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US-Africa: Forging relationships and clarifying strategies

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File picture: Reuters

By Dr Sizo Nkala

The second US-Africa Leaders’ Summit is set to take place from December 13 to 15 in Washington, DC, after an 8-year hiatus.

The first took place in 2014 convened by then US President Barack Obama.

The Summit will come four months after the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, unveiled the US Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa during his visit to Pretoria in August.

The purpose of the summit is to forge and nurture a strong partnership between the US and Africa who share wide-ranging geopolitical and economic interests including peace and security and socio-cultural development.

It will also be an opportunity for the US to provide concrete details on its Sub-Saharan African strategy which as it stands lacks concrete details.

The US-Africa relationship is a highly strategic one and potentially mutually beneficial. Africa is a continent on a growth path. The continent boasts a market of 1.3 billion people which is set to increase to 2 billion by 2050 characterised by a rapidly growing middle class which, according to the African Development Bank, stands at 313 million, almost a quarter of the population.

This offers US businesses a great opportunity to ramp up their investments and exports to take advantage of the enormous consumption appetite of Africa’s middle class.

More importantly, Africa is home to vital natural resources, especially minerals like cobalt, platinum and other rare earths that are critical for digital and green energy technologies.

South Africa alone boasts 80% of the world’s reserves of platinum group metals (PGMs) which are used to make catalytic converters, dentistry and laboratory equipment and electronics among other things.

Washington’s route to becoming a technological superpower will inevitably go through Africa, hence the need for cultivating cordial relations.

On the other hand, the US could play an important role in accelerating Africa’s economic development through investment in climate-resilient infrastructure.

Africa faces a huge infrastructure funding gap of over US $100 billion which has severely handicapped the continent’s efforts at economic transformation and poverty alleviation.

US President Joe Biden has already announced that his country will mobilise up to $200 billion for infrastructure investment under the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII).

Picture: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst – US President Joe Biden

As such, the US is a strategic partner in Africa’s quest for infrastructure development. These are some the issues that will certainly be on the agenda of the Summit.

While Africa and the US enjoy a strong relationship, it has, however, been on the decline in some areas in the last few decades.

For example, since 2008 trade between the two sides has shrunk by more than 50% from $141 billion to only $64.3 billion in 2021. This despite the operationalisation of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) which grants preferential treatment to thousands of products entering the US market from more than 40 African countries.

The preferential trade arrangement has been in operation since 2000. However, the US is by far the largest source of foreign direct investment in Africa. Out of a total of $83 billion of FDI that came to Africa in 2021, $44 billion (about 53%) came from the US.

Between 2014 and 2018 US FDI in Africa created over 60 000 jobs in 463 projects, thus contributing towards poverty reduction. African leaders will therefore be inclined to encourage Biden to facilitate more American investment in the continent during the upcoming summit.

As on the trade front, the diplomatic front of the US-Africa relationship has suffered setbacks recently, giving the impression that Africa is not high up the list of Washington’s foreign policy priorities.

It has been widely reported that a significant number of US embassies in countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are facing a chronic shortage of staff with up to half of the posts left vacant.

Without adequate diplomatic presence on the ground, it will be difficult for Africa and the US to rekindle their relationship.

Further, the summit comes at a time when the world is facing geopolitical uncertainty on a global scale viz the Russia-Ukraine war, the slow pace of climate change negotiations and the tensions between the US and China.

These issues have already been touched on in the US Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa and will be up for discussion at the summit.

The US will seek to mobilise the anti-Russia and anti-China sentiments in Africa, a continent which holds a significant voting bloc in organisations like the UN. African countries have commendably demonstrated a high degree of independence and autonomy in their approaches to the Russian and Chinese questions.

Hence, it is important that African leaders resist attempts to be used as pawns by the US in its geopolitical battles against other major powers.

On climate change, African leaders should try and extract firm commitments from the US especially with regards to climate finance which will be crucial in adapting to and mitigating the damage caused by changes in climate.

The upcoming summit is an opportunity for both parties to set their relationship on a mutually beneficial path. It is up to the leaders to seize the opportunity or let it go to waste.

Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies.