Africa-US Re-engagement: A New Foreign Policy Agenda

Published on 20th April 2021

For good or ill, the fate of Africa will impact the rest of the world in this century because of its increasing share of humanity and because of its indispensable contribution to managing the global commons, be it to improve human security, to avert pandemics, or indeed to tackle the crises caused by climate change.

Let me expatiate on this. It is estimated for instance that Africa will account for 25% of global population by 2050 up from about 17% today, which is an 8% increase.

Indeed, my own country Nigeria is projected to be the third most populous country in the world by that date (2050) after India and China. If this increasing share of the global population is reflected in economic productivity and increased material well-being, then it surely augurs well for the world.

If, however, it brings about increased poverty and misery, then Africa could become a hotbed of restive youth that are vulnerable to the negative promptings of maniacal populists and religious radicals. And also for the other global concerns such as climate change, distractions such as worsening poverty, violent extremism, and dysfunctional governance, can only worsen matters.

So, I think that a resetting of the US policy agenda with Africa should promote a partnership that brings about economic prosperity, increases security, combats disease, improves governance, and mitigates the effects of climate change.

Africa is in many ways the last frontier for economic development and it has the potential to be a global growth pole.

Indeed, as other parts of the world are looking inwards, Africa is moving confidently to integrate its economies through the African Union Agenda 2063 as well as the recent establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement.

As Asian countries move to produce more sophisticated goods and services and as labour becomes more expensive there, Africa has a good chance to become the new factory of the world. This would require investment in machinery, skills, and technologies to improve productivity and increase returns.

So, I think the United States is well placed to lead trade and investment ties with Africa. And it has a good leg in with The African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA). The legislation, which removed all tariffs on 6,400 products available for export to the US, saw some African countries benefiting considerably.

South Africa’s auto exports to the US under AGOA have created thousands of jobs in that country and in the auto supply value chain in neighbouring countries. Export of garments from other countries, such as Ethiopia, Mauritius, Lesotho, Eswatini, and Kenya, have also created large numbers of jobs.

But AGOA’s challenges aside from the small number of countries that have benefited are the changing dynamics of trade within Africa itself since it was passed 20years ago. So, for example, the EU has signed several EPAs with several countries with implications for tariff disparities that may need to be reviewed in order to create a level playing field. Also, the African Continental Free Trade Agreements are set to kick in and AGOA must now be implemented consistent with the AFCTA. AGOA expires in 2025. But I believe that a new and improved AGOA that takes these challenges into account can be negotiated before then.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the need to coordinate actions to prevent and tackle pandemics while also building up public health infrastructure in developed and developing countries alike.

The reality however is that Africa still bears a disproportionate burden of communicable diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, and meningitis, to mention but a few.

The United States has helped to improve health care outcomes in Africa including through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDs Relief (PEPFAR).

I think that the same spirit of collaboration with regard to making COVID-19 vaccines available to African countries is now called for. This is not a time for vaccine nationalism and export bans but it is a time of working together towards universal vaccination against the disease.

I believe the US can lead in that effort to ensure that all countries and their peoples can access vaccines irrespective of the resources available to them. Quite frankly we have seen some support. The US has rejoined COVAX, the WHO, all of these have been very helpful in creating the right environment for cooperation towards increasing vaccine availability and solving some of the problems associated with the difficulty in getting the vaccines.

All too often people outside the continent tend to see Africa as conflict-ridden continent beset by insurgencies and wild-eyed terrorists. There has undoubtedly been increased restiveness in certain parts of Africa which are driven or aided by poverty, alienation, environmental degradation, and poor governance.

In truth though, the troubles in the main area due to encroachment of globally known terror groups or their franchises in several parts of Africa.

The US has had a counterterrorism presence in about 15 African countries – in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa combatting jihadist terrorist groups, operating largely in the Sahel, especially the sub-Saharan Sahel region and the area further southwest around Lake Chad, Nigeria (especially northern Nigeria), Somalia, and also Mozambique.

US-Africa Command (Africom) has been a very active force in all of the activities of the US in this region. So, while it is evident that the threat of violent extremist organizations is growing, it will appear that US policy (United States Africa Command) has since 2020 shifted from a strategy of degrading violent extremist organizations in West Africa to simply containing their spread. But the escalation of the attacks and the synergies being created amongst these extremist groups calls for a review of that position. It may be the moment for a more robust intervention along the lines of US-backed operations in clearing terrorists and insurgents in the Middle East.

