States is well placed to lead trade and investment ties with Africa. And it has a good leg-in with the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA). The legislation, which removed all tariffs on 6,400 products available for export to the U.S., saw some African countries benefiting considerably.

South Africa’s auto exports to the U.S. under AGOA have created thousands of jobs in that country and in the auto supply value chain in neighbouring countries. Export of garments from other countries, such as Ethiopia, Mauritius, Lesotho, eSwatini and Kenya, have also created large numbers of jobs.

But AGOA’s challenges, aside from the small number of countries that have benefited, are the changing dynamics of trade within Africa itself since it was passed 20 years ago. For example, the European Union (EU) has signed several Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with several countries, with implications for tariff disparities that may need to be reviewed in order to create a level playing field. Also the African Continental Free Trade Agreements are set to kick-in and AGOA must now be implemented in a manner that is consistent with the AFCTA. The AGOA expires in 2025. But I believe that a new and improved AGOA that takes these challenges into account can be negotiated before then.

I think that we have a moment now in which on account of the escalation of insurgencies, especially in the West African regions, there is need for a more robust U.S. intervention and I think that this is something that U.S. foreign policy along with African partners should take a second look at.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the need to coordinate actions to prevent and tackle pandemics, while also building up public health infrastructure in developed and developing countries alike.

The reality, however, is that Africa still bears a disproportionate burden of communicable diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, and meningitis, to mention but a few.

The United States has helped to improve health care outcomes in Africa, including through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDs Relief (PEPFAR).

I think that the same spirit of collaboration with regard to making COVID-19 vaccines available to African countries is now called for. This is not a time for vaccine nationalism and export bans but it is a time of working together towards universal vaccination against the disease.

I believe the U.S. can lead in the effort to ensure that all countries and their peoples can access vaccines, irrespective of the resources available to them. Quite frankly, we have seen some support. The U.S. has rejoined the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), and all of these have been very helpful in creating the right environment for cooperation towards increasing vaccine availability and solving some of the problems associated with the difficulty in getting the vaccines.

All too often people outside tend to see Africa as a conflict-ridden continent beset by insurgencies and wild-eyed terrorists. There has, undoubtedly, been increased restiveness in certain parts of Africa, which is driven or aided by poverty, alienation, environmental degradation and poor governance.

In truth, though, the troubles in the main are due to an encroachment of globally known terror groups or their franchises in several parts of Africa.

The U.S. has had counterterrorism presence in about 15 African countries – in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa – combating jihadist terrorist groups operating largely in the Sahel, especially the sub-Saharan Sahel region and the area further southwest around Lake Chad, Nigeria (especially northern Nigeria), Somalia, and also Mozambique.

The U.S.-Africa Command (Africom) has been a very active force in all of the activities of the U.S. in this region. So, while it is evident that the threat of violent extremist organisations is growing, it will appear that U.S. policy (the United States Africa Command) has since 2020 shifted from a strategy of degrading violent extremist organisations in West Africa to simply containing their spread. But the escalation of the attacks and the synergies being created amongst these extremist groups call for a review of that position.

It may be the moment for a more robust intervention along the lines of U.S.-backed operations in clearing terrorists and insurgents in the Middle East. I think that we have a moment now in which on account of the escalation of insurgencies, especially in the West African regions, there is need for a more robust U.S. intervention and I think that this is something that U.S. foreign policy along with African partners should take a second look at.

A key tenet of U.S. foreign policy has been to uphold values and principles such as democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and public accountability. These issues resonate very strongly with ordinary Africans who believe that improved governance is crucial in ensuring that their votes count, their rights are protected and that state resources are used for the common good.

United States engagement with Africa, I think, should naturally take these matters on board. However, I must say that it should not take the shape of finger-wagging but rather a balanced and joint endeavour to achieve these objectives. To paraphrase President Biden, one based on mutual respect.

Whatever the case, there should be no rush to judgment but an effort to hear the other side and I think we should create more opportunities to hear the other side. Not through lobbying firms and that sort of thing but more direct government types of meetings and interactions that enable both governments to better understand what their points of view are and, I think, we have a perfect opportunity for doing so now.

This does not imply, in my view, turning a blind eye to gross infractions of international law and human rights. It does, however, require a broader and more nuanced perspective on issues, as well as an understanding of local dynamics before taking a stand.

I also believe that the United States could work with partners, including the G20, to establish an international economic system that works for Africa and other developing countries. It is a very encouraging sign in this regard that the U.S. has signaled support for the $650 billion increase in Special Drawing Rights at the International Monetary Fund (IMF)…

As I said earlier, climate change, including the risk of a perfect storm of population pressure, environmental degradation and pandemics pose a serious threat to African development, in particular, and the world in general.

It seems to be that the United States and Africa must work together to tackle climate change and moderate global warming, including through an energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies.

African countries have made commitments in this regard towards implementing the Paris Climate Change Agreement targets and we are working hard towards achieving them. However, commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 has led to a growing trend among development finance institutions to withdraw from fossil fuel investments, including the World Bank’s decision to cease funding for upstream oil and gas developments and the new restrictions on financing downstream gas developments, which is currently being considered and implemented by some European Union countries. The United Kingdom and the United States have also been considering the defunding of gas projects.

While this may be well intentioned, this move does not take into account the principles of the common but differentiated responsibility and leaving no one behind, which are enshrined into global treaties around sustainable development and climate action. These are principles we all agreed to and that we all accepted.

I think that the move to defund gas projects disregards the importance of gas as a means of urgently addressing energy poverty in a technologically and economically viable manner.

Furthermore, increasing the use of gas, which is a cleaner fossil fuel in power generation, gives African countries the opportunity to phase out more polluting fuels such as coal, diesel and heavy fuel oil (HFO), while bringing onboard more renewables.

The United States should lend its weight to stopping this manifestly unfair trend that can undermine the sense of collective responsibility we all have towards mitigating climate change.