Please welcome the newest member of the M & OC Team. Irina Tsukerman President of Scarab Rising Inc. and Editor in Chief of the Washington Outsider. www.washingtonoutsider.com
Why the Reactionary US Policy in Africa is a Mistake
By Irina Tsukerman
The December 2022 African Leaders Summit in Washington, which brought together leaders and senior officials from 49 African states, and CEOs and leaders of over 300 private American and African companies to discuss US-Africa relations and to catalyze investment into critical sectors was supposed to be a turning point for the US policy in the continent. Indeed, consequent statements from the White House indicated a shift away from the traditional security-oriented approach to the 54 African states, and a refocus on a more cooperative approach, as well as a comprehensive policy on anti-corruption measures, democracy building, strengthening of the civil society, and economic development. Indeed, the Biden administration, unveiling a new policy, promised engagement with the various African state, rather than a limited focus on a few select partnerships, and seemed interested in diplomatic, political, and investment-based focus on a range of topics from peacebuilding to health to education. Indeed, on the surface, some of the dynamic leading up to these promised changes appeared to be positive. The appointment of the Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa showed apparent interest in mediating prolonged conflicts, playing a role in addressing or preventing refugee crises, and otherwise delving into the strategic issues proliferating in the region. President Biden announced an Africa tour scheduled for later in 2023.
Secretary Blinked visited multiple African countries in the first two years of the administration on separate tours; the US Ambassador to the United Nations has an Africa background in the State Department in her portfolio. These could all be interpreted as important political signals of the US administration’s growing understanding of Africa’s importance. Unfortunately, substantively, the US policies on Africa reflect the biases and ideological tropes which have already undermined the administration’s policies in other regions. Moreover, the blunt way in which the administration is addressing its China and Russia concerns means not a real redirection towards a more holistic policy engagement but rather a redirection of past narrow security-based focus on counterterrorism to a new problem. For instance, his visit to Rwanda and DRC came following a prolonged lobbying campaign by the DRC concerning M23 rebels which DRC wished to see designated as terrorists. Predictably, the campaign relied on human rights NGOs and a UN report which blamed Rwanda for supporting the M23.
The State Department’s approach is to give legitimacy to such reports and to take them at face value; arguably the complex reality of sectarian conflicts in Africa calls for a thorough understanding, extensive engagement, and nuanced diplomacy. Nevertheless, upon visiting Rwanda, Secretary Blinken expressed “concern” about “credible” reports of Rwanda’s support for M23 while showing far less concern for DRC’s role in the conflict. In other words, the State Department once again showed the tendency to side with whichever party lobbied most and with the unverified reporting of the same groups and parties whose questionable reporting has caused outcry of criticism and extensive damage in various other conflicts around the globe.
Previously, for instance, the State Department expressed the concern about the fate of Omar Radi, a journalist in Morocco convicted of sexual assault. This concern was generated by a group of NGOs, who were headed by individuals with conflicts of interests on Morocco. There was no independent inquiry into alleged judiciary violations before these State Department comments were made. Meanwhile, with respect to press-related violations by the neighboring junta-led Algeria, there were no such specific concerns about any individuals, and certainly no repeated comments on the same issue on multiple
occasions. Such an approach will alienate half of Africa for no reason. Even if there is credibility in criticisms of a particular side in a conflict or an issue, appearance of outright bias, lack of independent due diligence, and poor grasp of institutional functions in the countries in question damages rather than enhances US engagement with the governments of these states. That is particularly unhelpful when the countries are West-oriented allies. That is not to say that no ally should ever be criticized; but the perception of bias and poor understanding does no favors to US image and apparent motivations. Additionally, like many Western states, US has a tendency to put more pressure on the more pro-Western, more law-abiding countries because the other side is less likely to comply or compromise. That is precisely the attitude that appears to greenlight bad behavior by other actors and that alienates allies and drives them into the arms of competing power players. We have seen that backfire in many parts of the world – the Obama and Biden Middle East policy, pressure on traditional allies, and outright appeasement of Iran, and revolutionary groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood is driving Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and even Israel closer to China, and even to Russia.
What African leaders and populations consider patronizing attitude from the US diplomatic circles undermines the Biden Administration’s other goal in Africa which is to counter Russian and Chinese influence. Russia’s extensive use of anti-colonialist sentiments and old Soviet connections and cultural ties that have lasted for generations bolsters its anti-Western propaganda efforts. Since the invasion of Crimea in 2014, Russian PMCs, including most famously Wagner, have deployed to at least 19 African nations, though at times unsuccessfully. For instance, the Wagner fighters were kicked out from Mozambique, where they had their eyes on the vast energy reserves, by jihadist groups. Russia’s dedicated effort to rebuild its presence in Africa relies on thorough cultural understanding of the local climate and feeds off mistakes made by France, and now, by the US. African countries do not wish to be lectured or be seen as bowing to Western pressure. Despite the seeming clarity of these goals, the approach, overall is haphazard, which does not help. The central theme of the African Leaders summit appeared t to be countering China; however, US has taken few clear steps to counter Chinese interest either as a matter of a military build up or in terms of securing US interests in rare earth minerals, which China monopolizes and exploits.
