United States diplomatic relations with Africa could take a significant turn this week as President Barack Obama travels to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania.
The Obama visit comes on the heels of growing criticism of the US over a perceived discourteous posture and benign neglect towards Africa since President Obama took office in 2009. Signs of American realpolitik expansionism associated with its foreign policy activities, and in particular with respect to the debacle over Africom, have not endeared the US to some of the key states in the African continent. Instead, they have cast a negative light over US perceived security encroachment over the continent.
Other inferences of negativity in US-Africa relations include President Obama's 2009 initial political "African" sojourn in Ghana, which African policy observers labeled as a "talk down on Africa"; the minimal and vague reference to Africa in Obama's 2010 National Security Strategy; the US role during the 2012 Libyan debacle that saw the removal from power of President Muammar Gaddafi; and the fact that the administration's "U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa" - released in June 2012 to foster a mutually beneficial US-Africa partnership - appears to be exclusively driven in Washington where it was launched.
Delays in appointing critical posts responsible for Africa in the administration - something that was only rectified in 2012 - were also seen as underlying a lack of prioritization of Africa by Obama.
Furthermore, there is a discernible absence of strong reference to "African ownership" in the wording of the 2012 Africa strategy. However, this strategy is of paramount importance to the Obama administration as it was intended to "encourage an interagency approach for engagement with sub-Saharan Africa" based on four pillars to be operationalized on the continent: the strengthening of democratic institutions; economic growth, trade, and investment; advancing peace and security; and promoting opportunity and development. The issue of "ownership" is especially important in historical context since the US and Africa have had a donor-client relationship which, as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy in the Bureau of African Affairs Bruce Wharton admitted, had not worked well in the past.
It is commendable that the Obama Administration has shown some commitment to "putting Africa back at the center of US foreign policy" with the launch of its Africa strategy. In practice however, and despite this policy, there is lack of distinctness in the approach. Seemingly, rather than setting out substantively new outlines, Obama's Africa focus, it is largely an expression of continuity with the previous administration's tenure. Foremost to this continuity is the fact that US-Africa relations have remained largely pivoted on unilateral measures such as US foreign aid to Africa as well as policy initiatives like the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which has been extended to 2015; maintenance of a number of development assistance programs including the Global Health Initiative; Feed the Future; the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compacts and other programs which provide grants; and significantly, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) whose total development assistance to sub-Saharan Africa stood at $7.08 billion in 2012.
Yet, a more meaningful dialogue based on a shared platform and where African countries have considerable input to joint development partnership is very limited - and this needs to be developed. Many of the bilateral arrangements that exist between Africa and other external actors, notably the European Union (EU), China and Japan, have become more conscious of the importance of partnerships based on shared objectives and where Africa ownership occupies a centre-stage. There is, of course, a measure of shared dialogue between the US and Africa in very limited areas. These are: US-driven Trade and Investment Framework Agreements with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, the East African Community, the West African Economic and Monetary Union and the Southern African Customs Union; and US contributions to the African Development Bank as its largest non-regional shareholder, which according to US policy documents, is projected to advance US priorities in sub-Saharan Africa.
Whether the current bilateral arrangement with African countries allows the US to fully grasp criticism of its realpolitik expansionism in its relations with Africa is debatable. It is important that the US administration be aware of these areas of non-cooperation where it is expected to demonstrate positive action and take its relations with Africa to the next collaborative level. For the Obama Administration, this may be the proverbial "mistaking the trees for the forest" where exclusive bilateral engagement inhibits the administrations' ability to perceive and appreciate the strategic bigger picture in the African continent in the long-term.
There are three ways in which these limitations could be overcome. The first is to contemplate a "club" approach to its Africa diplomacy where a platform is created to ensure that every two years senior American and African officials meet to evaluate priorities and strengthen areas of shared objectives. This is important for confidence building. Using the 2012 Strategy as a building block, such a joint institutional platform can play a critical role in facilitating "African ownership" of the strategy. One reality the US cannot escape is that the manner in which it engages with Africa will be compared to how China and other external actors are evolving their relations with the continent.
The second recommendation is to evolve institutionalized relations with continental institutions such as the African Union and the various Regional Economic Communities. This is to keep the US firmly focused at a high-level on servicing its relations with the continent on a more sustained basis, and underpinned by an institutionalized process.
Finally, in order to effectively leverage current relations the US should evolve a differentiated approach in its Africa strategy. It should continue to engage more strongly with pivotal states or "sub regional linchpins" in its parlance, such as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Angola, Kenya, Ghana and Tanzania.
The US administration will have to constantly weigh its approach in the African continent in comparison with the strategies of other external actors that enjoy a relatively blossoming relationship with Africa. The benign neglect of the African continent by the US could see its influence undercut by emerging powers in the long term. Building a stronger reputational capital in its diplomacy with Africa and its institutions can potentially yield a truly mutual and collaborative partnership.
Dimpho Motsamai is a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.