Re-Energizing United States-Africa Relations

President Bush (left) shakes hands with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo

President Bush (left) shakes hands with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo at the 3rd Biennial Leon H. Sullivan Summit Dinner (June 20, 2002) in Washington, D.C. The dinner highlights U.S.-Africa relations and President Olusegun Obasanjo was honored at the dinner for his public service. (Photo: Luke Frazza / AFP-Getty Images)

As President George W. Bush settles down for the last four years of his active political career, the relationship between the United States and Africa is likely to undergo rigorous review and possibly, re-adjustments. If Bush pursues his stated intention of spreading freedom and genuine democracy around the world, then the relationship between the United States and various developing regions, including Africa will come into sharp focus.

Current Drivers of United States-Africa Relations

It is not surprising that the United States and African nations have differing priorities regarding key elements of the relationship. As noted by Jonnie Carson, former ambassador to Kenya, United States policy towards Africa remains influenced by its preoccupation with Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea and the war on terrorism.Policy makers in the United States recognize the growing importance of Africa as a steady source of oil and other extractive minerals. They also recognize the crucial role of Africa as a bulwark against the spread of terrorism. A recent comprehensive article on Africa’s “new strategic significance” by the director of an African-based think tank outlined the critical role of Africa in emerging global realignments in politics, trade and international cooperation. The unfolding HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa is a major source of concern for policy makers in both the United States and Africa. The Bush administration supported the establishment of the Global Fund against AIDS, TB and Malaria to lead a coordinated global assault against diseases worldwide, especially in Africa. The United States government went further to establish the President’s Emergency HIV/AIDS initiative to stop AIDS in 15 countries, 12 of them in Africa.

For Africans, debt relief, increased trade with the United States, a sharp increase in development assistance and access to lifesaving HIV/AIDS therapies are critical priorities. Africans need United States assistance to end conflicts in the continent. They also need United States cooperation and collaboration in the drive to increase direct foreign investments, especially in non-extractive sectors such as agriculture and animal husbandry. Africa would also want the United States to use its influence in the G-8 annual meetings to mobilize other rich nations to increase their public and private sector commitments to the continent’s flagship economic platform known as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

The key question is whether these differing priorities and strategic interests will drive a wedge in United States-Africa relations between 2005 and 2009. The appointment of Condoleezza Rice as the new secretary of state suggests that Bush may spend some political capital on his twin themes of freedom and democracy, and may push for accelerated democratic reforms in African nations without functioning democracies. This could put United States relations with key African allies without functional democracies such as Egypt, Algeria and Ethiopia in a potential collision course. For African leaders, slow progress in mobilizing international support for NEPAD and ending agricultural subsidies may strain United States-Africa relations. It is crucial for a re-energized United States-Africa relationship to have a durable foundation that could stand the test of time.

Re-Energized United States-Africa Relations

The foundation of a renewed United States-Africa relationship should be that of trust, a clear understanding of mutual benefits, and, frankness in resolving outstanding issues and flashpoints. It is critical for the relationship to revolve around a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities for each partner. The secretary of state will likely reach out to her foreign minister colleagues in Africa. African heads of government and heads of regional institutions are likely to reach out to the president, members of Congress and other policy makers. It is almost a given that United States officials will not shy away from taking a strong, principled stand against nepotism, bad governance and state sponsored brutality and atrocities committed against dissident citizens in Africa. African leaders, especially those who would not seek political office again — such as the presidents of Nigeria and South Africa — are likely to be more assertive in their dealings with Bush and other high ranking officials, especially on the tripod issues of debt relief, trade liberalization and development assistance. A re-energized United States-Africa relationship will likely depend on how both parties resolve inevitable flashpoints in the partnership. What are these inevitable flashpoints?

Potential Flashpoints in United States-Africa Relations

1. United States and African leaders may differ on the best response to the HIV/AIDS emergency in Africa. Africa looks toward the United States for financial and technical assistance in the war against HIV/AIDS. America seeks demonstrable evidence of good governance and prudent management of scarce national and international resources by African nations. Meanwhile, millions of Africans contract HIV or die of AIDS every year. Any delay in addressing the destructive effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa will have severe repercussions on the continent’s capacity to be a productive partner. In hardest hit countries in Africa, AIDS accounts for the loss of more than one percent of G.D.P. per year. The United Nations agency coordinating the global fight against aids (Unaids) estimates that at least nine African countries have life expectancy rates that are now less than 40 years, principally due to AIDS. It is critical for African governments to end all governance practices that engender distrust among international donors and development partners. Additionally, the United States must be seen as a long-term partner in Africa’s future titanic struggle against HIV/AIDS. United States financial, technical and logistics support for HIV/AIDS remedial efforts in Africa should never be in doubt and should be in a scale that would make a difference.