Actions speak louder than words; the actual priority for the Biden administration in Africa appears to be climate change. Just one example of that is the $500 million pledged for “climate change reparations” in Egypt at the COP27 conference, with little else by way of oversight or measurable outcomes. Environmental initiatives can be directed meaningfully towards specific results. The former President of Malawi Dr. Joyce Banda, in her interview to The Washington Outsider Report on the Coalition Radio pointed towards agricultural initiatives planned jointly with several international partners invested into the future of Africa. However, those international partnerships are spearheaded with NGOs; the US government has not provided a transparent breakdown for its donations.
China, by contrast, has built up physical infrastructure through Africa, which is seen as a tangible result. There is an opening to counter Beijing’s problematic “debt trap diplomacy” and the growing choir of popular and government driven push back against what is seen as a new form of racist economic colonialism by the CCP. However, the State Department seems to lack the infrastructure for a consistent partner-based approach. Many top Ambassadorial positions are unfilled, and there is no strategy towards implementing the new foreign policy, nor staff designated towards that goal. For instance, the US only just now confirmed the new Ambassador to Tunisia, in the third year of the Biden administration’s tenure. Furthermore, delaying engagement comes with an opportunity cost: China, learning from the backlash, is shifting its foreign economic and development model to a partially investment based financial model, more convergent with the Western approach.
Similarly, US must take care that its drive to eliminate Russia’s presence does not alienate African countries instead. Most recently, the CIA director visited Libya, in part with the goal of getting the Wagner mercenaries out of the Eastern part of the country, where they provide security support to Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s LNA. However, without a substitute force, whether some international mercenary outfit or a formal military presence, such an eviction is impracticable from LNA’s point of view because the pro-Turkish militias in the West would take advantage of the vacuum of power to pounce and restart a conflict. SImilarly, the US focus on driving Russian mercenaries from Sudan is wishful thinking at best. While Sudan has been looking to formalize existing partnerships, such as finally completing the normalization process with Israel, and strengthening the transitional government transfer to civilian power, all of that is contingent on stability and securitization.
Given the ongoing political shifts and power struggles and a shortage of international support, the near future in Sudan remains a big question mark. Sudan’s normalization with Israel was originally contingent on the lifting of Al-Bashir era sanctions by the US and international investment support. Sudan is now urging the UN to lift the international arms sanctions in light of settled disputes and signed peace treaties among various sanctions, but there is concern about the potential break out of sectarian violence and the government crackdowns against civilian protesters. By focusing too narrowly on immediate goals, US undermines its own influence in the wider context. The reactionary and belated focus on competing powers is perceived as opportunistic and unhelpful to the states. Furthermore, other problems remain unaddressed. The US policy previously focused on containing terrorist groups, but jihadism as well as sectarian violence are spreading throughout the continent, both in the East and in the West. Somalia and other Eastern states are celebrating the potential demise of Al Shabaab, but Boko Haram remains a risk, and various ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates are proliferating. Moreover, Hezbullah is making a comeback in full force.
US policy in Somalia in recent years has focused on drone strikes. The larger political context has faded into the background. Counterterrorism focused approach in the Sahel has failed spectacularly with France being driven out of a number of countries, and even losing diplomatic presence. US should learn from its mistakes. France failed to combat the spread of extremist ideologies, the government corruption, the failing law enforcement institutions, the human rights abuses against the locals, the sectarian strife, the interference by foreign actors, and the lack of economic opportunities. Thus the Sahel states became rife recruiting ground for competing Islamist factions; Wagner was able to come back and displace France through sheer aggression.
Rather than changing the strategy, however, Wagner continues to prop up corrupt cronies in power, while exploiting resources, smuggling gold and other precious commodities, and engaging in human rights abuses. While the Somalia government currently is not overtly pro-Jihadist, it is still tied to Islamist elements, which means the ideology that helps various levels of Islamist fundamentalists become operative is not abated by the elimination of fighters. If anything else, without a meaningful information warfare strategy, these joint Somalia-US operations will only spur new recruitment drives and increased political radicalization as well.
US has much more to offer, but not if it keeps repeating the same failed approaches. Merely refocusing from fighting terrorists to fighting Russia and China still does not the solve the problem of terrorists and extremists, and moreover is spun by Russia and China as Western imperialist attacks on national sovereignty in African states. US would do well to heed the advice of African elders like former President of Abdou Soule Elbak of Grande Comore (Comore Islands), who advocates fighting political corruption, promoting democracy, investing into building up civil society, and assisting impoverished youth with educational opportunities, or Dr. Joyce Banda, who drew attention to the detrimental impact of the COVID pandemic on the state of young women in many African countries, the rise in domestic abuse, child marriages, high drop out rate from schools, and resurgence of the FGM practices.
These are all practical ways in which the US can get involved, build up meaningful relationships, show good will, and invest into African societies while simultaneously countering presence and toxic influence by Russian troll factories and Chinese discriminatory and racist exploitation. An active, engaged, and goal-oriented US foreign policy in Africa means consistency, partnerships, and strategy linked to measurable and mutually beneficial deliverables clearly linked to the interests and needs of local societies. Merely reacting to moves by Russia and China will inevitably keep US firmly behind, and furthermore, will be perceived as self-serving and exploitative.