For decades, American presidents traveled to Africa, proposed new partnerships with the continent and its peoples, and then promptly forgot about the partnership once they returned to Washington.
On October 20, 1999, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared, “I believe that our administration has spent more time, attention, and money on Africa than any other administration.”
Years ago, I visited Mali and Burkina Faso on vacation, and found the progress announced after Albright and her predecessor Warren Christopher’s visit to that country fleeting.
While 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terrorism overshadowed George W. Bush’s legacy, perhaps no president had as lasting an impact on Africa as did he. The commitment was not only diplomatic but military as well. The Pentagon stood up Africom, its sixth geographic combatant command, and promising even greater commitment to African security.
At first, after President Obama’s inauguration, Africans’ hope that American attention might be sustained was realized. Hillary Clinton cannot point to many accomplishments as secretary of state, but she did pay disproportionate attention to Africa even as the rest of the world started to burn.
While perhaps not directly related to her own influence, it was during Clinton’s tenure that Obama deployed U.S. forces to seek to capture Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a nominally Christian insurgent group (sponsored by Islamist Sudan) that has sought to destabilize first Uganda and now Southern Sudan with terrorism and atrocity.
Alas, with Clinton gone, and American power in retreat, Obama appears to have once again turned his back on Africa. Sure, he deployed some forces to help contain Ebola but that was reactive rather than proactive. When it comes to building a real partnership with Africa, it seems that China is years ahead of the United States. This is tragic, because there is no area showing such promise of sustained growth than Africa.
According to the World Bank:
The world attained the first Millennium Development Goal target—to cut the 1990 poverty rate in half by 2015—five years ahead of schedule, in 2010. Despite this progress, the number of people living in extreme poverty remains unacceptably high.
- According to the most recent estimates, in 2011, 17 percent of people in the developing world lived at or below $1.25 a day. That’s down from 43 percent in 1990 and 52 percent in 1981.
- This means that, in 2011, just over one billion people lived on less than $1.25 a day, compared with 1.91 billion in 1990, and 1.93 billion in 1981.
Africa accounts for much of the decline in poverty; the fact that this occurred against the backdrop of African countries eschewing socialism and embracing the free market principles is no coincidence. Piracy has declined precipitously off the Horn of Africa (albeit while picking up in the Gulf of Guinea) and countries once mired in civil war have now put that era behind them.REUTERS/Joe PenneyA Chinese worker jokes with his Nigerian counterpart at the National Arts Theatre stop of the light rail system under construction in Lagos, Nigeria, May 30, 2014.
True, there are states like South Sudan and the Central African Republic teetering on the verge of failure, if not already over the precipice, but these are now more the exception than the rule. And states that are perennially basket cases like Zimbabwe and Eritrea are likewise increasingly in a club of their own.
In short, relationships with Africa are less those of donor to recipient, and more true partnerships. And it is to these that the United States is turning its back. China is sending hundreds of peacekeepers to southern Sudan, reopening its embassy in Somalia, and building a railroad in Nigeria. Chinese are flooding into the continent, drawn by economic opportunity.
Speaking to 50 African heads of state at the first U.S.-Africa Summit this past summer, Obama took a subtle shot at China’s motivations,declaring, “We don’t look to Africa simply for its natural resources; we recognize Africa for its greatest resource, which is its people and its talents and their potential.”
Still, money is money, and business is business. U.S.-Africa trade has dwindled under Obama. Trade has always formed the backbone of relations, and countries seeking to get rich aren’t going to turn their back on a formula that worked the world over, however exploitative China might be.
There is a new Great Game brewing, but alas, Obama is forfeiting. Some American analysts argue that America is already too far behind, but defeat is only certain if the United States refuses to fight for its interests and continues to take allies for granted.