Start main page content

Politically US-Africa relations can be bumpy, but on the right track economically

- Bob Wekesa

Relations between African countries and the US are bumpy on political issues but much better on the economic front.

Africa-US relations, like other geopolitical relations, are subject to dynamic change, as a reading of their history over the years can demonstrate. However, a claim can be made that flux in Africa-US relations is more frequent, momentous, and emotionally charged than many other geopolitical relations. This contrasts with Africa's relations with other global powers such as China, Japan, and Germany, which have witnessed a far more stable trajectory over the years. Equally, it is rationale to argue that political relations are much more fractious than economic relations.

Without going back into decades-long shifts in Africa-US relations, it is already evident that relations have already shifted since the departure from office of former president Donald Trump in early 2021 and the entry of Joe Biden. Where the latter has made credible efforts to embrace Africa, the former largely operated a hands-off Africa policy, descending into shocking profanity in some instances. Observers will also be familiar with Biden's effort to embrace Africa early in his presidency, including a virtual call with African leaders during the African Union's February 2021 Heads of State and Government Summit.

Heavy lobbying for the US

Yet, just slightly over a year in power and the initial optimism of Africa-US relations entering a period of predictability and stability have been tested and found shaky. The most recent and indeed ongoing case is the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In March and April, the UN voted on two issues; a call for the condemnation of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and a resolution to suspend Russia from the UN's Human Rights Council. The US might have expected most African countries to condemn Russia on both occasions unambiguously. Undercover of non-alignment nearly a third of African countries either abstained or were absent from the exercise which can be read as a tacit support for Russia despite heavy lobbying for a contrary outcome by the US and its Western allies. 

Clearly, relations between African countries and the US are bumpy on political issues. But focusing on political issues alone misses the point because relations are much better on the economic front. I use the words "much better" cautiously because even on the cultural fronts, relations often take a fractious turn.

In passing, African countries have often lamented unequal and imbalanced trade practices. However, while economic ties can be rethought, the US has demonstrated a willingness to support African countries through policies and practices such as the preferential African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

It is interesting to consider some of the factors that make Africa-US relations "much better" in the economic than in the political spheres. Casual observations show that US economic policies towards Africa are more elaborate than political ones. Almost every week, US economic agencies implement or launch initiatives in Africa. There are examples galore.

A consequential policy architecture through which the US approaches African economic and trade relations is Prosper Africa which was launched in 2019. Since then, this agency, which brings together 17 US government entities, has garnered 800 deals across 45 countries with an estimated $50 billion in exports and investments.

In July 2021, the Millennium Challenge Corporation announced a plan to "sign more than $1 billion new economic programs in Africa by the end of 2022".

Ramped up investments

In it's 2021 annual report, Power Africa, which is operated by the United States Development Agency for Development, reported to have "helped more than 127 million people gain access to cleaner, more reliable electricity, including about 39 million people in the past year (2020)."

In March 2022, the US Development Finance Corporation (DFC) partnered with the US African Development Foundation (USADF) – both US government agencies – to launch the African Small Business Catalyst initiative "to support SMEs in (African) countries focused in key sectors including agriculture and food security, education, healthcare, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH)."

The US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) – through the Access Africa initiative – has recently ramped up investments in the development of information and communication infrastructure with programmes announced for South Africa, East Africa and Nigeria in March and April 2022.  

In rolling out economic diplomacy towards Africa, US agencies work closely with American businesses in what can be narrowed down to the concept and practice of corporate or commercial diplomacy. A case in point is the work of the US Commercial Service for Sub-Saharan Africa, headquartered in Johannesburg with officers in all sub-regions of the continent.

A visit to the LinkedIn page of this entity shows a robust series of business promotion activities. In early May 2022, for instance, the Commercial Service held on-site consultations with Caterpillar Inc. showcasing the company's "35,000 machines across the continent, (the running of) a Technicians in Africa programme to train and employ local mechanics, and (the provision of) a livelihood for over 15,000 people in (Sub Saharan) through their distribution network."    

The relative success of US economic and corporate diplomacy in Africa also rests on the work of private sector organisations. Key among them are the American chambers of commerce present in almost all the African countries and the Africa Programme of the Washington D.C.-based US Chamber of Commerce.

It is worthwhile distinguishing between the two sibling organisations. The American chambers of commerce, known in corporate circles as Amchams are registered in African countries, bringing together US companies operating in each country. Perhaps the most successful of these is the American Chamber of Commerce South Africa, which lists nearly 200 companies on its website.

The chambers of commerce provide several services to their members with an example being the American Chamber of Commerce Kenya, which hosts annual business summits as a platform for advocacy and engagement. This year, Amcham Kenya will host its summit at the end of June in partnership with several government and private sector partners.  

On the other hand, the Africa Programme of the US Chamber of Commerce is part of this organisation's global footprint. Specifically, the programme initiated the US-Africa Business Centre (USAfBC) in 2015 with taskforce groups focusing on digital economy, trade, investment, and health.

In late April 2022 for instance, the centre announced it's latest "Digital Innovator of the Year Competition" targeting African start-up entrepreneurships. That African chambers of commerce and the US Chamber of Commerce work closely and are in turn linked in multiple ways to US government agencies is a case of the intricate intersections of private and public economic and corporate diplomacy.

Diverse links 

Not to be left out in the story of US economic and corporate diplomacy in Africa is the Corporate Council in Africa (CCA). Established in 1993, the CCA has been particularly successful in mounting a large number of high-level business promotion and advocacy meetings, of which its periodic US Africa Business Summit is a signature event on Africa-US economic calendar.

As with the chambers of commerce, the CCA provides diverse linkages between the corporate world and the US and African governments thus playing a diplomatic role.

Analysis of US economic and corporate diplomacy cannot be complete without looking at the means and ways in which African economic and corporate diplomacy is directed to the US. This is, however a story for another day.

The key takeaway is that for students and practitioners of Africa-U.S. relations, the economic and trade sphere shows not just tangible ongoings but shows great potential as an academic area of analysis and as an area of practical possibilities.

Bob Wekesa is Deputy Director, African Centre for the Study of the US, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was first published on News24.