NewsEast & Horn AfricaFor a new approach in US-Africa relations


Posted on Monday, 26 May 2014 17:53

For a new approach in US-Africa relations

By Angelle Kwemo

US President, Barack Obama's policies have the potential to be innovative and serve as a game changer as he repositions the traditional role ascribed to Africa. Photo©ReutersUS President Barack Obama is fully engaged in building his legacy, as he enters the final two years of his second term in office. And as his recent speeches indicate all 10 of his fingers are busy at work, with one pointing directly at the African continent.

In January, the White House announced that an African heads of state summit would take place in August in Washington DC. This long overdue summit is a first in America-Africa trade relations and has the potential to mark the beginning of new US-Africa economic relations based on mutual respect.

Africa is ready for her entrance in the big league and the US summit should not just be held to rival the Chinese or French

Minus the weight of corruption, insecurity and governance issues, Africa has the attributes of a marketplace, where choice fosters competition and ensures the respect of the continent's interests. Now is the time for America to seize the opportunity and make history by ushering the grande dame on to the dance floor. And President Obama's administration has just the right ticket to make that happen.

US-Africa relations

President Bill Clinton is remembered as a "Black" president. His support of the African-American community and historical 1998 visit to Africa, after years of being ignored by the US presidency, helped bring the resource-rich continent back into the limelight. Clinton is also credited for the signing of the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), which established a new trade relationship with Africa.

Clinton's successor, President George Bush, on the other hand, is remembered for PEPFAR, a commitment to donate $15 billion to fight the global HIV pandemic, combined with initiatives to combat malaria. Despite their life saving potential, these policies fell within the lines of traditional aid. The interplay between the US and Africa during that time was best enshrined in the African proverb: "The hand that gives is always on top of the hand that receives".

Today, shaking hands as equals is of the essence as Africans, weary of the derogatory aid stance, want to be treated as global partners and accorded the right to build their own infrastructure. Africans want to respond to the needs of their own people and afford them a future devoid of aid dependence. This is President Obama's focus, a win-win, mutually beneficial partnership that also reduces security threats.

Africa's expectations of Obama, born to a Kenyan father, have been unreasonably high. Nonetheless, his policies have the potential to be innovative and serve as a game changer as he repositions the traditional role ascribed to Africa.


Starting in America, President Obama has expressed support to the 3.5 million members of the African diaspora, a community that has grown more visible and is better organised than before his investiture. While playing a pivotal role in Africa's development with over $50 billion in annual remittances, the African diaspora had, until now, remained politically opaque in their host country.

To date, the US State Department has held two Global Diaspora summits: the African women Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP) and the Young African Leader Initiative launched in 2010. These programmes aim to support potential young African leaders, to address gender inequality, spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance and enhance peace and security across the continent.

In 2012, the Obama administration created the US-Africa coordinator position within his cabinet and also launched the Doing Business in Africa campaign to address the commerce department's past neglect of the continent while committing to build a business relationship with Africa. Leading a trade delegation of 20 American energy firms to Nigeria and Ghana last week, the US Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker reiterated the Obama's administration commitment to enhance economic ties with Africa with a tone of "Africa-realism" that highlights the significant improvement still needed to be made to reduce corruption and improve the investment climate. But the question of whether these initiatives are enough remain.

Remedying the energy poverty challenge

Africa and its people are on the rise, ready for serious business in the form of opportunities and not handouts.

Calls for infrastructure investment made by African trade ministers following the signing of AGOA under President Clinton were finally answered in 2013. The launching of the Power Africa Initiative, which aims to bring 600 million African out the dark, serves as a prerequisite to advancing African industries and economies.

The Power Africa Initiative, introduced by the Obama administration, has generated massive interest in US's private sector and many power initiatives have since been undertaken. According to former Overseas Private Investment Corporation's (OPIC) vice president, Mimi Alemayeou, the office already has a pipeline of projects which if committed will surpass the $1.5 billion initially pledged.

It is the first time the African private sector has been called upon through the workings of local content laws in Nigeria. It has also allowed such companies as Heirs Holding, to partner with big American multinationals and USAID in this colossal endeavour.

Integrating local players is the best way to eradicate poverty and boost democracy. Political freedom depends on upward economic evolution.

The US-Africa Summit

African summits have historically been held in France. As one of the major former bilateral aid donors in sub-Saharan Africa, France's voice has resonated heavily, particularly in its former colonies. This has resulted in substantial development contracts for French companies.

However, according to Marc Jezegabel of Forbes, "French speaking countries are lagging behind their counterparts in terms of its ability to attract investors."

The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, established in December 2000, continues to be held every three years alternating between Africa and China. While it is undeniable that China's entrance into the African market has lessened France's hold on its former colonies, the question of whether US's involvement would further push France out remains.

But the fact that France-Africa summits, including a recent gathering – hosted by President François Hollande – in Paris to address the threat posed by extremist group Boko Haram to both Nigeria and Africa, continue being held in France signals that President Obama's Leaders' Summit will not affect this "pré-carré" despite growing calls by Africans for stronger trade ties with the US.

Nonetheless, the US still needs to contend with Europe and emerging economies, including India and Turkey. The rise of oil producing countries around the Gulf of Guinea, emerging oil and gas producers in East Africa, massive discovery of natural resources, a growing middle class with sophisticated consumer demands, and the increase of positive south-south relations have all altered the traditional regional landscape.

Africa is ready for her entrance in the big league and the US summit should not just be held to rival the Chinese or French, it should rather be a loud proclamation of the strategic and economic importance the continent holds. The US Congress has understood this position and adopted a resolution to that effect since 2010. Legislation allowing American firms to invest and compete in the African markets are now being considered to allow more investment flow to the continent, and make good on the promise to help spread electricity to all of Africa.

Security and job creation

Ensuring security and political stability will be an important point of discussion. The Gulf of Guinea, a region of great economic potential and strategic significance to the US is faced with security challenges. Poverty and inequality in Africa have created a fertile ground for terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, which now mock the entire world – undermining global values, freedom and human rights.

One thing the US should not ignore is the diversity and complexity of the African marketplace; one policy cannot fit all. Politically and economically speaking, African countries are at different stages of democratisation, some more mindful of their constituents than others. Some have a budding middle class.

Their common denominator, however, is trade investment and job creation. Experts predict that Africa will create 54 million new jobs by 2020 and 122 million Africans will be entering the labour market during that same period. Traditional aid cannot address the shortfall. Only investment in infrastructure and manufacturing can handle such an influx of new workers.

In the meantime, Afri-capitalism champion Tony Elumelu calls for a Marshall Plan for Africa. Other young leaders like Mamadou Toure of Africa 2.0 or internationally renowned designer, Oswald Boateng of Made in Africa Foundation, to name a few, are also campaigning for a "For Africa By Africa" and a "Made in Africa" approach, respectively, to stimulate the continent's economies and create sustainable jobs.

Angelle B. Kwemo is a trade expert and former congressional staff member, United States Congress. She is MD and CEO of Rimsom Strategies, Ltd and Founder and Chair of Believe in Africa.

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