While President Donald Trump’s recent “shithole” comment degrading Haiti and African countries roiled politics at home and abroad, some argue that it was also a statement emblematic of the West’s historical neglect of the 54 countries on the African continent.
Experts see U.S. engagement in Africa as all the more urgent given China’s years-long investment in aid projects and commerce across the continent. But China also benefits from not having the long and complicated history that the U.S. has with the continent.
During the Cold War, Africa was caught up in the geopolitical struggle between the United States and Soviet Union (along with Cuba). Proxy battles between pro-communist and pro-Western forces fueled conflicts from Angola to Zaire. After the Cold War, the U.S. was notoriously slow to respond to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, for example, and to the outbreak of violence in Sudan’s Darfur region in 2003, which saw a campaign of ethnic cleansing from the outset.
East and southern Africa, the region hit hardest by the HIV epidemic, is home to over 50 percent of the total number of people living with HIV in the world, according to AVERT, a U.K.-based HIV education organization.
Meanwhile, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2014 to 2016 sparked mass hysteria in the U.S., with some calling for a quarantine on the three countries mainly affected — Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — and a suspension of international flights into the U.S.
And while more than 200 countries receive U.S. aid, the funds disproportionately go to five countries (Afghanistan, Israel, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan), according to a Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder by James McBride. Africa receives a larger share of economic and development aid, however, as opposed to the Middle East, where the focus is on military aid.
Downgraded Under Trump
To be sure, Africa has its fair share of problems, among them rampant poverty and corruption; entrenched strongmen and widespread human rights abuses; a lack of education, jobs and health care; tribal and military conflicts; exploding populations; environmental degradation; and some of the lowest development indicators in the world. At the same time, it is a highly diverse continent that is key to America’s global outreach given that it is home to some of the fastest-growing economies in the world; a young, entrepreneurial labor force; emerging democracies; and critical counterterrorism operations.
“Africa has never been high on anybody’s policy agenda when you look at the global agenda,” said Jennifer Cooke, the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But Cooke saw this changing over the course of the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“Particularly in the last three administrations, you had an elevation of Africa,” Cooke told The Diplomat.
She noted that major U.S. initiatives in Africa also had bipartisan support, whether it was the creation of a unified military command for Africa (AFRICOM) in 2007; the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) enacted in 2000 and extended by both Bush and Obama; or the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), carried out under Bush with congressional support from Democrats.
“Africa is moving into the foreign policy mainstream,” Cooke said.
Under Trump, however, Cooke says, “There has been a degrading of U.S. interest and engagement in Africa.”
Cooke’s argument is echoed by many in the foreign policy establishment, who point to the dramatic budget cuts that Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have recommended for the State Department and development assistance through USAID. The Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposed cutting aid to developing countries by one-third.
Trump’s recently released fiscal 2019 budget also slashes foreign aid, and the administration is threatening to make foreign assistance contingent on countries’ support for U.S. positions at the United Nations, according to a report by Carol Morello in The Washington Post.
Congress overrode the president’s fiscal 2018 request and spared State from large cuts. The recent two-year budget deal reached by lawmakers last month also did not impose the draconian cuts that Trump called for, although the State Department still faces a significant funding shortfall of nearly $9 billion.
The cuts come amid sinking morale at the State Department, where Tillerson has pushed forward with plans to shrink the size of the U.S. Foreign Service. Over the objections of career diplomats and development professionals, the administration floated the idea of “consolidating” USAID and State as part of a review mandated by Trump to “streamline” the executive branch. Officials have since backed away from the proposal amid mounting criticism.
Trump’s slow rate of filling diplomatic posts around the world is also causing concern. The vacancies are particularly stark in Africa.
Trump has yet to name a permanent assistant secretary of state for African affairs. Due to a hiring freeze at State, embassies around the world and particularly in Africa are still understaffed in Trump’s second year in office. In November, USAID was forced to cancel dozens of Foreign Service jobs — for which applicants had already passed security and medical clearances — due to the hiring freeze, according to The Washington Post.
Meanwhile, it is a time of historic upheaval in African politics. In September, Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down after 38 years in power. In November, Zimbabwe’s longtime ruler, Robert Mugabe, was ousted from his party and resigned. In December, Liberia experienced its first peaceful democratic transfer of power when George Weah defeated the sitting vice president in the country’s presidential election. In February, South Africa’s embattled president of nine years, Jacob Zuma, was replaced as leader of the African National Congress by Cyril Ramaphosa and resigned as president on the heels of a no-confidence vote. The next day, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned in the face of sustained protests and the government subsequently imposed a six-month state of emergency.
As a younger generation rises to power across the continent and democracy appears to be rejuvenated, experts see U.S. engagement in Africa as all the more urgent.
Instead, the Trump administration “has downgraded and hollowed out expertise at the State Department,” Cooke said.
In the U.S. absence in Africa, regional experts see a more assertive China rushing to fill the void.
Assessing China’s Influence
For decades, China has invested in — and helped develop — Africa’s transportation, oil refinement, telecommunications and agriculture industries. While Western nations tend to couple investment with demands for democratic and human rights reforms, China believes in a hands-off economic approach buttressed by low-cost loans and labor. As a result, it surpassed the U.S. as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009.
