USA – Africa reset under the shadow of China: An African perspective. Part 1 of 3


Direct flights by US carriers between the USA and African capitals are rare. To reach Africa from the USA, one must often go through Europe, use European companies and stopover in say London or Paris. Does the US diplomatic journey to Africa follow the same pattern, namely that the US always engages Africa via Europe? Has the USA ever had an Africa policy? Why is a new start needed now?

Reset is an ambiguous word; it can mean to set again the initial parameters or to change them all together. Here, reset means a validation of change in control settings or an introduction of new parameters.

Beyond USA-Africa relations, Africa’s relations with foreign powers are at a pivotal moment. The former European colonial masters seem to have reached their Peak Power in Africa and, despite gesticulations here and there, their influence is waning under the combined effects of a Europe fatigue felt by Africans after centuries of relationship between unequal partners, and of rising competition from China and Russia, but also from countries such as Brazil, India and Turkey.

Supported by the US seemingly illegible Africa policy, one long held view contends that the USA has no strategic interest in Africa and that, in the context of the division of labor and influence zones among powers, America implicitly recognizes Europe’s tutelage of Africa. That opinion has never been more questionable than today, in the face of changing internal dynamics in Africa, a new scramble for the continent’s riches and a shifting world geopolitical landscape.

This paper offers an African perspective on desirable changes in USA-Africa relations; is not about the history of USA-Africa relations. It will be published in a series of three articles:

  • In Part I, the paper will briefly explain why USA and Africa matter to each other;
  • In Part II, it will propose an indicative roadmap to renew USA-Africa relations;
  • In Part III, the reset of USA-Africa relations will be appraised against the backdrop of USA- China competition.

PART I- A brief cross-examination of current USA/Africa interests

A – Why America matters to Africa

Looking through the lens of Africa’s priorities, America is important for several reasons:

  • > America is a security provider
  • > America is an economic and development partner
  • > Through African Americans, America has a strong human link to Africa

Several African countries face an existential threat because of pervasive insecurity. Africa, a largely volatile and impoverished continent, needs the big powers including the USA for its stability and development. Jihadists are threatening the very existence of countries such as Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. In Western Africa, the traditional safe heavens of Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Benin are under threat. Secessionist movements are trying to dismember Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal and Ethiopia. Islamist insurgencies have also appeared in unsuspected places such as Mozambique and Congo DRC. America’s military and security involvement in Africa’s has increased since the creation of the Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007. Security cooperation takes many forms including direct US field presence, training of African military, intelligence sharing, and the supply of defense equipment by the USA. On the latter point, Nigeria just ordered USD 1 billion equivalent of military hardware , In 2019, Africom’s so-called “enduring” and “non-enduring” footprints stretched over 15 African countries and territories, through 29 bases in West Africa, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. According to the specialized website Military.com1, the USA had about 6,000 military personnel in Africa at end 2021, the majority of them stationed at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti.

The US is also a significant economic partner to Africa. In 2018, the USA accounted for 8 percent of Africa’s trade (exports and imports combined), versus 17 percent and 32 percent, for China and European Union, respectively2. America enacted the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in 2000 (renewed to 2025) to open the US market to about 7,000 African products. But AGOA has produced mixed results as raw material accounted to 70 to 80 percent of total African exports. The US is the second largest investor country in Africa, after China. In addition, African states need America’s diplomatic support to benefit from grants, loans, and technical assistance provided by development agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Not enough mentioned in USA-Africa relations, Americans of African origin represent 13 percent of total US population. Outside Africa, with its 43 million African Americans, the USA

is the second most “African” country after Brazil. How much African are African Americans? A lot has been said about the relationship between black Americans and Africans, about mutual ignorance, misunderstanding, and silent grievances. The Liberia experience, marked by tension

between returning black Americans and native Africans has often been evoked to deny or minimize kinship. But at the same time, the Jamaica-born Marcus Garvey championed no less than a back-to-Africa movement. Historical circumstances as well as geographical and cultural distances have been brandished to cancel Africa in African Americans. But stating that African Americans are different from Africans is platitude; among Africans themselves, Zulus are culturally different from Hausas. Judging by the increasing number of African Americans who undergo DNA tests to determine their African ancestry, Arthur M. Schlesinger 3 was wrong downplaying African Americans’ interest in Africa. For instance, those tests took back Condoleezza Rice, Quincy Jones, Spike Lee and Forest Whitaker to Cameroon. In fact, fate brotherhood matters more than an elusive race brotherhood. Africa can mean not only a place, but also a memory, a common cause, or a dream. So, there are a geographical Africa, the continent, but also a mental and wider Africa that incorporates Africans and the worldwide African diaspora who share a common historical experience of suffering and discrimination. In a nutshell, African Americans may be less African than some would wish but more African than many would believe.

