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Engaging with Africa Strategically


Like many of my contemporaries, both in the U.S. Foreign Service and in the wider international affairs community, who have worked on issues related to Africa since the end of the Cold War, I have seen Washington’s attentiveness to the states and peoples of the continent wax and wane over the years. For example, the probable nadir was in 1995, when the United States Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa published that year actually declared that America had “very little traditional strategic interest in Africa,” and the hitherto apogee was in 2014, when the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit brought leaders from 50 of Africa’s 54 countries, including 37 heads of state, to our nation’s capital. While emphases and resources shifted from time to time and certainly between U.S. Presidents, there has largely been continuity of policy across Democratic and Republican Administrations, even including the last one. Notwithstanding unfortunate remarks attributed to President Donald Trump, I would argue that the Trump Administration’s Africa strategy achieved some significant advances in America’s approach to the continent, which the Biden Administration can harness to achieve some of its top priorities, including geopolitical competition and its ambitious climate-change agenda.

Growing Economic Importance

In the two decades since The Economist published its now-infamous cover story labeling Africa as “the hopeless continent,” conventional wisdom has shifted dramatically. As if by way of apology, the magazine itself has run a cover extolling “Africa rising,” a mantra that has been broadcast widely by both governments and businesses in and outside the continent. A significant factor in the shift in attitudes has been the impressive economic gains seen in almost every African country during this time. In the decade leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the International Monetary Fund’s calculations, seven of the 20 fastest-growing economies in the world were in Africa, including Ethiopia, Rwanda, Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, Djibouti, Ghana and Guinea. Admittedly, the starting points of some

African countries are relatively low and, in some of them, the boom has been driven by notoriously fickle commodity prices. Nevertheless, many of the gains are due to deeper, long-term trends, including demographics (e.g., by 2050, one in four workers in the world will be an African; and having some of the world’s fastest-growing urbanization rates means Africa also has lower basic infrastructure costs and concentrated consumer markets) and technology (e.g., the rapid expansion of mobile telephony and internet usage growth rates of five times global averages over the last decade).

Although the market opportunities presented by Africa’s high rates for economic growth and changing demographics have been recognized for some time— President Barack Obama’s Administration’s 2012 U.S. Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa expressed confidence that the continent could be “the world’s next major economic success story”—more recent efforts to lower carbon emissions and otherwise combat the effects of climate change have only heightened the continent’s importance to the global economy. Becoming “greener” will require a lot more products—from solar panels to wind turbines to electric vehicles to large-scale batteries to hand-held devices. This change, in turn, will drive demand for various minerals and metals, both well-known and not-so-familiar, on which the clean-energy technologies depend, many of which are sourced in Africa. For example, cobalt is the key ingredient in the manufacture of electrodes for rechargeable batteries. Roughly half of the 7.1 million metric tons of total global reserves of cobalt are found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which, moreover, accounts for 70% of overall production of the metal.

But esoteric, newer metals such as cobalt or rare-earth elements such as neodymium and praseodymium, which are used to manufacture permanent magnets, are not the only material inputs needed for the global transition to clean energy. A greener economy also will require even greater volumes of other metals that humankind has been exploiting for millennia. The switch to cleaner, electrically powered vehicles, for example, will require a lot of copper: on average, a battery-powered electric vehicle requires three times as much copper as a conventional automobile uses. Renewable-energy infrastructure also requires large amounts of metal: a single three-megawatt wind turbine contains 335 tons of steel, 4.7 tons of copper, three tons of aluminum, and upwards of two tons of rare earths.

In an attempt to achieve more than the modest results of prior U.S. efforts to expand U.S.-Africa trade and investment relations, the Trump Administration launched “Prosper Africa” during the U.S. Corporate Council on Africa’s 2019 U.S.-Africa Business Summit in Mozambique. Rather than create a new program, Prosper Africa brought together in a coordinated manner the existing capabilities and resources of some 17 federal departments and agencies, with day-to-day responsibilities entrusted to a chief operating officer based, along with the initiative’s secretariat, in the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Built around a “deal teams” project and transaction facilitation approach employed by the earlier Power Africa effort, Prosper Africa has been recently been rebranded “Prosper Africa Build Better Together” by President Joseph Biden’s

Administration, with a focus on strengthening business-enabling environments and investment climates and mobilizing investment in African infrastructure.

