By Amanuel Biedemariam,
ACCORDING to the Wall Street Journal, “China’s annual trade with Africa is about $200 billion, about twice the volume of U.S.-Africa trade.” China has been investing on Africa’s infrastructures, building schools, hospitals, manufacturing-facilities, establishing markets, selling goods while unconditionally buying material and natural resources from Africa for some time now. China is truly the equal opportunity investor in Africa spending/dumping the US dollar in a fashion unseen in Africa ever. When African roads connect, the bridges and rail system will have China’s footprints.
On the other hand after the cold war, the US divided Africa into geostrategic quadrants and assigned four countries as anchors to help manage the designated regions in an effort to control the continent politically, militarily, economically and diplomatically.
To accomplish this multifaceted approach US deployed Africom, US military command structure for Africa, for security and- tried to micro-manage African affairs using the State Department. With heavy handed approach, the State Department tried to manage the agendas, the language and legal approaches that govern the African Union (AU) for a while now. At one point the US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs was sitting on AU’s meetings to ensure the agendas of interest make it through. This was done in concert with US-United-Nations office and when needed the Security Council was used to pass blind-punitive measures against countries when US interests are not met.
The way China and US approached Africa was completely different. After the Cold War, the US had opportunities to put stamp on Africa by doing exactly what China does on accelerated fashion. The US could have invested on Africa’s future by laying foundations such as building roads, dams, bridges, railways and help establish the infrastructures that Africa needs. The US could have focused on the people by building schools, hospitals and help them expand their technical and human resources capacities.
Instead, the US keeps playing the king-maker of Africa determining who governs what nation and how while depressing the natural democracy-building processes all over Africa. US saw its relations with Africa with the prism of War on Terror hence military cooperation takes center stage.
After the Cold War the US had unmatched advantages over China because the US was favored for its perceived democratic values, way-of-life, language and culture that is widely accepted globally. Relatively speaking Americans were received well globally due to connections they helped foster through aid-programs, institutions like the Peace-Corps and the African American population that played a role to end South African apartheid system. These are amongst the factors that made America a favored nation.
However, successive administrations squandered time and opportunities while China slowly, methodically infiltrated Africa and seeded roots that can last. The AU’s Africa building in Addis Ababa serves a testament to that. China focused on creating economic partnerships everywhere. Most importantly, Africans recognized and welcomed China’s approach as alternative to the West, which traditionally brutalized Africans, and quietly cooperated with China by signing all sorts of agreements with long term implications. China did it by treating African nations equally and invited all Africa countries for the China-Africa Summit that put Washington on the defensive. The US Africa Leaders summit therefore was reactive response to mitigate China’s advances in the continent.
The US Africa Leaders Summit was consistent with US’s longstanding approach to Africa that is paternalistic and one way approach that invites none of the African nations to real-partnership committed to growth based on mutual interests. The summit exposed that the Obama administration is unwilling to partner with Africa at the level of China.
In fact, the summit was not representative of all African nations. The AU has in its charters an agreement that stipulates; nations that call for Africa Summit to include all African leaders without exclusion. To bypass that, the Obama administration called it, “US Africa Leaders Summit.” It does not say “African” leaders. Therefore, technically, it is not African leaders Summit. This language allows the US to invite leaders it wants and reject those that it did not because the invitations are sent not based on the African charter as China did but based on bilateral basis.
The key question is whom did it benefit or hurt. How will this change US approach to Africa? How will it benefit the US and Africa?
The summit exposed; the US to be in a much weaker position compared to China. US’s national deficit and debt to China limits US’s ability to spend freely. China on the other hand is endowed with disposable dollar that it could dump in Africa as real-investment. Plus, situations on the ground in many regions of Africa must undergo tremendous transformations to create favorable environment for US to enable Americans to invest in Africa as freely as China does. Ironically, the Chinese can move-more freely in Africa as they are already established in many countries. It is normal to see Chinese companies run factories, construction sites, building commercial and residential buildings with Chinese personnel on the ground on large scale operations everywhere in Africa. China has managed to make her presence acceptable in most African nations even in high conflict regions. This gives China access and familiarity to the locals and their traditional customs. The US cannot overcome this advantage overnight. That means the US has a lot of catching up to do.
While China was the primary focus of the summit; increasingly Africa is becoming important business partner for many nations such as Russia, Brazil, and India amongst the few notables.
This naturally gives advantage to the African nations because for the first time in history, US is forced to deal with Africa at much higher levels than ever before. This is a hard pill to swallow and not easily digested for a nation that has done things her way for centuries. The summit exposed that clearly. The fact that Vice President Biden addressed Africa as a nation speaks volumes. But what is interesting is to hear a member of the Congressional Black Caucus address Africa as one on a speech.
On his welcoming remarks to African business leaders attending a special event for the Africa Leadership Summit at the United States Capitol Congressman Charles B. Rangel said, paraphrasing, “We have long stopped searching which specific country in Africa we African- Americans come from therefore decided to embrace the entire Africa as one.” While that sounds good, addressing Africa as one nation and disregarding its charter is rather confusing. The whole summit was one way lecture shoving information to leaders that sat listening to speaker after speaker telling them how important Africa is.
While the rhetoric of investing on the future of Africa is well intentioned, there need be some fundamental change of attitude and approach towards dealing with Africa for changes to mean anything. That shift begins with credibility. The US need reestablish genuine, credible approach and give the African people a chance to bring the changes they want and not impose change upon them as it has for decades by force and coercion. Unfortunately, credibility was the key ingredient that the summit lacked.
In 2009, in Ghana, President Barack Obama said, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen. It needs strong institutions.” Five years later, at the beginning-of-the-end to his presidency, president Obama wined and dined these strong men and promised that he will give billions through them. These leaders have turned the rich continent into perpetual beggar- states while hording national treasures into their personal coffers in banks all around. These men are taking food and life away from the children of Africa. Is president Obama unaware of the records of these leaders, these strong men? On the same speech in Ghana President Obama also said,
” No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top”
Why then did Obama choose to invest in these places with these strong men in power?
Africa’s leaders are in much weaker position today than ever before because they cannot ensure their security from outside forces. They are under constant pressure from the West to comply and if they fail regime change policy is enforced by any means necessary. And if that fails their ability to govern is seriously hampered with sanctions and blockades. Hence, even the most well intentioned leader is forced to bow to Western interests. The presence of China and others in the continent gives these leaders a fighting chance against the West
In addition, the US recognizes that the free reign it once had at the UN is effectively over. This realization is what prompted the Obama administration to address these leaders, the strong men of Africa with properly titled gathering called “US Africa Leaders Summit” and woo them away from China. In other words Barack Obama is playing catch up.