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Africa Needs a New Foreign Policy of Engagement

The U.S. needs to develop a new foreign policy of engagement with Africa, before China annexes this rich continent as part of its strategic plan to dominate the global economy.

I first visited the Horn of Africa in February 1970, to review CARE, UNICEF and UN World Food Program operations. Malnutrition, food insecurity and healthcare issues had become a humanitarian concern in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. My interest in Africa has continued, visiting over twenty-five countries to date. Little has changed for most Africans since independence from their colonial rulers. U.S. aid programs have benefited Africans for over fifty years. However, experts will say that, “Trade is worth five times more than aid.” Trade is the cornerstone of Africa’s future!

Africa is the second largest continent with over 1.3 billion people, and growing at the rate of 2.5% annually. The continent is expected to double in population by 2050. With over 15% percent of the world’s population, Africa accounts for less than 3% of the world’s total GDP. Five African countries account for almost half of the total GDP, with South Africa and Nigeria topping the list.

In 2017, Africa had seven of the world’s twenty fastest growing economies according to the IMF, yet over 40% percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa still live at the poverty level, on less than $2 a day. The basic goal of most Africans is to have enough food to eat, jobs, basic healthcare and the eradication of infectious diseases.   

Much of sub-Saharan Africa’s wealth is generated from the extraction of the vast natural resources, which have been pilfered away by many elected country leaders and dictators since independence. From my visits to some of the sub-Saharan African countries I witnessed extensive pollution and environmental degradation. As such, the African people should have shared in the revenues from the natural resources, since their ancestors lived on the land for centuries, and struggled to survive, and now suffer from the contamination left behind.

The U.S. engagement of sub-Saharan Africa needs a more consistent foreign policy. Our “start-and-stop” conditions do not sit well with Africans who already are suspicious of our agenda in the region. Over the years we have coerced sub-Saharan African countries when we needed their support at the United Nations. At times to get their support we have used veiled threats of cutting off aid and economic programs that were important for their survival. I delivered many such “demarches” during my service as U.S. ambassador to three sub-Saharan African countries.

The U.S. engagement of sub-Saharan Africa needs a more consistent foreign policy. Our “start-and-stop” conditions do not sit well with Africans who already are suspicious of our agenda in the region.

After the Cold War ended in 1991, the U.S. cut back on its foreign assistance. We also closed a number of embassies and reduced our presence in sub-Saharan Africa. However, the U.S. increased its attention on the former Soviet Eastern Bloc countries, rapidly building more than a dozen new embassies, although the real concern for U.S. national security was in Africa.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher in the 1995 Congressional Budget hearings stated, “We should not forget that foreign assistance is a real bargain for American taxpayers”. He explained that we spend less than 1% of our total federal budget on foreign assistance in contrast to 18% spent on defense. He noted that our diplomatic missions abroad constitute an invaluable early-warning intelligence system. “Their rapid-fire political, military, and economic reporting is essential to the crisis-prevention work of Washington national security decision-makers”.

On questions of whether our foreign assistance made any real difference in developing countries, and what would happen if we just stopped giving aid, Secretary Christopher responded, “Our foreign assistance programs are intended to promote the kind of economic growth and political stability that are critical to U.S. national security and economic well-being”, noting that “Failing to provide aid to developing countries would therefore jeopardize our national security”. He pointed out that it costs a hundred times more to deal with a humanitarian crisis than to prevent them. It cost the U.S. more than $2 billion to deal with the Somalia crisis and $1 billion with the Rwanda genocide.

Under pressure from Congress the State Department closed down twenty-eight U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) missions, shuttered ten U.S. Information Agency (USIA) offices, and cut more than three thousand job positions. Secretary Christopher was resolute about “the principle of universality”, in that the U.S. should maintain an official diplomatic presence in every country where we are welcome. I believe we should maintain a presence in every country that is a voting member at the United Nations. But operating leaner in carrying out our foreign policy was the goal of Congress!

The engagement of sub-Saharan African countries today is more important than ever before. However, the U.S. needs to understand that our form of democracy may not take hold everywhere. We must listen to what these countries want to achieve and work with them, rather than exclude them from economic programs for not complying with our standards. It is also important that we deliver a focused public diplomacy message--that we are their friend--reaching out to the African people more directly. Above all, the U.S. must follow through on its promises, and review all the conditions we impose.

China is active in almost every sub-Saharan African country, and has diligently worked there for over fifty years to make friends, to gain access to the natural resources. As an example China receives almost 60% of Sudan’s oil production, which is the third largest in sub-Saharan Africa. China also receives oil from Angola, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Liberia, Chad, and Kenya. China receives almost one-third of its oil from Africa.

China has made trade deals with over forty sub-Saharan African countries. Its economic investment in sub-Saharan Africa has brought it many new friends, because of its policy of not interfering with the internal affairs of the countries or questioning their stand on democracy, human rights, and rule of law. The rogue and corrupt governments in some of these countries or the presence of Islamist extremists has not deterred China’s quest for oil and gas, mineral resources, commodities, and acquiring agricultural land. China will do whatever it takes to protect its multibillion-dollar investment and loans with the sub-Saharan African countries.

