Assisting Africa’s Security and Development Needs Does Not Have to Be a Football Match

Just over a year ago, at the US-Africa leaders' summit in Washington in December 2022, President Joe Biden made a public commitment to pay a visit to the Cradle of Humankind.

Just over a year ago, at the US-Africa leaders’ summit in Washington in December 2022, President Joe Biden made a public commitment to pay a visit to the Cradle of Humankind. However, he is unlikely to keep his promise, at least not before the US presidential elections in November. Still, Africa already had a lot of the US’ attention: a long chain of top-level US officials showed up here over 2023, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and first lady Jill Biden.

Finally, earlier this week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken kicked off a tour across West Africa visiting four countries—Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Angola. This was not Blinken’s first appearance in this corner of the world. Since 2021, he had already made three trips to Sub-Saharan Africa. Nonetheless, in the last ten months, there was a notable pause in his African journeys. Arguably, this was due to the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict that consumed most of his time and energy.

One explanation for the elevated attention Africa has received from the US lies in global geopolitics. The US should be seriously concerned about the eroding Western influence in many places in Africa. It is sufficient to mention that since 2020, there have been eight regime changes in the continent, with many African countries shifting away from their former Western partners to China and to Russia. These days, Beijing funds most of the large-scale African infrastructure development projects, and Moscow is getting more and more involved in providing security for a growing number of African countries. Not surprisingly, most of these countries prefer not to join the Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia led by the US and EU or to take the American side in the US-China economic standoff.

For a long time, the US geopolitical engagement in Africa was relatively modest—at least, compared to Europe, East Asia or the Middle East. Traditionally Washington relied on its European allies to keep a close eye on potentially worrisome African developments and to contain them appropriately. It now seems that European allies fell short of US expectations. France might be the most graphic example—it rapidly lost its former hegemony in former French colonies. The United Kingdom, which is still struggling with Brexit’s repercussions and explicitly tilting toward the Asia-Pacific, is experiencing a less dramatic, but still visible shrinking of its former impressive African portfolio.  

In sum, it might be the right time for Uncle Sam to enter the African scene in a more prominent way than it has done earlier. True, the US military presence in Africa has already been expanding in recent years, especially with the establishment of the Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007 as the defense department’s regional combatant command for Africa. 

Still, many critics argue that this presence so far has done little to contribute to security on the continent or to promote specific US interests here.

The big question, however, is simple: except for speaking softly and carrying a big stick, what exactly can Uncle Sam offer its African counterparts and potential partners? US trade with Africa has been at best stagnating for at least the past twenty years and it now makes less than 2 percent of the total US foreign trade. The overall value of US exports to the continent fell from $32.9 billion in 2011 to $26.7 billion in 2021, while imports declined from $93 billion in 2011 to $37.6 billion in 2021. It is about a quarter of China’s overall trade with Africa. Furthermore, US trade with Africa is far less diverse than China’s trade – both in terms of its geography and its structure.

US foreign direct investments (FDI) to Africa demonstrate a similar underperformance. China surpassed the US in overall FDI to African countries back in 2013 and since then, the gap between the two has been steadily widening. It is somewhat symbolic that Antony Blinken who was invited to Cote d’Ivoire to attend a knockout game at the African Cup of Nations between the Ivorian hosts and Equatorial Guinea, was enjoying the football match from a 60,000-seat stadium built with support from China, whose foreign minister, Wang Yi, visited Cote d’Ivoire just a few days prior to Blinken’s visit.

Nobody could expect the US to outclass China or Russia in every single African country in every single area. Nobody should look at the US international leadership as a hostage to Washington’s ability or inability to restore its benevolent or malevolent hegemony in Africa. International competition for projects, contracts and influence is not something entirely wrong, but assisting the continent’s security and development needs does not have to be a football match. The reality is that Africa is big enough to accommodate everybody—its needs are incredibly huge and its prospects are truly breathtaking. 

In years to come, the continent will present both some of the most dangerous challenges and many of the most spectacular opportunities for those willing to engage with Africa. To the extent possible, one should try to exempt Africa from the ongoing geopolitical competition between overseas great powers. The Cradle of Humankind should rather become a global lab for innovative models of multilateral cooperation, which will ultimately benefit us all. 

From our partner RIAC

Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council.