Ignoring the voices of more than a billion people compromises America’s greatest foreign policy challenge: China.
JOHANNESBURG – Dear Mr. President-elect: Africa is watching in amazement as America faces what many perceive to be an existential crisis. Never before has the world’s most powerful country been so divided. From continued social injustice and the storming of streets across the country in protest, to lockdowns and mass unemployment caused by the coronavirus pandemic, to present-day controversies over vote-counting, the only thing that is seemingly certain in the United States is uncertainty.
There is also reason for great optimism, in view of how Americans joined together to respond to injustice, how they turned out to vote in record numbers despite the pandemic. These democratic and aspirational trends represent what we Africans see as the best of America. These are the things that we are striving to emulate.
In my view, brighter days are ahead for the United States, but only if leaders can capitalize on the country’s strengths and refocus its policies to take advantage of its position as the internationally admired leader of the free world.
When the dust of the presidential election inevitably settles, the world will be waiting for America to resume its stewardship role and perhaps have a serious rethink of its foreign policy priorities. The throes of 2020 have no doubt further inflamed isolationist currents. This is understandable, and it may take time for the tense scenario we witness between Republicans and Democrats to dissipate before the next great chapter of American diplomacy begins.
However, it is critically important for President-elect Joe Biden to note that while the United States has not been paying much attention to us, we Africans have been paying serious attention to you.
It’s not too late to heed the call of the voices of more than a billion Africans, representing one of the world’s largest sources of human capital, and create lasting partnerships to our mutual benefit. Failure to do so, to continue the mistake of omission in U.S. foreign policy priority, will force us to continue to side with nations such as China, which have capitalized on our unbridled market opportunities, playing a role in our geo-commercial ascendance and helping to make us your next global competitors.
Early in his administration, President Donald Trump seemed to recognize this and made major changes to U.S. policy toward Africa. While his signature “America First” approach was inherently skeptical of foreign engagements, in 2018, the Trump administration created a new development finance institution, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, with $60 billion to support U.S. companies in Africa and around the world. This was quite significant, as it represented a doubling of the budget of the former Overseas Private Investment Corporation development agency. However, this pales in comparison with Chinese investments on the continent.
Trump’s “Prosper Africa” Initiative also showed promise when it was first announced to promote international trade and commercial ties to the benefit of both the United States and Africa. This would mark the first in effort decades of robust African-oriented investment programs undertaken within an American president’s first term of office.
However, it quickly became clear that the program’s true intentions were primarily fixated on counterbalancing the inroads of China – another attempt to limit China from becoming a rival superpower. This lack of genuine interest by the United States to play a meaningful role in the development of the continent as an industrial player and a true partner is one of the key issues that needs to be addressed.
This aside, programs such as Prosper Africa and similar programs enacted by previous administrations should be encouraged, so long as they do not impose straitjackets on the policies and agendas of participating countries. Africa welcomes our friends and partners in the United States with open arms; we would encourage engagement with both the U.S. government as well as the American private sectors to collaborate openly in effective investment opportunities on the continent and engage with us in constructive, two-way dialogue. But please be warned: Africans will not accept the demand for an all-or-nothing choice.
Under current circumstances, America leaves us little alternative but to continue to look to China for partnership opportunities to the benefit of what is today our continent’s rapid development. We know taking this road goes against our political and economic self-interest, in certain cases our very economic sovereignty, and ultimately, our aspirations for rising independently and sustainably. But neither does Africa want to be coerced into joining in with another great power’s crusade for its own political interest.
Africa, one of the final frontiers of the fourth industrial revolution and today one of the fastest urbanizing regions of the world, presents tremendous opportunities for international investment. The top three countries for real gross domestic product growth in 2019 were all African countries. Rwanda, which grew at 10.1%, has been described as the “Singapore of Africa.” Also in the top 20 for GDP growth and ahead of China include the African countries of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Ivory Coast, Benin, Tanzania and Ghana.
Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ethiopia and the Congo lead the way on rate of change in urbanization. The number of tech hubs in Africa has grown by 50% from 2018 to 2019, and four African countries each host more than 50.
These fast-developing African tech and industrial centers were among the 14 countries surveyed by my foundation for its inaugural African Youth Survey. The findings indicate that African men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 are actively looking toward the future and taking initiatives to make sure they can be the leaders of tomorrow – not only within their communities and countries, but on a global stage.
Africans are extremely entrepreneurial and intensely interested in leveraging technology, with 81% believing the fortunes of the African continent will be shaped by it. The vast majority of young Africans own cell phones and use them frequently, with 79% polled viewing access to Wi-Fi as a fundamental human right, necessary for people to go about their daily lives and engage in communication and commerce.
Critically relevant to American policymakers is the finding that 74% of African youth polled perceive that the U.S. regularly impacts modern-day African affairs, and 83% contend that influence is positive. This gives the U.S. a huge advantage in any heightened engagement with Africa. American companies and American goods are automatically perceived as high quality and are welcomed.
African youth share with Americans the ambition and drive of Silicon Valley, the admiration of Hollywood, the hustle of America’s industrial towns; American influence has rewired our centuries-old cultures to embrace individual achievement and success in the spirit of the American Dream.
Our survey paints a picture of a diverse continent, full of opportunity and striving future leaders in business, community, and national and global affairs. And yet, the dynamic attitudes of Africa’s youth, even their receptiveness to American engagement, investment, trading and partnerships are little discussed in the United States.
In contrast, during the past two years the United States has stepped up its efforts to call out China, holding it accountable for its questionable and sometimes abusive practices. From the trade war to talks of decoupling and sanctions issued in response to human rights violations, the U.S. is aiming to decrease its reliance on China and punish Beijing when it violates international norms. Capital flows between the U.S. and China are at their lowest level in nearly a decade.
All the while, China has been buying up rights to African resources at a breakneck pace. China accounts for close to 50% of exports in many mineral-rich African countries and as much as 95% of South Sudan’s exports. It is therefore easy to understand why African leaders would turn to China for support of their growth agendas.
In the past 15 years, China invested more than $300 billion in sub-Saharan Africa, and in the past two years it pledged $60 billion of investment. The Chinese are playing a much longer game.
It’s not all about purchasing resources for present consumption. Much of the resources China has taken control of are not being developed. China wants to keep these precious materials, which are prevalent in Africa and necessary for the next generation of advanced tech and green technology, out of the hands of the United States and Western powers. These resources are not for trading. The Chinese know that by controlling these resources it ultimately gives them control of whole industries. This is dangerous not only to the U.S. economy but to the rest of the world’s economies. The next U.S. president must confront this challenge as a short-term imperative.
Africa is a sleeping lion, not unlike China in that (to quote Napoleon) when awoken, she will truly shake the world. It is ignored in U.S. public policy discussions, underestimated on the world stage, perhaps. But in my view, Africa is rising, whether the West realizes it or not. The United States has an interest in helping Africa and the capacity to do so. A strong, self-sufficient Africa will be able to stand on its own and resist the pressures of China’s debt diplomacy.
African countries could be partners in American economic growth and initiatives where they share common interests. Or, if ignored or undermined, Africa could become America’s next great geo-commercial competitor – America’s next China.
Decisions taken in Washington have a profound impact on Africa. America has an opportunity that only comes around once in a while to shift policy and change the shape of the world in its favor.
If you, Mr. President, do not take advantage of the opportunity that we Africans are presenting to you on a plate, it will pass you by.