“It’s much easier to do business with China [than the U.S.] in Africa,” said Will Guyster, a guest lecturer on emerging markets and a researcher in entrepreneurship and innovation at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“They set up easily accessible trade offices in each country that they’re in. While it would take weeks to schedule an appointment with a U.S. trade representative, I could walk up to a Chinese trade representative and have a meeting that day,” said Guyster, who also founded a nonprofit in Ghana in 2006 and managed a number of USAID education grants in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.
China’s investments initially involved transactional loans in exchange for access to Africa’s natural resources, but have since expanded to establish a strategic presence on the continent. For example, Beijing has built and financed a light-rail project and entire neighborhoods in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-largest country and one its poorest. It also built a $200 million African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. That came on top of a $4 billion Chinese-funded railway in Kenya. The Nairobi-Mombasa line, the largest infrastructure project in Kenya in over 50 years, is designed to expand to several other nations in an effort to link East Africa.
China is not building something for nothing, Guyster noted. Africa has a growing consumer market that could very soon be buying Chinese-made products on Alibaba, a Chinese-owned version of Amazon’s model of an online big-box store.
In addition, Africa has the youngest population in the world, with 60 percent of its people under the age of 24, according to the U.N., further adding to its market potential
It is also the fastest-growing mobile market in the world, with sub-Sahara Africa projected to have 500 million mobile phone subscribers by 2020, according to a report by Toby Shapshak in Forbes.
By having a presence and active trade representatives, “China is cornering all of those markets,” Guyster said.
“If you want to be able to compete with China, you have to be in Africa. You have to be in the markets they are in,” he said.
But while China may have an advantage now, it may not last.
China’s investments in Africa are strategic, not altruistic. Its efforts to help develop Africa’s oil and mining sectors are aimed at feeding China’s growing middle class, according to Eleanor Albert in a July 12, 2017, Council on Foreign Relations paper. That in turn leads to local resentment that China is exploiting the continent’s resources.
China also imports most, if not all, of the labor needed to build its projects, giving potentially valuable construction work to Chinese nationals rather than local workers. The outcomes often do not meet the labor or safety standards to which Western contractors would adhere.
The result is that “a number of governments are becoming more strategic in their relations with China,” said Cooke.
These governments are “driving a harder bargain” and looking at the economic effects of projects, she said.
Despite China’s active engagement, its investments in Africa may be overstated, according to some experts. China’s own reported “overseas direct investment” shows a stock of $26 billion in Africa as of the end of 2013, which amounts to about 3 percent of total foreign direct investment on the continent, according to a 2015 paper by Wenjie Chen, David Dollar and Heiwei Tang for the Brookings Institution.
“The European Union countries, led by France and the United Kingdom, are the overwhelmingly largest investors in Africa. The U.S. is also significant, and even South Africa invests more on the continent than China does,” the paper’s authors wrote.
China also does not give grants, as Western countries do, but uses financing schemes to carry out its projects.
“Its projects are on credit, leveraged against the value of the future property,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
The countries that allow China to come in and build these projects “are essentially mortgaging their futures,” he said. (On the flip side, China may find itself on the hook for millions of dollars if its investments don’t pay off.)
Security experts have also sounded the alarm that China is using its development projects to spread its strategic footprint.
China built its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, at the bottleneck where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden, not unlike Iran’s strategic position along the Strait of Hormuz.
Half of China’s oil imports are shipped through this naval passage that its base overlooks. But the base is also just a few miles from a U.S. naval base that is the staging ground for secret missions, including drone strikes and Navy SEAL raids in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, according to a Feb. 25, 2017, report in The New York Times.
Building civilian projects like factories and railroads provides justification for China to deploy military defense infrastructure because “who else will defend Chinese assets?” said Pham, who is reportedly slated to be named the next assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
Pham and others believe the U.S. is aware of the geostrategic threat posed by China in Africa and is beginning to prepare accordingly for what that threat could mean.
Silver Linings in U.S. Africa Policy
Pham argues that the Trump administration has not been as dismissive of Africa as some have charged.
For the first time in an administration’s National Security Strategy, Trump’s NSS, which was published in December, had a separate section on Africa — and it was the longest of the regional sections, Pham said.
And the Trump administration is updating policies that have been “stagnant for 20 years,” Pham said, by making moves such as lifting sanctions on Sudan.
Lifting sanctions on Sudan is another U.S. policy proposal for Africa that has bipartisan support, having been set in motion in the final days of the Obama administration, according to a report by Gardiner Harris in The New York Times.
After two decades of sanctions failed to change Khartoum’s behavior, this new policy is meant to encourage positive reforms, including the end of attacks on civilians in Darfur and increasing counterterrorism cooperation with the U.S., according to The Times.
Another potentially positive sign is Secretary Tillerson’s upcoming trip to Africa in March, Cooke noted.
Although Trump originally announced Tillerson’s visit in a letter to the African Union following his “shithole” comment, the trip could give the U.S. an opportunity to capitalize on the democratic inroads in Liberia and South Africa and other areas of collaboration on the continent.
In interviews with The Diplomat, experts agreed that the U.S. cannot afford to ignore or denigrate Africa.
In addition to being one of the youngest and fastest-growing regions in the world, Africa is the single-largest voting bloc at the United Nations, with 54 countries, Pham said.
“There is a broad consensus, not only in Congress but across the country, that our engagement with Africa is in U.S. interests and in Africa’s interests,” Pham said.
About the Author
Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Boston.