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African welfare non-priority in new United States strategy

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

On December 13, John Bolton, National Security Advisor to the President of the United States, announced the Trump administration’s New Africa Strategy. It is aimed at furthering US priorities, which he identified as: advancing USA trade and commercial ties in Africa, countering the threat from radical Islamic terrorism, and ensuring taxpayer dollars for aid are used efficiently and effectively.

However, a significant portion of his announcement was focused on primarily attacking China and secondarily Russia. He stated China employs bribes, opaque agreements and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes, and that China employs predatory actions to advance Chinese global dominance.

The focus of this article will be on the economic and political economy elements of the announcement. There are both positive and negative elements in the outlined strategy.

In terms of the positives, the US seems to have woken up to the reality that economic and commercial ties between the US and Africa can be significantly strengthened. The strategy will focus on new bilateral trade agreements and ensure that economic ties apply positive pressure towards improving governance and business practices in Africa. This is welcome.

It recently announced the establishment of the International Development Finance Corporation which has new finance capabilities and higher lending limits than its predecessor OPIC. While financing will target US entities, the reality is that this can have a positive knock-on effect on providing creative financing options for the African private sector and thus positively inform its development in Africa. However, there were many problematic elements to the announcement.

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The first is that it was made by the National Security Advisor, not the State Department. The contextualisation of the Africa strategy in this manner insinuates that US National Security priorities are the primary motivation of the strategy.

Secondly, the content and tone of Bolton’s speech used such biased language against China in particular that it made it seem as though the US administration views Africa as a pawn in its larger anti-China global strategy.

The speech left the feeling that the US wants African governments to choose between Washington and Beijing, and that if the latter is chosen, retaliatory action should be expected. Such simplistic binary thinking is out of place in a complex multipolar world where Africa has numerous economic and development partners from all over the world.

Indeed, the editorial board of the Financial Times picked up on this and stated that, "It is unlikely many Africans will welcome the prospect of returning to the era of “us or them” depicted in this vision, or feel much sympathy if America is the one left behind". Africans are already linking the speech to the dark days of the Cold War where millions of Africans suffered and died in proxy wars on the continent. But the world has changed since the Cold War, the speech seemed to miss that point.

Finally, the announcement unnecessarily underplayed significant strengths the US has in Africa. At the moment, the US is the top foreign direct investment (FDI) player in Africa, way ahead of China for example. The US government and private sector have significant experience in Africa and working with African private sector in truly creative and useful ways. This should have been highlighted and strengthened under the new strategy. Further, where is AGOA in all this?

In short, the new strategy doesn't even try and pretend to have African welfare as a key consideration. In fact, it seems as though it is America first, China second and Africa last.

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