China will do whatever it takes to protect its multibillion-dollar investment and loans with the sub-Saharan African countries.

While the U.S. withdrew in the 1990’s, China started to unify the continent through trade missions and ministerial exchanges. In October 2000, China launched its first such ministerial meeting in Beijing with a number of invited African leaders. The second ministerial meeting was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in December 2003. Since then China has held ministerial events every three years, alternating with Beijing and an African destination. At the fourth Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt in November 2009, fifty African leaders attended. China pledged more than $15 billion in loans for capacity building in the African countries, and promised to cancel the debt of some of the poorest African nations. In subsequent Summits, China pledged upwards of $20 billion in financing to be used for infrastructure and other development projects. At the September 2018 Beijing Summit, President Xi Jinping committed $60 billion in financing for sub-Saharan African development projects.

Since China’s interest in the sub-Saharan African countries is without pre-conditions its influence has continued to grow. China’s former deputy foreign minister Zhou Wenzhong, noted in an interview, “We try to separate politics from business. You [the West] have tried to impose a market economy and multiparty democracy on these countries which are not ready for it”. 

The U.S. signature trade program with sub-Saharan Africa is the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which was enacted in 2000 under President Bill Clinton. It is a preferential trade program that allows eligible countries in sub-Saharan Africa to have quota and duty free access to the U.S. market for over 6,000 manufactured products. It has become the cornerstone of trade relations between the U.S. and sub-Saharan Africa. To date there are forty eligible African countries. In 2017, U.S. trade with the sub-Saharan African countries was $39 billion of which $24.9 billion was for imports from African countries, while U.S. exports were 14.1 billion.

However, the AGOA program comes with a number of conditions including improvement in a country’s rule of law, human rights, labor standards and corruption. The AGOA program had been extended several times, but intermittently held up by Congress for political reasons. This has made it difficult for African business owners to make long range investment plans. Currently the AGOA program has been extended until 2025.

In meeting with sub-Saharan African leaders while serving as U.S. ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros from 2002-2005, and in subsequent meetings and interviews for my book and articles, I repeatedly heard that the U.S. was considered a “fair-weather-friend”. The U.S. needs to develop a more consistent foreign policy, and institute programs that will help the sub-Saharan African countries get out of abject poverty. Most importantly we need to rebuild our trust and friendship.

Six U.S. presidents have visited only eighteen of Africa’s fifty-four countries since World War II, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. China’s top leaders including President Xi Jinping have visited forty-three African countries over the past ten years; former President Hu Jintao visited over twenty countries while in office.

President Trump seeking to counter China’s increased global economic influence signed a bill in October 2018 for infrastructure projects in Africa and other developing regions. The new U.S. International Development Finance Corporation will provide $60 billion in loans, loan guarantees, and insurance to U.S. companies willing to do business in developing nations. The real concern is whether this new finance program will do anything to slow down China’s growing global commercial might. China’s unlimited investment in infrastructure projects globally are aimed at recreating the Silk Road, rebranded as the “Belt and Road Initiative” to connect the global markets with Chinese manufactured goods. China is changing the landscape on trade and investment policies, diplomacy and security, its global military presence, and challenging the U.S. Democratic Order.

For U.S. companies to do business in Sub-Saharan Africa there needs to be trade programs on par with China, and other countries which are also gaining access to the sub-Saharan African market. This would open up more opportunities for U.S. manufactured goods. The annual AGOA Forum attended by U.S. diplomats, sub-Saharan African country ministers and private sector executives could also be used to explore new business investment opportunities. The U.S. needs to regain its economic influence which it has had for over fifty years.

The U.S. political leaders need to also spend more time in sub-Saharan Africa because these countries represent forty-nine votes at the United Nations, a potentially powerful voting bloc. Sub-Saharan Africa needs to become more of a priority since it is also important to our national security in these unstable times, with a number of dangerous Islamist terrorist organizations operating across the vast Sahel region and Horn of Africa. Their presence includes al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Mali and Niger, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, and ISIS which has become affiliated with several of the terrorist groups.

The Senate, subject to the President’s nominations, needs to timely confirm ambassadors to all the African countries, since as of January 2019 reports indicate there are fifteen open chief of mission posts. We need to improve our diplomatic relations, strengthen economic ties, and facilitate investment opportunities or we will be economically outmaneuvered by China. The African Union Commission in 2013 published the Pan-African vision for the future entitled, “Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want”, which lists goals for an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa. The United States needs to embrace Africa to help reach these goals, with a new foreign policy of engagement!

Ambassador John Price is the author of “When the White House Calls”, and has written articles about the U.S. inconsistent foreign policy in Africa. For this article Price has focused on the sub-Saharan African region. Ambassador Price serves as a resident scholar at the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, teaches a class on Africa, and writes commentaries on a number of global issues.


Ambassador John Price served as U.S. Ambassador to Mauritius from 2002 to 2005. He was Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of JP Realty, Inc., a publicly traded New York Stock Exchange Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah and a former Director and member of the Executive Committee of Alta Industries Ltd.


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