African Americans significantly contributed in the 1950s and 60s to raising the US awareness about Africa’s decolonization and about Apartheid in South Africa, as those causes mirrored their own fight to end racial discrimination in America. Martin Luther King and Malcom X traveled to Africa. WEB Dubois, a foremost African American intellectual, was buried in Ghana as a citizen of that country. The successes of African Americans in arts, sports, politics and beyond reverberate in Africa. The election of Barack Obama elicited on the continent a mix of kinship pride and irrational expectations. By the same token, a stronger Africa would change the perception about people of African descent around the world. In the 1960s, the USA was facing black insurrection at home and did not welcome any rapprochement between African Americans and Africans. The time has changed and the minds need to move on the matter: African Americans can also be American Africans, in the interest of both the USA and Africa.

B – Why Africa matters to America

The US Department of State and the US Department of Defense have different definitions of “Africa”; for the former, Africa is the continent’s part south of the Sahara Desert (Sub-Saharan Africa); for the latter, Africa means the whole continent and its neighboring islands, except for Egypt. But beyond those definitional differences, has the USA ever had an Africa policy, despite the creation in 1958 of an Africa Bureau within the US State Department?

Tentatively, Africa matters to the USA for four main reasons:

  • > Access to natural resources
  • > Global security concerns
  • > Competition with rival powers
  • > Business opportunities

Access to Africa’s natural resources is every great power’s preoccupation. Indeed, according to the UN Environment Program, Africa accounts for 30 percent of the world’s mineral reserves, 8 percent of the world’s natural Gas, 12 percent of the world’s oil reserves, 40 percent of the world’s gold, 65 percent of the world’s arable land and 10 percent of the planet renewable fresh water source. Africa also has the largest deposits of strategic minerals such as uranium; as an anecdote, the Hiroshima atomic bomb was made with DRC uranium. The ongoing war in Ukraine has heightened Africa’s strategic importance as a supplier of energy sources, notably oil and gas, as an alternative to Russia.

Also, the USA has a security border with Africa. Security should be understood here in its broadest sense including threats to people, and to physical and moral interests. Because Africa’s borders are largely porous and the concerned states lack in adequate resources or will, the US may be more vulnerable on that continent. The 1998 bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania caused more than two hundred deaths, the majority of them Africans. In defiance of geography, one can also claim that Africa and Afghanistan share borders; indeed, the recent Taliban takeover in Kabul may embolden Sahel Jihadists in their fight against the USA and the West in Africa. Various Islamist groups are operating on the continent, and it is difficult to disentangle the nexus of their alliances: Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad; Ansar Dine in Mali; Al Shabab in Somalia, Kenya and now Tanzania; Aqim in the Maghreb, particularly Algeria. For the USA, an unstable Africa would unleash higher uncontrolled immigration with the ensuing human calamities, threats to the security of individuals, properties, corporations, air and maritime transportation, resource supply, and trade flows. That would be the scenario depicted in a famous article called “The Coming Anarchy”4

Competition among big powers is another reason why Africa matters to America. No truly global power can ignore a continent of 54 countries that represent more than 25 percent of UN membership and host 15 percent of world population. By mimesis, the US interest in Africa is reinforced by its rivals’ attention to that continent. In what is perceived as a zero-sum game, namely someone’s gain is somebody else’s loss, world powers are competing to grab Africa’s hearts and minds, natural resources, markets and votes. Africa was a theater of confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It was essentially a war through local proxies. Roughly, the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and the Eastern bloc militarily and diplomatically supported the African liberation movements fighting the European colonial rule. Despite the 1956 Suez Canal episode when the USA resisted France and UK in Egypt, the USA generally sided with the former colonial powers, in the name of common economic and ideological interests. Today, China has replaced the Soviet Union as the arch-rival. According to some commentators, the creation of the US Africom in 2007 was primarily geared to contain China’s Africa push. Angola, Nigeria, DRC and Ethiopia, and possibly South Africa and Algeria, are some of the emblematic battlegrounds. Geographically at the heart of the continent and “outrageously” rich in minerals, DRC is a poster child of the ongoing overt and covert fight among the USA, Europe, China and Russia. After losing the spoils of the former Soviet Union in Africa, Russia is attempting a come-back through a vertical axis stretching from Libya to Central African Republic via Sudan, from the Sahara-Sahel band rich in uranium, gold, oil and gas, to the heart of Africa harboring abundant deposits of various solid minerals. In the same vein, Russia may attempt to build a horizontal axis from Angola to Mozambique.

