Mike Pompeo on Saturday began his first trip to Africa as US Secretary of State with stop offs in Senegal, Angola and Ethiopia. Yet, while his focus on the continent has been welcomed by allies, it comes after more than three years of US diplomatic neglect of the increasingly important region, economically and politically.
Despite Africa’s prowess as a rising international power, President Donald Trump and his team have rightly been criticised for not having a coherent Africa policy. And this despite former White House national security adviser John Bolton’s assertion last year that Beijing and Moscow are already “interfering with US military operations and pose a significant threat to US national security interests” in the continent.
Take the example of key US ally Kenya, whose President Uhuru Kenyatta is one of the few Africa leaders to have been invited to the White House during Trump’s Presidency.
While the nation is an important US partner in the region, including in the campaign against terrorism, its external debt is largely (around 70 percent) now owed to Beijing, with many major infrastructure projects being built by Chinese firms.
So Washington now is urgently seeking to regain the initiative, launching talks this month on a bilateral trade deal.
Pompeo will use his trip to try to course-correct, including exploring ways to boost economic links with the continent through the US Africa Growth and Opportunity Act legislation.
There also appears to be modest momentum in Washington in the direction of developing a clearer Africa policy, including through a proposed new network of bilateral trade deals with countries in the continent.
While the Trump team has largely ignored Africa for the past three years, its allies and competitors have been significantly more proactive
Take the example of the EU, which stepped up its charm offensive last week at the 55- member African Union summit. President of the European Council Charles Michel alone had some two dozen bilateral meetings as part of Brussels’ attempts to reshape relations with the continent.
Michel’s visit follows European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s visit to the continent in December. Building on the so-called ‘pivot to Africa’ by her predecessor Jean Claude Juncker, which saw a new Africa-Europe Alliance created in 2018, she is promoting a relationship increasingly based on investment rather than aid, rivalling China’s focus on providing infrastructure capital.
Brussels increasingly sees itself as a counterweight in the continent to other prominent world powers and wants to encourage Africa as a champion of the EU’s rules-based, multilateral approach to world order. In the words of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, what is sought is “a new, integrated strategy for and with Africa” that sees “equal partnership” rather than the “power politics” claimed to be offered by Beijing and Washington.
Yet, it is neither the EU nor the US that is undertaking the most extensive diplomatic serenading of Africa. That accolade goes to China, which is aiming to better connect its huge Belt & Road economic initiative with the continent’s development.
Beijing’s leadership – the president, premier and foreign minister – are reported to have made a total of around 80 visits to over 40 different African countries over the past decade. As well as bespoke leadership trips to individual countries, Beijing also hosts annual China-Africa Summits.
The key reasons for this growing world power focus on Africa is its forward economic growth potential, and increasing strategic political importance. The IMF asserts for instance that in the period to 2023, Africa’s overall growth prospects will be among the best in the world with an increasing number of key, emerging markets.
With Africa rising, it not just China, the US and EU paying more attention. Vladimir Putin, for instance, hosted last year the first-ever Russia-Africa summit seeking to restore Moscow’s influence in the region that faded after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Other nations too, including India, the Gulf states, as well as Turkey and individual European nations such as France, Germany and the UK, are increasingly showering Africa with greater interest. Take the example of post-Brexit Britain, which in January held a UK-Africa Investment Summit. London increasingly wants to enhance economic ties with the continent as shown, for instance, by last September’s new economic partnership with the Southern African Customs Union.
However, it is not solely through the lens of economics that London views the relationship with the continent. Instead, UK policymakers also highlight the need for greater African security ties with the West to tackle instability. This includes the threat of Boko Haram and Al-Shabab militants which UK troops are playing a part in countering.
This exemplifies that, while the upsurge of attention to Africa largely reflects economic calculations, broader political considerations are also in play.
From Brexit to the great power game underway between Washington, Moscow, and Beijing, interest in the continent is only likely to grow into the decade, especially if it fulfils its significant economic potential.