US midterm elections: What’s at stake for Africa?

By Julian Pecquet

Posted on Friday, 4 November 2022 11:16
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on "student debt relief" during a campaign stop at Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) Student Resource Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S., November 3, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - RC2IEX91O87V

US President Joe Biden’s party is widely predicted to lose control of Congress in the 8 November mid-term elections as Republicans look to seize control of the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate. What effect will that have on US-Africa relations?

Even though no one expects a sea of change in America’s historically bipartisan approach to Africa, an empowered Republican Party (GOP) would mean increased scrutiny of the Biden administration’s policies toward the continent.

Over the past two years, Republican leaders in both chambers have repeatedly called out the administration on a number of fronts, including its aversion to fossil fuels, its reluctance to sanction undemocratic African leaders and its struggle to fully staff a State Department Africa bureau that has long gotten second billing in Washington.

“It is essential that the United States directly engages with the African continent as a whole, particularly as we recognise its important role in global issues and our shared future,” Idaho Senator James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tells The Africa Report. “The administration must make significant shifts in investment, personnel, and political attention in order to address the many different political, security, and development issues facing each country.”

Personnel is policy

Risch previously served two years as chairman of the committee when Republicans were last in control in 2019-2020 and served another two years as the top opposition leader from 2021. That leaves him as the shoo-in to replace Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey as chairman for the next two years under the GOP’s six-year term limits for committee leadership.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota serves as the top Republican on the committee’s Africa panel. Even though he may become chairman of the panel, a GOP win could add new members to the committee and lead to a shake-up of subcommittee assignments.

I don’t think Africa policy, overall, will be that different.

On the House side, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas is slated to replace Democrat Gregory Meeks of New York as chairman for the next two years if the GOP takes the lower chamber. The Africa subcommittee will see changes whatever happens, as Democratic Chairwoman Karen Bass of California is not running for re-election as she focuses her energy on the Los Angeles mayor’s race.

Dean Phillips of Minnesota is currently next in line among the subcommittee Democrats, while Chris Smith of New Jersey has long served as the top Republican on the panel.

With Washington largely fixated on Ukraine, the bandwidth for political fights over Africa is relatively constrained. The Biden team has also avoided any big scandals or military fiascos on the continent, such as the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in 2012 or the death of four US Army special forces soldiers in an Islamic State ambush in Niger in 2017.

“I don’t think Africa policy, overall, will be that different,” says Tibor Nagy, who served as assistant secretary of State for African affairs under President Donald Trump.

“With the midterms, it’s just not going to be very dramatic at all,” Nagy says, “unless you have some really unexpected events, like, say, the Ethiopia war really blows up and results in a lot more egregious human rights violations or the [Eastern Congo] blows up to actual fisticuffs between Rwanda and the DRC […] or maybe another whole series of coups in West Africa.”

Differing priorities

A Republican win would still carry consequences, however, particularly given America’s outsized aid budget for Africa.

More than a third of US foreign assistance – around $8bn a year – is reserved for sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Congressional Research Service. If Republicans take the House, they’ll get two-thirds of the public funds reserved for legislative committees, allowing them to staff up for greater oversight of African affairs in addition to setting the agenda for hearings.

Key federal programs and agencies can expect to come under the microscope, including the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), which Republicans fault for restricting funding for oil and gas projects even as Africa lags the rest of the world in access to electricity.

“I am concerned that the Biden administration’s immense emphasis on climate change is coming at the expense of the energy needs of developing nations,” Risch said at a July hearing on US national security and economic statecraft with officials from the departments of State and Treasury and the US Trade and Development Agency.

“Energy infrastructure in Africa is nascent at best without large distribution grids required for wind and solar,” he said. “Africa’s energy needs are significant, and a range of solutions, including oil and gas, are needed to power the continent and support economic development.”

Meanwhile, Republican congressional sources warn that any promises of funding for climate mitigation that President Biden makes at the COP 27 Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh later this month won’t go far unless the White House engages with sceptical Republicans in Congress.

Republicans can also be expected to offer a more critical review than Democrats of President Biden’s US-Africa Leaders Summit in mid-December if it fails to achieve much beyond glad-handing photos with regional politicians. Already, Risch has criticised Biden’s decision to invite Zimbabwe’s Foreign Minister Frederick Shava.

GOP leaders on Africa however are also eager for high-level engagement with African partners, something China does regularly. Risch himself has sponsored a resolution welcoming the summit as “an important opportunity to strengthen ties between the US and African partners”.

“We want it to succeed,” one Republican aide said.

Getting tough

Another point of friction is the White House’s non-confrontational approach to African leaders.

Keen to avoid losing influence to China and other US rivals on the continent, the Biden administration has sought to present itself as a respectful interlocutor in sharp contrast to Trump’s dismissal of Africa as “shithole countries.”

Although congressional Republicans largely agree with the need to respect African sensitivities, some say it’s past time for the administration to sign off on sanctions packages for Ethiopia and Sudan that are reportedly before the US Treasury Department. Mandatory sanctions bills are a distinct possibility if the executive branch does not act, congressional aides say.

“Once again, I call on President Biden to utilise existing authorities to sanction individuals responsible for these atrocities, and any atrocities committed over the course of the war,” McCaul said in an 18 October statement following reports of resumed violence in Ethiopia before the latest cease-fire.  “The renewed and intensified fighting underscores that the administration’s ‘wait and see’ approach has failed. History is watching and bold action is needed now.”

The malign actions of China and Russia in Africa threaten freedom and democracy everywhere

Likewise, Republican efforts to counter China and Russia on the continent may clash with the Biden administration’s determination not to treat Africa as a geopolitical chessboard. Countries, including South Africa, that have balked at denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the UN may well find themselves under greater scrutiny.

“The malign actions of China and Russia in Africa threaten freedom and democracy everywhere,” Risch tells The Africa Report. “The United States needs to support our democratic partners on the continent by showing up, engaging, and equipping them with the necessary tools and options to counter others’ malign activities.”

One such partner is Somaliland, the de facto autonomous state that is garnering growing support in Congress even as the Biden administration remains committed to a One Somalia policy. Both Risch and McCaul have run out of patience with the instability and lack of democracy in Somalia and called on the US to deepen diplomatic, economic and security engagements with Hargeisa, while stopping short of official recognition of Somaliland as its own country.

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