African policy towards the US

The speakers were: Amini Kajunju, Executive Director of the International University of Grand Bassam (IUGB) Foundation; Dr Philani Mthembu, Executive Director at the Institute for Global Dialogue; Arsène Brice Bado, PhD, Vice-President for Academic Affairs at CERAP/Université Jésuite in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire; Dr Bob Wekesa,  Partnerships, Research and Communications Co-ordinator at the African Centre for the Study of the United States based at the University of the Witwatersrand; and Charles Prempeh, who obtained his BA and MPhil degrees in African Studies from the University of Cape Coast and the University of Ghana respectively. It was moderated by Cyril Obi, Programme Director at the Social Science Research Council, New York, where he leads the African Peacebuilding Network (APN) and the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa programmes.

The webinar was opened by Cyril Obi, who said the speakers would talk about how to formulate a coherent African policy towards the US; he thanked the various participants and sponsors, introduced the speakers and shared some details of their past accomplishments.

Obi: The US, unlike many Western countries, has no history of colonialism in Africa, so it has a “clean record” in many senses. There is a long history of the African diaspora in the US. With the Joe Biden administration in the US, there is an opportunity for new relationships between Africa and the US, and this new administration has made positive gestures that it wants to negotiate and trade with the continent. Africa has to be careful about who it negotiates with so that it does not become a chessboard for superpower games. The Covid-19 pandemic may create new opportunities for engagement between Africa and the US, based on, for instance, how the vaccine and patent were shared. Africa’s youth must be engaged and given direction.

Arsène Brice Bado: The Joe Biden administration must realise the geostrategic importance of Africa. The continent should be recognised as an opportunity, not a burden or a problem. Africa’s strategic importance was seen as less important when the Cold War ended, and since then the issue of “security” has been posited as a major stumbling block for investors in the continent. Developed countries tend to not see African countries as partners, but more as a problem, or even a threat. The Biden administration must change the terms of trade; Africa has a vast supply of natural resources, but contributes less than 3% to world trade, and if these trading terms are not changed, Africa will remain marginalised and impoverished.

The complexity and dignity of the African continent must be restored; it is often seen as one country or entity, devoid of complexity. The relationship between the US and Africa should become more equal, and not seen purely as one of assistance; collaboration is key.

Philani Mthembu: My discussion is framed around the taming of expectations. There was a lot of expectation across Africa when Barack Obama ascended to office, and many see Biden’s administration as a continuation of Obama’s. However, Biden faces many restraints, both internationally and in his own country, such as the treatment of African Americans and the Covid-19 pandemic.  Biden will be contrasted with Donald Trump; America may “be back” but what kind of a world has it come back into? Trump’s administration withdrew its support for global institutions such as the World Bank, WHO and the Paris Agreement, so Biden has a steep hill to climb, and Africa’s policy towards the US must take all this into account. Biden has to overcome things like Trump’s very aggressive trade wars with China and Europe, and these cannot be reversed overnight.

There are three key issues African stakeholders can zone in on. The first is economic development; African stakeholders must initiate discussions with the US, and how the US works with initiatives such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AGOA), and what happens post-2025 regarding the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AfCFTA). Regarding trade and development, we have to think how USAID will fit in, ensuring that providing aid does not justify unfair trade practices. Lastly, Africans must promote regional integration, and not be caught up in superpower games between the US and China.

Amini Kajunju: Economic development is an important pillar: how do we turn the African youth bulge around into a youth dividend? The ease with which entrepreneurs can set up businesses in the US attracts people from all over the world, as well as its education system and R&D facilities. Africa must learn from this, and the focus must be on combining the best from both continents. Most graduates (76%) in Africa would leave if they could in the next five years, which says we are not creating enough opportunities for them. In the context of the pandemic, Africa has 1% of the world’s R&D facility investment and 0.1% of the world’s patents. We need an education system that can produce a million experts, who can advocate for the needs of African people.

IUGB was born from a partnership between Georgia State University and the government of Côte d’Ivoire. It has about 850 students, which is just a drop in the bucket, and even with education, most African children won’t get jobs, which is why entrepreneurship must be promoted. Without the “three Es” — education, entrepreneurship and employment — we are not going to get anywhere in Africa; they must be at the core of any partnership with the US.

Bob Wekesa: Why do we need an African policy framework towards the US? The recent elections in the US do have implications for Africa; it was a significant moment in time. Should the African policy framework be at a national, regional or continental level? Perhaps it should incorporate all of these; but all these multiple frameworks should cohere. The AfCFTA framework could serve as a guide in our negotiations with the US. But who should do the negotiations? The AU? One cannot exclude African civil society and organisations.

Charles Prempeh: I have written a paper recently that incorporates the question of homosexuality, which many Africans see as “foreign” to the continent; and it involves both individual and collective rights. Is Africa sovereign in managing its human and other rights issues? It is a complex issue that cannot be met with simplistic responses. It is a moral issue, depending on whose perspective it is examined from: those for, and those against it. It can involve social exclusion, if it is made illegal, and it is highly subjective.

Charles PrempehTime can be seen as linear or cyclical; Africans are often seen as lacking futurism. “Civilisation” is seen as moving from simple to complex; the past is constructed as “tradition” and the present as “modern”; the past is seen as communal, and the present as individual, because it frees the spirit of the individual. In the homosexual debate, these kinds of false binaries are often applied; traditionalists are usually opposed to it. Homosexuality has been banned or accepted in various societies; homophobic laws were imposed on Africa by colonial powers through its religious institutions. Today, both Christianity and Islam, widespread in Africa, are opposed to homosexuality. Complex dialogue is required on this issue if we are to move forward.

Obi: Many of the points raised today are in Issue 58 of Africa in Fact, July-September 2021, a publication from Good Governance Africa.

Questions from the audience and closing remarks

What is the posture of the US in using public diplomacy to communicate its foreign policy to Africa in relation to AfCFTA and AGOA?

Wekesa: Since 2000, the US has tried to win favour with “soft” rather than “hard” power. AGOA has always been seen as a great help for Africa, by past US administrations. China has however put forward far more money for development in Africa. This is changing, as the US favours AfCFTA, but Africans must negotiate trade and other issues themselves.

Kajunju: At the core of Africa’s issues with illicit outflows and skewed trade relationships, is that Africa’s policymakers must have a clear vision, which has always been missing. We don’t have one, or it is not inclusive enough; we need to be rooted in a clear vision of what we want for Africa.

Prempeh: For far too long we have seen ourselves from a perspective of victimhood, so we are susceptible to manipulation. We need a vision of agency, so we can bargain with the international community.

Bado: Africans must regain their own agency, and resolve our own problems.

Mthembu: Agency is key. To tackle our issues, we must stop borrowing from Western models and use our own agency for our own governance. The US should work with African countries to ensure the effectiveness of their own institutions, so they can do what they were built to do. The Biden administration can be worked with to reverse illicit outflows.

Wekesa: I agree with the other speakers: we need to be confident and visionary. China came bouncing back in the 70s from the Cultural Revolution; we must do the same.

Obi closed proceedings by thanking the participants for their contributions, the organisers and the audience.