In the 13 years since China overtook the United States as Africa’s largest trade partner, the eerie silence of American engagement on the continent has been, well, deafening.
The Nigerian mogul Tony Elumelu observed this following a visit to Washington DC in the spring where he contemplated how China, Europe and Japan were all making enormous strides on the continent while the US was receding. “Where is America in all this?” he pondered in an op-ed for The Hill.
But Elumelu also walked away heartened by his US trip, noting that in his exchanges with American policy makers, “I found a genuine interest in reengaging Africa, in a manner that prioritizes mutual benefit and self-reliance.”
US-Africa Business Summit shows America is back
Elumelu is right. In a way, America is back in Africa. And if there was added indication of this resurgence, you should have attended the US-Africa Business Summit that took place in Marrakech, Morocco, from July 19 to 23. Conferences get a bad rap, often deservingly, for being all talk and no action. People show up, make grand declarations and commitments with no follow through.
But sometimes the showing up is just enough. And show up they did for the summit organised by the Corporate Council on Africa: 2,200 delegates from around the world, including the full weight of the American private sector – Big Oil, Big Tech, Big Pharma, all the bigs.
And with them a large contingency from the US government, including the trade-focused initiative Prosper Africa and the many US government agencies that have contributed to its nascent success.
That the event was hosted in Morocco, the only African country to enjoy a free trade agreement with the US, was no accident. American engagement in Morocco provides a template for supporting the whole of the continent in its self-sufficiency, whether it is to help African countries grow their own food, increase electricity access or build the critical infrastructure that will enable the success of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, the largest trade zone in the world.
Indeed, showing up means a lot when America’s absence on the continent has been felt so indelibly for years. It’s seven years since an American president made an official visit to Africa – when Barrack Obama addressed the African Union in Ethiopia in 2015.
Despite huge entreaties made to the continent, the Obama presidency witnessed a precipitous decline in US-Africa two-way trade, plummeting to under $50 billion following a record high of $142 billion when Obama was elected in 2008. By comparison, the Trump years amounted to malign negligence. Trade stagnated further, a State Department paralysed by budget cuts failed to fill essential diplomatic positions and US foreign direct investment in Africa plummeted.
The net result of a reductive “America First” policy was a detrimental decline in US influence on the continent that further blew open the door for Chinese interests. In 2021, Chinese trade with Africa reached an all-time high of $250bn.
Prosper Africa fosters trade
But there was a silver lining to the Trump presidency in Africa: the creation in 2019 of the Prosper Africa initiative that retooled the coordination of US government agencies to foster two-way trade and investment on the continent. President Biden inherited the program and has been right to keep it going. Since its inception, Prosper Africa has closed 800 transactions totaling $50bn in 45 countries. American policy on the continent that prioritizes mutual economic interests and shared prosperity represents a wind of change that is bound to reverse more than a decade in the doldrums.
President Biden seemed to understand this last week when he announced he would be hosting the US-Africa Leaders Summit in December, inviting all African heads of state to the White House for the first time in eight years. It was a welcome sign that America was at last making its presence felt again.
Guillaume Doane is the Consulting Director of 35°Nord, an African-focused strategic communications agency that is part of the group Avisa Partners.