US Republican Congress shifts Africa focus from aid to China

By Julian Pecquet, reporting from Washington

Posted on Tuesday, 7 February 2023 10:14, updated on Wednesday, 1 March 2023 16:49
China's Foreign Minister Qin Gang looks on during a meeting with Moussa Faki (not seen), Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, at the Africa Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on January 11, 2023. (Photo by Amanuel Sileshi / AFP)

The new Republican majority in Congress has restructured oversight over African affairs in the latest example of Washington changing its approach to the continent from an aid recipient to a key strategic battleground.

In one of its first acts of the new Congress, the House Foreign Affairs Committee under Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas has split off jurisdiction over Africa from its traditional pairing with global health and human rights. Leadership of the new stand-alone Africa subcommittee is going to freshman congressman John James of Michigan, while longtime Africa watcher Chris Smith of New Jersey will oversee health, human rights and international organisations.

“The foreign affairs committee has never been more relevant with the global challenges and the threats we face from our foreign adversaries,” McCaul said in a statement announcing the changes. “[…] I am thrilled to welcome such a great team of leaders on the committee this Congress. I look forward to serving with them and all our members as we work to pass meaningful legislation that prioritises national security and strengthens our relationships with key allies, while conducting vital oversight of the Biden administration.”

James’ office did not respond to a request for comment. However, the 41-year-old African-American businessman and former army helicopter pilot told the conservative Washington Times newspaper that countering China’s inroads on the continent is a key priority.

“I am honoured to lead the subcommittee on Africa as its chairman because the African continent is the cradle of Chinese Communist Party economic colonisation and military dominance,” James said.

“The human rights abuses in the critical mineral mining industry and growing terror networks which threaten the United States are just two current examples. I look forward to working with the committee at large to increase the health and wealth of all God’s children — both in America and abroad.”

Strategic shift

While largely symbolic, the reorganisation tracks with a wider rethinking of America’s relationship with Africa across the federal government.

Last year, the Joe Biden administration released a four-prong strategy for Africa that “reframes the region’s importance to US national security interests”, according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. In December, the administration hosted a US-Africa Leaders Summit aimed squarely at strengthening diplomatic and economic partnerships across the continent.

For far too long, the United States has treated Africa as a threat that needed to be contained, a series of fires that needed to be put out, or a junior partner that needed to be disciplined

“When it comes to Africa, we can see some strategic alignment from the US government writ large, whether it is the [Biden] administration or Congress, that Africa is a strategic partner,” says Joseph Sany, the head of the Africa Centre at the US Institute of Peace. “That ambition is clearly announced by the administration, and Congress is also following suit.”

Sany says the US has recognised Africa’s strategic value for a while. Necessary structural transformations inside the federal government and Congress are finally starting to take place to deliver change.

“Now we are trying to adjust the mechanism of our government to actually be able to deliver that,” he says.

“If the intention is to recognise and support and strengthen engagement with Africa, and also be nimble and agile in advancing American interest, and African priorities, I think that will be welcomed. Now we will assess that mechanism and that choice based on the results.”

Some human rights defenders are a bit wary, however, especially after Biden hosted authoritarian leaders from Equatorial Guinea to Uganda at his leaders summit.

“I’m not convinced it will necessarily mark or otherwise lead to a shift in focus,” says Jeffrey Smith, whose Washington firm Vanguard Africa has represented opposition figures from across the continent.  “In many ways, people are correct when they note the considerable decline in bipartisanship in Washington; however, there is still a convergence, often times, on policies toward Africa. I anticipate that trend to continue, even on issues of human rights, regardless of a name change that is likely just symbolic in nature.”

Down, but not out

One Africa champion who isn’t on the panel is Democrat Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

The first Somali-American to serve in Congress was booted off the full committee last week by Republicans upset at her criticism of Israel and US foreign policy more broadly. Omar has vowed to remain engaged on the topic, however, and announced she is launching a US-Africa Policy Working Group to serve as a “clearinghouse” for “active, sincere, and consistent engagement” with “experts and policymakers working with and in Africa.”

“For far too long, the United States has treated Africa as a threat that needed to be contained, a series of fires that needed to be put out, or a junior partner that needed to be disciplined,” Omar said. “Congress has historically paid scant attention to the continent except when extreme circumstances have prompted reactive responses. The US-Africa Policy Working Group will be a venue for the promotion of American values and American interests in our dealings with our African partners.”

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