Continuing Security Challenges

Of course, if the economic potential of African countries is to be developed to the benefit of their peoples, as well as to meet the demands of the global marketplace, security must be ensured for both the infrastructure and the people involved. While the interstate and civil wars that for many years characterized large swathes of postcolonial Africa—giving rise to lurid apocalyptic accounts such as Robert D. Kaplan’s widely read 1994 Atlantic essay “The Coming Anarchy,” copies of which were, at the time, faxed by the State Department to U.S. missions around the world—have largely ended, the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region following the heavy-handed military crackdown by the central government and its Eritrean allies is unconscionable and requires high-level diplomatic attention to seek a political solution. However, it is also notable for its exceptionality. In my role as U.S. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region—which was the setting in the late 1990s and early 2000s of “Africa’s world war,” a conflict that killed millions of Congolese and others across the region and drew in combatants from more than a dozen African countries—I built on the peacemaking work of my predecessors in the Obama Administration—Howard Wolpe, Russ Feingold and Tom Perriello—and was able to help facilitate the first peaceful transition of power in the history of the DRC in early 2019.

Despite the progress, however, weak governance, endemic poverty and socio-political marginalization continue to fuel all-too-many localized conflicts, which, in turn, provide openings that can be exploited by malevolent actors, including jihadist terrorist groups and other violent extremists.

At present, perhaps the most dire security challenge on the African continent is in the Sahel, a situation that led to the creation of my last position in the State Department, Special Envoy for the Sahel Region. What started in late 2011 with an attempt by heavily armed ethnic Tuareg recruits (returning from the ruins of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya) to carve out a separate homeland in northern Mali has metastasized into violence across the vast region linking the Maghreb with Sub-Saharan Africa. Over the last decade, it has spread into a complex conflict stretching across the region and involving not only al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—already a longtime presence in the region—but also the Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) affiliates of ISIS. Eventually, the conflict drew in a 5,000-strong French counterterrorism force operating across the region, as well as a 15,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali. Despite the outside intervention, the militant groups have proven adept at capitalizing on the frailty of national governments and exploiting local grievances and ethnic tensions. Embedding themselves in local communities, especially marginalized ones, they carry out repeated attacks on both national and international forces, as well as on civilian populations who are not under their sway. As the violence spirals, the numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) has burgeoned. In Burkina Faso alone, the number of IDPs increased from 87,000 in January 2019 to more than one million in December 2020—bringing the total number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in the country to 3.5 million out of a population of 20 million. And while the burden of casualties among non-African forces has fallen

predominantly on French forces, America has suffered losses, as well, notably four U.S. Special Operations Forces personnel who, along with five Nigerien soldiers, were killed by ISGS ambushers in the southwestern part of that country in October 2017.

While the Sahel in the west and Somalia in the east have long faced security threats from jihadist groups, these groups’ expansion into Central and Southern Africa is a more recent phenomenon. In March 2021, building on work begun in the previous term, the Biden Administration added ISIS affiliates operating in the eastern DRC and Mozambique to the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Some Washington-based analysts initially derided the designations, but they fell mostly silent once the seriousness of the threat was underscored less than a month later, when attacks by the Mozambican group forced the French energy giant Total to evacuate its staff and suspend work on a $20 billion natural gas project in northern Mozambique as thousands fled the insurgents, some taking rickety boats into the Indian Ocean. Fortunately, a timely intervention by a small, well-trained Rwandan force seems, at the time of my writing, to have turned the tide against the jihadists.

Of course, as I repeatedly emphasized during my service in the State Department—at times, to the annoyance of some U.S. allies who preferred to overlook such troublesome points—the heart of the crisis in many of these situations is the question of state legitimacy, that is, whether or not citizens perceive that their government is accountable, equitable, able and willing to meet their needs. Democratic backsliding—to say nothing of human rights violations and abuses by security forces, much less, military coups d’états—hardly contributes to increased state legitimacy. That is why during my service as Special Envoy for the Sahel, the State Department responded to the August 2018 overthrow of the elected

President of Mali by immediately suspending all military assistance, despite the fact that some of our closest European allies have continued their training and equipping of the forces involved. Unfortunately, it seems that these challenges will also bedevil the Biden Administration.

Geopolitical Stakes

After the long period since their independence when international relations of African states were dominated by their continuing links to the former colonial powers, today global powers—including the People’s Republic of China, India and the Russian Federation—as well as major regional players—including Turkey, Gulf Arab states and, most recently, Israel—have become heavily engaged in the continent, attracted by its natural resources, economic potential and increasing geopolitical heft.

