US President-Elect Joe Biden is already making plans for Africa. According to Washington insiders, there’s to be a Presidential visit in his first year in office and an upcoming Summit with African leaders.
But will that be enough to restore the neglect during the four years of the Trump Administration?
We remember the euphoria on the continent that greeted President Obama’s election as the first African-American to become the President of the United States. We also remember how so many Africans were left underwhelmed that he didn’t meet their great expectations and never quite achieved the hopes they placed in him.
Since President Obama has left office, the world has changed so much that many of the crucial issues that distracted him – like climate change, terrorism, populism and attacks on democracy – are all growing in urgency and are coming home to roost in Africa.
Joe Biden was President Obama’s Vice-President, and they worked closely together so for an indication on how President-Elect Biden is likely to address these issues we should first look at Obama’s Africa strategy. Perhaps his greatest lasting legacy was YALI or the Young African Leaders Initiative. This has helped some 250,000 young people receive training and skills to prepare them for leadership roles.
Obama also launched the electrification programme Power Africa, Trade Africa, and the President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa. These were all part of his desire to move the US-Africa relationship from aid to an equal partnership based on trade. As he outlined to one cohort of YALI graduates:
“I see a continent on the move, home to a middle-class that is projected to grow to over one billion consumers. Today’s Africa is a place of unprecedented prosperity and opportunity, so we’ve been working to boost exports with Africa, working to promote good governance and human rights, to advance security and help feed families”.
Biden seems determined to continue this strategy. He has already announced that he intends to keep the YALI programme and, in the words of his campaign website, makes this pledge to Africa:
“We will deepen the United States’ commitment to engaging with Africa’s dynamic young leaders. We will renew the United States’ mutually respectful engagement toward Africa with a bold strategy that reaffirms commitment to supporting democratic institutions, advancing lasting peace and security, and promoting economic growth trade and investment”.
This contrasts strongly with President Trump’s four years of neglect and his sometimes insulting dismissal of Africa. In four years he never bothered to visit the continent and left several US diplomatic posts in Africa vacant including managing not to appoint an Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs for most of 2017. Now he’s gone, and suddenly it feels like the US is about to up its game in Africa.
The global pandemic has made rebuilding the global economy a top priority for Biden, and this provides an opportunity for closer engagement with Africa. He’s already pledged to deploy leaders from the African-American diaspora as key envoys to engage with African business.
By happy coincidence, President Biden’s Inauguration will take place in the same month the African Continental Free Trade Agreement is launched. Many observers see the AfCFTA new dawn for the continent which will create a massive single market worth trillions of dollars. No better time for President Biden and US business to wake up to the rich opportunities across Africa.
The United States is acutely aware of the threat China poses to its traditional world dominance. President-Elect Biden is determined to challenge China’s rise to world hegemony. Africa is a key battleground in this new superpower competition and as a consequence, can only grow in significance. At present, the US is playing catch-up to China across the continent. China is now Africa’s biggest trading partner, it’s also the number one destination for African students, and it’s starting to offer a beguiling authoritarian alternative to the messiness of democracy.
Africa is a key destination on China’s ambitious Belt and Road strategic thrust into global markets. Chinese firms have built the ports, roads and railways, which will underpin intra-Africa trade and economic integration. Although trade between China and Africa fell by 14% to $41 billion in the first three months of 2020, it still claims the lion’s share of the Africa market with the European Union pushing the United States into third place.
China’s Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) has now been annual for the past twenty years and attracts the majority of African leaders to Beijing to hear China’s latest African investment plans. Even Russia, with growing commercial deals on the continent, can attract sizable numbers of leaders to its African Summits. If President-Elect Biden is to revive the United States’ footprint in Africa, he has stiff competition.
All of a sudden everyone wants to be Africa’s friend and this superpower rivalry can only provide the continent with further opportunities as the US seeks to find a middle strategy between challenging China’s rise while working with it as a partner in Africa’s economic and infrastructural transformation.
A dip into President-Elect Biden’s heavy in-tray reveals further evidence of how Africa could provide him with some further opportunities. He’s already said he wants to rejoin the Paris Accord on Climate Change which his predecessor President Trump stomped out of. Africa already sits on the fragile frontline for the devastation wrought by global warming, and as a result, it is ripe for alternative and renewable energies. Africa could become the renewable energy capital of the world.
Likewise, President Biden plans to reverse President Trump’s decision to pull out of the World Trade Organisation and rethink security policy after President Trump blocked the United Nations from providing sustainable funding for African Union peacekeeping missions.
It remains to be seen whether the US has the appetite to engage in Africa’s conflicts in the Sahel, Mozambique, Somalia and elsewhere where radical groups like ISIS, Al Shabab and Boko Haram are still potent forces. At the moment they remain “wars of choice” for the US, but if the tide of radicalisation can’t be turned back, it may be forced to act more robustly. In AFRICOM, the US already has a sizable military presence in Africa even though former President Trump threatened to scale it back.
Clearly, the most urgent crisis in President Biden’s In-Tray is the global Coronavirus pandemic. Even here President Biden could look to Africa which has fought the virus much more successfully than the US.
President Biden has just announced a Coronavirus Taskforce to co-ordinate a united strategy to tackle the virus. That’s something his predecessor President Trump failed to do but something the African Union has had in place almost from day one of the crisis when the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa set up an African Union co-ordinated strategy team. He harnessed the collective wisdom and talent of some of the continent’s most prominent and successful political and business leaders to tackle every aspect of the Covid-19 crisis. Undoubtedly, Africa’s response has been far more effective and has saved many more lives.
If the partnership is the key to the future US-Africa relationship, then it really is a two-way process and as President Ramaphosa’s initiative demonstrates the US has much to learn from the continent. In return Africa is looking for President-Elect Biden to repair the damage done by Trump and to restore some of America’s lost moral authority.
The key question is which Joe Biden is Africa going to be dealing with? – will it be the “Sleepy Joe Biden” as mocked by Trump in the election campaign or a reinvigorated Joe Biden ready to create a dynamic White House that he’s spent almost fifty years in politics seeking to enter as President.
Perhaps a clue lies in the words of his favourite quote by the Irish writer Seamus Heaney:
“Once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme.”
The euphoria Africa experienced twelve years ago when President Obama was first elected has long gone, but perhaps this time around this new US President will give Africa the hope it deserves and help contribute to a new history of a continent transformed.