Furthermore, Africa is important to America for the substantial business opportunities it offers to American individuals, corporations and government. A continent of 1.3 billion inhabitants, Africa roughly has the population of China or India. By some estimates, Africa’s population would double by 2050, but those projections flatly ignore the mitigating impact of better education and health, as well as the fast-paced urbanization of the continent. Africa’s middle class defined as people with an annual income of at least USD 4,000 is estimated between 200 and 250 million, or roughly 15 to 20 percent of the continent’s population. Pre-Covid household consumption was predicted to reach USD 2.5 trillion by 2030. Until the Covid outbreak, several African countries were among the fastest growing economies in the world according to the World Bank.

C – Why a reset of USA-Africa relations is needed

From Johannesburg to Bamako, and from Accra to Addis Ababa, a mental, psychological and intellectual revolution is reshaping Africa and its world view. Africans are questioning the relevance of the usual dichotomies such as liberalism versus conservatism, democracy vs autocracy, market economy vs state intervention, individual freedom vs state rights. They tend to favor the recipe that works, not just hefty ideas or fashionable ideologies. Moreover, Africans are equally disappointed by their own rulers and by Africa’s international partners. As a result, doubt has infiltrated the minds; what if change leads to regression and democracy to institutional and political chaos? Is an effective autocrat who can deliver on security and social services better than an apathic and incompetent democrat? Should the superiority of civilian rule over military rule be taken as axiomatic? From an international relations standpoint, Africans question notions such as independence, international law, friendship, partnership, development, aid, assistance, win-win. Recent coups in Guinea-Conakry, Mali and Burkina Faso illustrate that sense of disorientation and new thinking.

As a partner, the USA may need to adjust to that changing Africa, particularly as the vast majority of Africans deny their current leaders any legitimacy to represent and defend the interests of their countries. To many Africans, leadership crisis, not security or economic crisis, is the main plague. As development and stability have proven to be ever elusive objectives, Africans also call into question inconclusive and sometimes incapacitating economic and security partnerships with foreign powers. Similarly, they feel overlooked and are frustrated by double standards in international relations. Neglecting the warnings, Europe and the USA seem to have been caught by surprise by Africa’s stance on the war in Ukraine; Africa’s UN votes5 were probably more an expression of frustration and independence from the West than an outright support of Russia.

The Africa youth is restless in its quest for dignity. To take revenge on history that mistreated them, on fate that has often been ungrateful and on themselves because of their many self-inflicted wounds, Africans are envisioning a new Africa that can be encapsulated in a few notions, including:

  1. Dignity (security, freedom, respect, justice, prosperity)
  2. Sovereignty (Africa to Africans; freedom to choose course of action and partners)
  3. Self-reliance (Africa by Africans)
  4. Homegrown solutions (ownership of problems, analysis, trials, failures, and solutions)
  5. Pragmatism (adoption of what works best; no-a priori)
  6. Result-drive (proving oneself; obligation to perform, as people and nations)
  7. Unity (African unity to build Africa’s strength; Pan-Africanism beyond Africa)

A renewed engagement would serve the interests of both the USA and Africa, in different but complementary ways.

For Africa, a reset will aim to:

    1. Acknowledge and respect the continent’s specificities, expectations and
    2. Recognize the continent as a worthy and credible US direct engagement with Africa without Europe’s intrusions (as former colonial master)       would be an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of African nations.
    3. Endorse Africa’s strategic objective of political, security and economic In the face of large and assertive geopolitical entities and blocks including the USA, China, European Union, India and Russia, Africa is longing for unity and international status.

For the USA, a reset would:

    1. Help to better adjust to a burgeoning New Africa. The fast-changing Africa’s cultural, demographic, economic and political landscapes is calling for a pro-active US strategy that would espouse deep and lasting trends.
    2. Reposition the USA in the New Scramble for Africa, against the backdrop of declining Europe’s influence in the continent and rising competition from China and Russia.
    3. Considering the unique human link the USA and Africa can establish through African Americans and using that competitive advantage, help develop the largely untapped potential of human, strategic, economic and diplomatic cooperation with Africa.

1, November 29, 2021

2 EU: Africa report

3 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr: The Disuniting of America. Reflections on a Multicultural Society, 1993

4 Robert D. Kaplan’s 1994 article entitled “The Coming Anarchy” in the Atlantic Monthly described such an apocalyptic scenario.

5 In several instances, a sizable number of African states, including the leading ones, abstained or did not participate in the vote to condemn Russia’s invasion.

This essay’s forthcoming Part II will present a tentative blueprint for a reset of USA-Africa relations.

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