An Analysis of Trump’s New Strategy for Africa

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Stembile Mpofu

In 1947 the United States government created the National Security Council. Its role was to coordinate defense, foreign affairs, international economic policy and intelligence. The current President of National Security Affairs is Ambassador John Bolton. He has a unique role as the US President’s top aide and advisor on matters of national security. At the Heritage Foundation on December 13, 2018 John Bolton unveiled the United States Government’s New Strategy for Africa named the Prosper Africa Strategy. Listening to the presentation by John Bolton may have been quite confusing for some because the main thrust of his message had little to do with African Prosperity, but focused on America countering Chinese and Russian influence on the continent.

It was clear from the strategy that the US is concerned about its waning influence on the continent compared to China and Russia’s growing influence. A few days earlier Tibor Nagy, Assistant Secretary of State had warned Congress of China’s increasing economic, military and political influence in Africa. This warning is not without a basis because China has invested billions in Africa and has now been Africa’s top trading partner for almost ten years. The US sees these developments as a threat to its role as a global super power. The tone and intent of the strategy are a cause for concern for Africa. The fact that Africa’s deepening relationship with China and Russia is viewed by the US as a national security issue puts Africa front and centre of the impending battle for supremacy between the US and China.

On the other hand China has mapped its trajectory. It has grown to be the world’s second largest economy and has now embarked on establishing itself as the world’s manufacturing hub. It has begun working on the One Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). BRI will link China to countries that make up 62% of the world’s population and account for 30% of the world’s economic output. Close to 70 countries have signed up for this multi trillion-dollar infrastructure project that will see China linked to more than 60 countries across Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. The project will focus on transportation, communication and energy, involving the construction of roads, bridges, gas pipelines, ports, railways, airports and power plants. The extent of China’s ambitions has not been stated as clearly as the US has done theirs. It is however clear from their actions and from the US New Africa Strategy where the battle lines have been drawn.

The war between the US and China in Africa is in three main areas; each is fighting to gain superiority economically, militarily and over the hearts and minds of Africans (soft power).

The economic battle has already begun. In an attempt to counter China’s billion dollar infrastructure investments in Africa, the US Congress earlier this year passed legislation to create a 60 billion dollar international development agency called the International Development Finance Corporation. The new agency will be allowed to invest in equity whereas before commercial lending could only take place through investment in debt. Riva Levinson, president of a Washington based emerging markets consultancy was quoted in the Financial Times saying this about this development, “This is the first real attempt to recognise that the US needs to support its companies in the commercial battlefield in the developing world…Because China is taking it all”.

And indeed China is taking it all. The infrastructure developments that China is undertaking include the setting up of a military base in Djibouti. There is the further possibility of China being granted control by the government of Djibouti of the Doraleh Port, a deep-sea port in the red sea. Such a development would threaten the US’s own military base in Djibouti as it would cut off supplies and restrict the movement of US Navy ships. In an Aljazeera article written by Mehari Taddele Maru, General Thomas Waldhauser commander of the US African Command, AFRICOM, is quoted as saying, that the US will “never outspend the Chinese in Africa” and that he was “in the process of rewriting US military strategy in the region with China in mind”.

This new military strategy is likely what is reflected in the US 2018 National Defence Strategy. As articulated by US Secretary of State General Mattis in a speech he gave at the beginning of 2018, “Great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US National Security. We face growing threats from revisionist powers as different as China and Russia are from each other…. To those who threaten America’s experiment in democracy, they must know if you challenge us, it will be your longest and worst day”.

This warning is not to be taken lightly by Africa because, despite not being at war on the African continent, there is a significant US military presence consisting of Navy seals, green berets and other special ops. These units are conducting almost 100 missions across 20 different African countries. Vice magazine reports that the US is waging secret, limited scale operations and carrying out approximately 3500 exercises and military engagements throughout Africa each year. There are currently 7500 military personnel deployed in Africa spread across 53 countries.

While the military ducks are being placed in a row, the use of soft power to drive the American agenda is also part of the strategy. John Bolton stated that no aid or financial assistance would be provided to countries that repeatedly vote against the US in international forums or take action counter to US interests. It is important to know that the US government has consistently and repeatedly accused the Zimbabwean government of distributing food aid along partisan lines, yet this is precisely what John Bolton openly proposes as an official US government policy on Aid, including food aid in Africa.

The US intends to use civil society agencies in the various African countries to “advance American interests”. As Jennifer Cooke, Director of the Institute for African Studies at George Washington University says, “What sets the US apart has been a broader engagement, beyond government, looking at development, civil society and, frankly, serving as something of a moral authority on human rights, democracy and governance issues.” Despite these lofty ideals, we have however seen from the words of General Mattis, that any challenge on the US democracy experiment is not likely to end well.

With regard to the pursuit of soft power the Chinese seem to be lagging behind when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of Africans. Their approach seems to be a nuts and bolts affair where they are relying solely on the persuasive power of their funding muscle. This strategy is working on African political elites but not on the larger African population.

An analysis of this sort is helpful in assisting Africans see where they sit in the current global geopolitical theatre. It reveals several factors. The first being the fact that Africa sits at the centre of global geopolitics because of its resources and vast wealth. The second is that despite being in this pivotal position Africa has little or no agency with regards its future. The US and China have set out their future trajectory and are pursuing it with speed and efficiency while Africa’s own future plans rely on the benevolence of these warring countries and others. The African agenda is one that does not seek to rely on itself but looks to be driven by funding from the West or East or both. More than 70% of the African Union’s funding is provided by the European Union, while the majority of African states default on their membership subscriptions that are supposed to fund the various functions of the African Union.

Africa’s finest and most educated minds proudly fill civil society positions, unwittingly contributing to the advancement of US interests at the expense of their own continent’s interests. Precious energy and time is being spent on in-country tensions between political parties and a fixation with the pursuit of the perfect democratic outcome. All this while the elephants fight. As Africans we must begin to prepare for the inevitable result of our current malaise. We must prepare to be trampled as grass gets trampled when elephants fight, or we can resolve to choose a different outcome. If we begin to lift our eyes upwards and beyond what is immediately before us we can begin to see ourselves as we actually are, an integral and essential part of the world economic engine.

As daunting as the machinations of the US, China and Russia may be, we have the ability and power, if we so choose to refuse to be silent pawns in the game of geopolitical chess that is being played with our continent. We will become agents of our own destiny when we shake of the mantle of dependency and begin to chart our own way forward.