2. Disagreements may arise over the concept and application of democracy. As a country built on verifiable democratic traditions, and according to Bush’s second term inaugural address, the United States may take a hard stance on dictators and their domestic supporters. African governments will likely be under pressure to implement genuine democracy where every citizen has an inalienable right to participate in nation building and in the political process without discrimination or intimidation. No democracy is perfect, including the United States. However, the principle and tradition of democracy is essential to due process, the right to public assembly, the right to economic pursuit within the boundaries of the law, the right to social protection for the sick and disabled, and the right to hold opinion that may run counter to the government in power. Key African states to watch regarding the United States’ commitment to democracy will be Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

3. Promotion of transparency and governance reforms in oil producing states of Africa may cause tension in United States-Africa relations. Civil society organizations of oil producing states in Africa are likely to ratchet up their agitation for transparency and governance reforms. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo is waging an uphill battle against official corruption and malfeasance in Nigeria. The geographical area in Nigeria that produces oil known as the Niger Delta region is yet to benefit economically after more than 45 years of oil extraction activities in their communities. Angola, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Algeria and Libya are important oil producing states with very limited or non-existent population-based democracies. The unfortunate situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo with its abundant supply of extractive minerals and multiple soldiers of fortune is also a major source of concern. Endemic poverty in oil producing African states can destabilize United States-Africa relations as frustrated citizens increasingly see armed struggle as viable options. A renewed United States-Africa relation should pay close attention to the plight of the citizens of oil producing states in Africa.

4. Unacceptable levels of poverty and stagnant economies in Africa will be a formidable challenge. More than 40 percent of Africans survive on less than one dollar a day, according to the World Bank. A revitalized United States-Africa relationship can do a lot to assist Africans living in poverty. Policy makers on both sides should work to:

  1. Reduce poverty in Africa by creating incentives for African farmers to sell their products in the West. Reducing or removing agricultural tariffs in the United States can allow Africa’s farmers to export enough products to reverse growing poverty levels in the continent. It is encouraging to note the reported increase in the value of imports from Africa under the United States Congress mandated African Growth and Opportunity Act, with a value of $14 billion in 2003, a rise of more than 55 percent from previous year. A major focus of a renewed United States-Africa relationship is the need to create incentives for Africa to trade its way out of poverty. Experts suggest that raising Africa’ share of global trade from the present 2 percent to 3 percent will generate an additional $70 billion a year for Africa, a sum five times the current debt relief and development aid to the continent.

  2. Reduce or eliminate the crushing external debt burden of African countries. The Economic Commission for Africa, a United Nations agency based in Addis Ababa estimates that every 80 cents on each dollar that comes into Africa in form of foreign direct investment and development assistance flows right back out of the continent every year, mostly to service existing external debt obligations. A recent review of the World Bank and I.M.F.’s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative (HIPC) by the United Nations Agency responsible for trade and development (UNCTAD) concluded that the 23 African countries that reached “decision points” on debt relief by the end of 2003 will only have a 40 percent chance of attaining “sustainable” debt levels by 2020. The bottom line is that without comprehensive debt relief, many African nations are unlikely to become positive contributors to the global economy.

  3. Accelerate macroeconomic reforms in Africa with emphasis on stable regulatory environment, rule of law, enforcement of contracts, support for small and medium private enterprises, and transparent, equitable privatization programs that create value for the new owners, the government and citizens.

  4. Create safety nets for the poor and disabled in Africa. Families that live in endemic poverty have very little in the way of a safety net in Africa. Weak and disabled individuals also receive very little support from the government, including social and legal protection. Savings from accelerated debt relief for Africa should be utilized to meet the social welfare needs of the poor in Africa and create a thriving entrepreneurial middle class.

5. A revamped United States-Africa relationship is dependent on improved technical and logistical capacity of African states and institutions to implement sound policies and programs. As African leaders seek to improve socioeconomic conditions in the continent, a looming obstacle is in the way: lack of technical and logistic capacity. A recent World Bank report titled “Building State Capacity in Africa: New Approaches, Emerging Lessons” identified massive needs in the continent in the areas of visionary leadership, accountability, capacity building and decentralization. A renewed United States-Africa relationship should focus on specific steps and mechanisms for assisting African institutions and nations to improve their technical and logistic capacities to solve continental problems. A major strategy in this regard could be the development of incentives for African-Americans and African immigrant professionals living in the United States to participate in capacity building projects in Africa.

6. Conflicts in Africa can implode gains made in United States-Africa partnerships. Africa remains challenged by lingering conflicts in the great lakes region, Sudan, Eritrea/Ethiopia, and Northern Uganda to mention a few places. Lack of aggressive action by the international community and the African Union to end the tragedy in Darfur, western Sudan should be an impetus for close policy and program attention on best ways to support Africa’s peace keeping capacity. In particular, a revamped United States-Africa cooperation on peace and security should emphasize proactive mechanisms for nipping budding conflicts. This may require greater political flexibility by African governments in dealing with political opponents, implementing economic development incentives in lieu of armed conflicts and the legal prosecution of notorious warlords and their high ranking supporters.

7. United States strategic global interests may change. The Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attack fundamentally changed the strategic global interest of the United States. A proactive war against terror organizations and their supporters is now critical in United States geopolitical thinking. A major source of concern in future United States-Africa relations is whether the United States may change course. We believe that it is in the best interest of both sides to remain steadfast.


United States-Africa relations for all practical purposes need a jolt in the arm. After more than 40 years of United States relations with sovereign African nations, the continent’s development prospect remains troubling. Various development indicators on Africa by the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), and the January 2005 report by the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Project of the United Nations paint a picture of a continent beset with complex social and economic problems. A re-energized United States-Africa partnership should have a long-term focus on issues that improve the lives of ordinary citizens on both sides of the Atlantic. A genuine partnership between the United States and Africa should ultimately evolve into a collaboration of common interests and aspirations.

Honorable George Haley is a former United States ambassador to Gambia. Chinua Akukwe is a member of the board of directors of the Constituency for Africa, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. and a former vice chairman of the National Council for International Health now known as Global Health Council, Washington, D.C. Sidi Jammeh is the chair-emeritus of the Africa Society, comprised of African professionals working in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.