US-Africa: ‘We want to be a critical partner going forward’ – Banks, Devermont

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: US – Africa: Evolving relations

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Tuesday, 4 October 2022 16:26, updated on Monday, 10 October 2022 17:22

Judd Devermont (L), Senior director for African Affairs, National Security Council, and Dana Banks (R), Special Advisor for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, National Security Council

Fresh from the release of the new US strategy for sub-Saharan Africa, and mere months away from the December US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, the top two Africa officials at the White House are in the spotlight. An interview with Dana Banks, the special adviser for the US-Africa Leaders Summit at the National Security Council (NSC), and her successor as NSC senior director for African affairs, Judd Devermont.

President Joe Biden and vice-president Kamala Harris have promised a “partnership of equals” with the continent. Now the pressure is on Banks and Devermont to translate the lofty rhetoric into concrete action.

“What the Biden-Harris administration understands is that the continent has changed dramatically over the past 30 years, and the world has changed,” says Devermont, who is also the chief architect of the new strategy. “And so we’re trying to bank the benefits and the goodwill of the past 30 years, but also position ourselves to be a critical partner going forward.”

“We’ve started off this process with a lot of consultations [with] key stakeholders on the continent, through our embassies […] as well as the African diplomatic corps here, civil society, members of the diaspora, the youth, the private sector,” Banks says.

The main takeaway? “We’ve heard they do not want a paternalistic type of engagement.” Much of the focus at the summit will be on boosting trade and investment. The three-day event is also expected to feature new initiatives in health, food security, infrastructure and climate mitigation, Banks says, to “help our African partners build their economies back [from Covid] and give jobs to their people that will address the youth bulge.”

More than just talk

Asked whether the administration would put taxpayer money where its mouth is, Banks responded with an adamant “Yes”. “Obviously, we’re not going to put out programmes […] without providing adequate funding for them,” she says. Washington wants to “make sure that our African partners will be able to say: ‘The [US] President has heard us, and we are able to walk away with something that’s responsive to our publics and meets the need in our countries.’”

Keeping African partners happy is only half of the equation. The Biden administration is also intent on pressing for human rights and democracy on the continent after those hallmarks of US foreign policy fell by the wayside during the Donald Trump administration. Devermont’s strategy notes with concern that only eight countries on the continent were rated as ‘free’ by Freedom House this year – the worst showing since 1991.

Yet, only governments that do not have diplomatic relations with the US (Eritrea, Western Sahara) or which have been suspended by the African Union (Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Sudan) are not invited.

“There are countries across the continent who are challenged on the democracy and governance side,” Banks acknowledges. “But it’s important to have those conversations, right? […] That is the mature engagement that we are seeking with our African partners.”

Chinese whispers

China is another balancing act for US policy. The Biden administration has repeatedly insisted that it would not force Africans to choose between Washington and Beijing. Yet, the new strategy explicitly accuses China of using Africa as an “important arena to challenge the rules-based international order” and weaken US influence. And when reports emerged in early 2022 that China could be eyeing a naval base on the Atlantic Coast, the administration dispatched top diplomats to Equatorial Guinea.

When asked to identify the US red lines when it comes to Chinese military influence on the continent, Devermont declined. “What I’ll say here,” he tells The Africa Report, “is that we’re working with our African partners and asking them what are their expectations for their relationships with us, and with our competitors. We’re asking them to define and work with us on what are the standards of accountability and transparency that are important to all of us. And to make sure that what we do, separately and together, doesn’t impact or undercut our national interests or their sovereignty.”

He continues: “The strategy is not about China and Russia. It notes the strategic context of this moment, but it’s really about what we will do and want to do with our partners, and how we see African countries and the public and leaders playing a role on the world stage.”

One key arena in the competition with China is, of course, trade, where the US has been lagging behind Beijing since 2009. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) has been a key policy of US economic engagement with sub-Saharan Africa for the past two decades. But, with the programme up for review in 2025, debate is brewing over whether granting Africa duty-free access to the US market still makes sense.

Devermont disagrees with critics who argue that the unilateral benefit basically amounts to an aid programme in disguise. AGOA “has made a substantial impact, particularly in its early years, in terms of growing our trade relationship and growing industries on the continent,” he says. Still, he acknowledges that AGOA is under scrutiny as the US and Africa rethink “what makes sense to drive and deepen our trading relationships, now and in the future”.

The summit is also expected to solidify US support for the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). “That is also an area where we are taking the AU’s lead and working with them,” Banks says. “We do anticipate that there will be a deliverable for the summit that really […] shows our interest in wanting to fully support the AfCFTA.

Capacity building

Security is another area where the administration is trying different approaches. With the Sahel emerging as the world’s new terrorism hotspot, the US, along with other Western powers, has been shifting the focus toward nation-building in an area where poor governance is seen as a root cause of insecurity. At the same time, President Biden has sent several hundred US troops back to Somalia amid a resurgent Islamist insurgency.

Banks and Devermont insist the two approaches are not all that different. “Our strategy for Somalia in terms of repositioning troops is a decision that was made to build partner capacity, to enable [Somali security forces] to address the threat from Al-Shabaab,” Banks says. “So I wouldn’’t frame it necessarily as a decision that was made in order to defeat Al-Shabaab. It’s really about building partner capacity.”

Whether it is on trade, climate change or rebuilding economies set back by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Biden team’s goal is to work with Africans to define the rules of the road. “In today’s world, and as we look toward the future, the most important challenges that we face, if we are going to be successful in tackling them, then it has to be done in partnership with Africans,” Devermont says.

“It has to have African ownership and agency, African leadership.” The ability to deliver on that promise will determine whether the summit – and Biden’s Africa policy – are a success.

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