While China’s military build-up in Africa, where in Djibouti in early 2016 it established its first foreign military base anywhere, has not received as much attention as it should, perhaps this is because these efforts by the People’s Liberation Army are dwarfed by the sheer number and scale of the commercial infrastructure projects that Beijing has undertaken across the continent. These projects have intensified with Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road Initiative” to build a new, alternative global network of economic, political and security “interdependencies” with China at its center, giving the Chinese even more significant leverage over critical global supply chains and the ability to potentially redirect the flow of international trade. East Africa has been an early beneficiary of the massive effort, with Chinese companies and lenders investing heavily in ports, pipelines, railways and power plants linked to the Maritime Silk Road—albeit not without considerable criticism of the debt incurred by African countries and questions about its sustainability.

While other countries’ efforts do not approach the scale of the Chinese engagement, they have also stepped up their game. Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted the first-ever Russia-Africa Summit in late 2019, bringing no fewer than 43 African heads of state to Sochi, and plans are afoot for a follow-up event next year. In the meantime, Moscow has deployed a variety of assets, from diplomacy to private military companies, to establish partnerships at minimal cost and without attracting the scrutiny that the massive Chinese efforts have engendered. Witness the misadventures of the Wagner Group in the Central African Republic and Mozambique, as well as the Malian junta’s recently reported overtures to it and other private Russian security contractors.

From the perspective of U.S. policy toward Africa, the Trump Administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy was a noteworthy advance in that it was the first time that the continent was given its own section in such a document. After weighing both the opportunities and challenges on the continent, the 2017 document proceeded to address the great power competition, acknowledging that “China is expanding its economic and military presence” and that “some Chinese practices undermine Africa’s long-term development.” One year later, then-National Security Advisor John Bolton gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation billed as the unveiling of “a new Africa strategy,” although the remarks actually only covered some of the issues addressed by the classified Africa strategy document approved by President Trump. Although the speech was panned for the its focus on competition—“great power competitors, namely China and Russia, are rapidly expanding their financial and political influence across Africa . . . [and] deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States”—what critics overlooked is that Bolton also discussed security cooperation, foreign aid and commerce, all with an emphasis on African agency that is often lacking from such conversations. In particular, Bolton stated, “America’s vision for the region is one of

independence, self-reliance and growth—not dependency, domination and debt. We want

African nations to succeed, flourish and remain independent in fact and not just in theory.”

Looking Ahead

The Biden Administration has yet to fully articulate its Africa strategy—in part because some key personnel are just getting into position: Mary Katherine (Molly) Phee, a career Foreign Service Officer, was just sworn in as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs on October 1, and a former National Intelligence Officer for Africa, Judd Devermont, joined the National Security Council a week later with a brief to help the Administration think through its engagement with Africa. But, as noted previously, the overall contours of U.S. policy toward Africa have generally remained constant over the years and, unlike other areas of foreign policy, it has enjoyed broad bipartisan support and is likely to continue to do so.

One of the most significant pieces of foreign affairs legislation during the Trump Administration was the passage of the Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD) Act, which was signed into law in late 2018, after unanimous approval in the House of Representatives and all but six votes in the Senate. The law combined the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) with the Development Credit Authority of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), to create the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). More than just a consolidation of two development operations, the DFC was not only given $60 billion in capital, twice that of its predecessor agencies, but also endowed with expanded authorities to catalyze private investment flows to developing countries, especially in Africa, through credit, insurance and even taking small equity stakes. An example of how these authorities can be utilized both to achieve development goals and to advance U.S. national interests is the $500 million in loans from the DFC to support the bid by a consortium led by British multinational Vodafone for the long-awaited second telecommunications license in Ethiopia. The package, put together at the very end of the Trump Administration, paid out handsomely in the early months of the Biden presidency when the Vodafone consortium—, which also benefited from the support of the United Kingdom’s development finance institution, the CDC Group—beat out a rival bid, backed by the Chinese government’s Silk Road Fund, that would have deployed technology from Chinese telecommunications firms Huawei and ZTE.

In addition to tackling climate change with a clean energy revolution that aspires to have the United States achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and a zero-net economy by 2050, the Biden Administration has cast a wider net, laying out ambitions to secure supply chains across a variety of critical industries. With many of the latter, African countries will play a strategic and, indeed, indispensable role, providing critical material inputs to the supply chains. However, Africa’s role in the global response to climate change goes far beyond the provision of the raw materials needed for the energy transition. While it has long been known that African forests play a significant role in global carbon sequestration and climate regulation, recent research has shown that, if anything, their importance has been underestimated. One recent study published in the journal Nature found that Africa’s tropical montane forests store nearly 150 metric tons of carbon per hectare—more carbon per unit than the Amazon rainforest. This is one of the reasons that the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon are two of only five countries in the world to absorb more carbon than they emit (the others are Bhutan, Guyana and Papua New Guinea).

