Importance of Africa to the US
In August the US Senate traditionally goes into recess, providing, according to its website, “a chance for senators to spend time with family, meet with constituents in their home states, and catch up on summer reading.”
Which leads to the question: why would a supposedly landmark Africa Summit take place at a time when some of the most important elements of the government may not be available; when the city is more than anything playing host to the swarms of tourists who make their way in. Can this seemingly minor timing issue be seen as definitive evidence of where Africa stands on the list of American priorities? Perhaps.
Not until the end of the 1980s did evidence of what Nigerian Professor of Political Science Ayo Olukotun described (in a 1992 paper for the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs) as “better and somewhat more sophisticated knowledge about Africa in official circles in the United States” begin to emerge.
The emergence of Bill Clinton as US president in 1992 was arguably a pivotal moment in the vista of Africa-America relations, which, for decades had revolved around aid and development as a tool for staving off the Soviet threat. American governments actively and wholeheartedly supported African dictators as long as they were deemed to be sufficiently unsympathetic to communism.
Clinton became president in a post-Soviet, “end of history” world, and was much admired by the African-American population, so that he was dubbed “the first black president” of the United States. When, in his second term Clinton paid state visits to Africa, in March 1998 (Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana and Senegal) and August 2000 (Nigeria and Tanzania), it heralded a new age of US presidential interest in Africa. He launched the landmark African Opportunities Growth Act (AGOA) trade regime, which provides an opportunity for African countries to export a select range of products to the US, duty-free. His successor George Bush – who spearheaded a raft of massive Africa-focused aid initiatives, ranging from education to HIV/AIDs – visited even more countries, on two trips in 2003 and 2008.
Before then, the last official visit by a US president to Africa was in March 1978 when Jimmy Carter spent 3 days in Nigeria, hosted by then Head of State General Olusegun Obasanjo. The Carter visit itself came thirty-five years after Franklin Roosevelt made history by becoming the first serving US president to visit Africa.
The China question
China is now firmly a major threat to US influence that, in the unipolar aftermath of the Cold War, was taken for granted in Africa. Running on a self-confidence that came from more than two decades of double-digit growth, China turned ambitiously towards Africa at the turn of the 21st century.
“What China so desperately needs, Africa has,” Dambisa Moyo wrote in her 2008 book, Dead Aid. The results of that engagement have been significant; in 2009 China overtook the US to become Africa’s biggest trade partner. This has alarmed the US, which sees in China’s rising influence in Africa a decline in its own.
On a trip to Senegal in August 2012, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted as declaring that her government was committed to “a model of sustainable partnership that adds value, rather than extracts it.” Those comments were widely reported in the media as a thinly veiled censure of China’s aggressive Africa policy, unashamedly focused on raw materials and commodities, for which it flooded the continent with new bridges and stadiums and railway lines.
Today, however, things appear to have cooled considerably. Writing in May in the New York Times, journalist Howard French, author of the new book, China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa noted that “China’s relationship with the continent is entering a new and much more sceptical phase” – the inevitable consequence of years of unbridled infrastructure investments that have “left many countries saddled with heavy debts and other problems, from environmental conflict to labour strife.”