It may be the moment for a more robust intervention along the lines of US-backed operations in clearing terrorists and insurgents in the Middle East. I think that we have a moment now where on account of the escalation of insurgencies especially in the West African regions, for a more robust US intervention and I think that this is something that the US foreign policy along with African partners should take a second look at.

A key tenet of US foreign policy has been to uphold values and principles such as democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and public accountability. These issues resonate very strongly with ordinary Africans who believe that improved governance is crucial in ensuring that their votes count, their rights are protected and that state resources are used for the common good.

United States engagement with Africa, I think, should naturally take these matters on board. However, I must say that it should not take the shape of finger-wagging but rather a balanced and joint endeavor to achieve these objectives. To paraphrase President Biden, One based on mutual respect.

Whatever the case, there should be no rush to judgment but an effort to hear the other side and I think we should create more opportunities to hear the other side. Not through, lobbying, firms, and that sort of thing but more direct government types of meetings and interactions that enable both governments better understand what their point of view are and I think we have a perfect opportunity for doing so now.

This does not imply, in my view, turning a blind eye to gross infractions of international law and human rights. It does require, in my view a broader and more nuanced perspective of issues as well as an understanding of local dynamics before taking a stand.

As I said earlier, climate change including the risk of a perfect storm of population pressure, environmental degradation, and pandemics pose a serious threat to African development in particular and the world in general.

It seems to be that the United States and Africa must work together to tackle climate change and moderate global warming including through an energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies.

African countries have made commitments in this regard towards implementing the Paris Climate Change Agreement targets and we are working hard towards achieving them. However, commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 has led to a growing trend among development finance institutions to withdraw from fossil fuel investment, including the World Bank’s decision to cease funding for upstream oil and gas developments and the new restrictions on financing downstream gas developments which is currently being considered and implemented by some European Union countries. The United Kingdom and the United States have also been considering the defunding of gas projects.

While this may be well-intentioned, this move does not take into account the principles of the common but differentiated responsibility and leaving no one behind which are enshrined into global treaties around sustainable development and climate action. These are principles we all agreed to and that we all accepted.

I think that the move to defund gas projects disregards the importance of gas as a means to urgently address energy poverty in a technologically and economically viable manner.

Furthermore, increasing the use of gas which is a cleaner fossil fuel in power generation, gives African countries the opportunity to phase out more polluting fuels such as coal, diesel, and heavy fuel oil (HFO), while bringing on board more renewables.

The United States should lend its weight to stopping this manifestly unfair trend that can undermine the sense of collective responsibility we all have towards mitigating climate change.

What is required is a just transition to zero emissions, and that expression is becoming increasingly popular, in our view, is one where the developed economies meet the commitment made at Cop 15 in Copenhagen, of 100 billion US dollars yearly to assist developing economies to transit to zero emissions.

US – Africa relations need not be uni-dimensional. The United States is a global leader in economic and military terms as well as through its contributions to the norms that shape the global order.

I think that the US could work with Africa either under the auspices of the African Union or indeed through individual countries like Nigeria to build a better world. Africa should not be seen or used as a pawn in great power games nor as an arena in the contest to secure strategic minerals and natural resources but rather as a partner in building a more secure, more peaceful, and prosperous world.

Indeed, rather than view every interaction with Africa from a competitive lens, I think that the US can work with other countries to support Africa in its efforts to meet our infrastructural needs. Infrastructure in the form of power stations, ports, rail networks, and roads, will spur growth and reduce the time and costs of doing business.

The fiscal constraints of African countries mean that there is scope for private capital to fund, operate and own some of these things. Given their technical know-how and financial resources, US companies should engage actively in the provision of infrastructure in Africa and we do expect that the US International Development Finance Corporation may support such efforts and so cooperation and partnerships rather than competition with other global actors, I believe can complement these efforts.

I also believe that the United States could work with partners including the G20, to establish an international economic system that works for Africa and other developing countries. It is a very encouraging sign in this regard that the US has signaled support for the $650 billion increase in Special Drawing Rights at the IMF, which will go a long way in providing much liquidity in African countries given the fiscal strains caused by last year’s economic downturn.

Similarly, the recent initiative of the United States to ensure that businesses are taxed where they make their sales is a major step forward in bringing about a fairer international tax regime. To be effective, however, it should apply not just to a few multinational companies but should be truly global in nature otherwise African countries may be excluded from getting their fair share of such taxes.

By His Excellency Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, GCON,

Vice President, Federal Republic of Nigeria


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