While Africa is contributing both to the worldwide energy transition and to carbon capture, ironically, it has been a rather bit player in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for barely 3% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions from energy and industrial sources. This is not surprising given the energy poverty of many of the continent’s countries. As a result, in the leadup to COP26 in Glasgow, there is a growing backlash from African leaders on aggressive efforts to restrict investments in fossil fuels in developing countries, which they view as ignoring the role that those energy sources play in power production in Africa. Threats like those brandished recently in South Africa by U.S. Deputy Presidential Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing, who suggested that companies developing fossil fuel resources in Africa would face regulatory action in the United States, go over poorly among African leaders who seek acceptance of multiple pathways to net-zero emissions that more equitably account for economic and developmental differences between countries. The $450 million second Millennium Challenge Compact with Burkina Faso, signed in 2020, is an example of a more pragmatic approach. While it aims to double the number of Burkinabè with access to electricity by supporting new solar projects, introducing battery storage and expanding the grid, it also makes provision for imports from regional suppliers without unduly restricting the source of the energy. A nuanced U.S.

policy that recognizes Africa’s contribution to addressing climate change, coupled with focused investment by both the public and private sectors to expand Africans’ access to affordable and reliable energy, would constitute a true “win-win” solution.

Finally, even as Africans grow ever more confident in their assertion on the global stage of a pan-African identity (not only through the African Union, but also through instruments such as the African Continental Free Trade Area, which came into being this year), how the United States engages with them is inconsistent across the whole of our government, with the State Department, the Pentagon and various agencies adopting different bureaucratic divisions, some of which spectacularly fail to conform to political, security and economic

realities on the continent. In late 2016, I wrote in a report that “The U.S. diplomatic framework remains singularly ill-adapted, with its allocation of jurisdiction for the five North African countries—Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt—to the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, rather than its Bureau of African Affairs. While Egypt’s placement is understandable, given its importance as a lynchpin of the Middle East balance of power… the reality is that, on most political, security and economic issues, the other four Maghrebi nations have more to do with Africa than with the Middle East—threats to security, trade and even flows of migrants move along a north-south axis, reaching from the Mediterranean across the Sahara.” For a time during the Trump Administration, the National Security Council (NSC) shifted responsibility for North Africa into its Senior Directorate for African Affairs so that the NSC’s internal divisions aligned with those of the Defense Department and, in appointing me Special Envoy for the Sahel, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made clear that my mandate transcended the artificial divide traditional drawn between Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa. But it is time for the entire U.S. government to acknowledge what Africa has understood about itself: it is an interconnected socioeconomic and geopolitical reality.

The scope of U.S. engagement with Africa has evolved considerably in recent years, even as the policy thrust in general has remained grounded in significant continuity and enjoyed broad support across the political spectrum. While numerous challenges loom ahead, the Biden Administration inherits from its predecessor some strategic tools with which to craft its responses, partnering with Africa’s 54 nations to help them achieve economic prosperity and development, security and good governance for their peoples. Doing so is good policy because it is strategic - as well as the right thing to do.


AMBASSADOR J. PETER PHAM recently completed service as the first-ever U.S. Special Envoy for the Sahel Region of Africa, with the personal rank of Ambassador. He previously served as U.S. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa (2018-2020). Prior to serving in the State Department, he was Vice President for Research and Regional Initiatives at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, and Director of the Council’s Africa Center. Earlier in his career, he was a tenured Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and Africana Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where he was Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs. From 2008-2017, he also served as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA), an organization representing professors and other scholars of Middle East and African Studies; and he was Editor-in-Chief of ASMEA’s peer-reviewed quarterly Journal of the Middle East and Africa. He is the author of several books and more than 300 articles, essays and reviews on African politics, security and economic issues. He is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council. Since 2015, he has been a member of the Board of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, serving as Vice Chair from 2016-2021. In the private sector, he is currently a Non-Executive Director of Africell Global Holdings and of Rainbow Rare Earths as well as a Strategic Advisor to dClimate, among other companies doing business in Africa. He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards from African countries in

recognition of contributions made over the course of his career to strengthening relations between the United States and Africa, including Commander of the National Order of Merit of Gabon, Commander of the National Order of Burkina Faso, Commander of the National Order of Mali, Officer of the National Order of Merit of Niger and Commander of the

Order of Friendship of Peoples of Burundi.


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