Obama finally scrambles over Africa

The United States has belatedly realised that it should focus on building closer economic ties with African countries.

A woman carrying her baby on her back walks past a poster of U.S. President Obama and Senegal''s President Sall before Obama''s visit in Dakar
President Obama is currently on a week-long tour of Africa, the world's 'fastest-growing continent' [Reuters]

Given his African ancestry, the election of Barack Obama as the president of the United States in November 2008 was received with a great deal of jubilation and pride across Africa. There was so much innocent, even naive, optimism and expectation that, under his administration, the US would pursue a foreign policy favourable to the continent. This was reinforced by the speech that he delivered in 2009 during his first African visit – of less than half a day – in Ghana’s capital, Accra.

Yet many of these expectations have not been met. It was only in June 2012 that the US African strategy was officially announced. Other than Obama’s $3.5bn African food security initiative, no major African development projects have been revealed. But there has been one context in which the US has shown increased interest in Africa: the “war on terror”.

The rising militarisation of US engagement in Africa can be seen through the establishment and expansion of the US African Command (AFRICOM). Operating from headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, the presence and role of AFRICOM on the continent was limited. While AFRICOM had just over 2,000 personnel in 2009 at the time of Obama’s first visit to Africa, this number has now reached about 5,000. And in early 2013, AFRICOM acquired its own rapid reaction force.

There is manifest recognition both in Africa and the US that US engagement on the continent should… most importantly be heavier on trade and investment partnerships.

The number of US outposts and military facilities on the continent has increased as well. In 2008, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti was the only official and permanent US military base in Africa. Since then, the US has established a rising number of small, temporary military facilities in several African countries.

In February, President Obama announced the establishment of a new drone base in Niger strategically located in its northern Agadez province bordering Mali, Algieria and Libya. The New York Times pointed out in its report that: “The new drone base will join a constellation of small airstrips in recent years on the continent, including one in Ethiopia, for surveillance missions flown by drones or turboprop planes designed to look like civilian aircraft.”

Other US drone facilities are located in Djibouti and the Seychelles. Although these facilities are ordinarily used to launch unarmed surveillance drones, the New York Times report noted that US officials “have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens”.

Although very limited, the US also has also played important roles in combat operations in some conflicts in Africa. In 2011, the US supported the air campaign that helped to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Between January 2011 and February 2012, the US launched at least 12 drone strikes on suspected armed groups in Somalia, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The US also keeps a military presence of various kinds in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic – mainly linked to the regional operation against the Lord’s Resistance Army. Colonel Tom Davis of AFRICOM has said that “the mission for US forces in these countries is to advise and assist local forces to better enable them to conduct their operations”.

A major area of US military involvement in Africa consists of building the capacity of African countries’ militaries. Colonel Tom Davis’ letter stated that AFRICOM “trained more than 200,000 African peacekeepers from 25 African nations over the years” and that “[w]e also conduct some type of military training or military-to-military engagement or activity with nearly every country on the African continent”.

While bringing a wide range of benefits for regional efforts to achieve peace and security, the increasing militarisation and securitisation of US engagement on the continent also raises a number of concerns. One major concern is the danger of emboldening and beefing up state apparatuses known for their repression and brutality. Last year’s coup in Mali, orchestrated by a US-trained captain, has highlighted this concern.

The other major concern is that such a militarised focus is not likely to bring many economic opportunities for ordinary citizens in these countries.

Booming economies

While the Obama administration has been focusing on its security engagement in Africa, countries on the continent have been making headlines for their spectacular economic performance. The Economist, which 12 years ago labelled Africa the “Hopeless Continent”, dedicated a 14-page special report in March to what it called “the word’s fastest-growing continent” under a cover story titled “Aspiring Africa”. In December 2012, Time magazine captured the changing economic fortunes of the continent with a cover story titled “Africa Rising”.

Today, Africa is home to seven of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world. This strong growth trend is predicted to continue over the next decade. According to the World Bank, African economies are expected to grow on average at more than five percent per year from 2013-15.

While a number of factors account for Africa’s waxing fortunes, one major factor is foreign direct investment, or FDI. The Economist reported that FDI has risen from $37bn in 2006 to $46bn in 2012. According to the World Bank, foreign direct investment in Africa yielded a 20 percent return in 2010, compared with 14 percent in Latin America and 15 percent in Asia. Much of this investment comes from emerging markets, particularly China.

China is all over Africa - I mean, all over Africa ... There're some places where we're not in the game, folks. And I hate to say it. And we got to get in.

by - US Secretary of State John Kerry,

China has been heavily involved in infrastructure, energy, mining, and telecommunications projects across the continent. Trade between China and Africa reached $160bn in 2011, a 28 percent increase from 2010. In the past 10 years, bilateral trade has grown at an average of 33.6 percent per year. The value of China’s trade with Africa surpassed that of the United States in 2009.

Signalling the value that China attaches to its relations with Africa, President Xi Jinping made a three-day visit to Tanzania, the Republic of Congo and South Africa soon after taking office. In a speech outlining his Africa policy, President Xi said: “China will continue to offer, as always, necessary assistance to Africa with no political strings attached.” Apart from renewing the $20bn in loans made available to Africa for 2013-15, Xi said China would train 30,000 African professionals, offer 18,000 scholarships to African students and “increase technology transfer and experience”. 

In the US, the image of Africa as a combined humanitarian tragedy and a security challenge, as Henry Kissinger put it in his 2001 book, Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century, reinforced by the increased militarisation of US engagement on the continent, remains strong. The US has largely been slow in embracing Africa as an investment destination, and it is therefore lagging behind in bolstering economic and commercial investment and ties in Africa. Although US-Africa trade has witnessed rises, it is more a reflection of Africa’s overall economic rise than active US economic engagement on the continent.

There is increasing acknowledgement in the Obama administration that the US is far behind China in Africa. At his confirmation hearing in January, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: “China is all over Africa – I mean, all over Africa.” He added: “There are some places where we’re not in the game, folks. And I hate to say it. And we got to get in.”

There is manifest recognition in both Africa and the US that US engagement on the continent should go beyond the security and humanitarian realms and be closer on trade and investment partnerships. Obama’s current visit to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania reportedly aims at doing exactly that.

Africa is following the visit closely. May this be a future that promises a heightened US-China scramble over Africa. 

Dr Solomon Ayele Dersso, a legal scholar and analyst of African international affairs who writes on current African issues, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, Addis Ababa Office.

Follow him on Twitter: @SolomonADersso