U.S. President Joe Biden campaigned for the 2020 Democratic nomination promising not only to restore the defense of human rights and democracy to a central position in U.S. foreign policy, but also to “build back better” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But for Africa’s 54 countries and 1.4 billion people, despite a welcome change in tone from the administration of former President Donald Trump, there is little to show for the first nine months of Biden’s presidency when it comes to engagement on values—or anything else of substance.
In his first foreign policy speech as president, Biden triumphantly declared that “America is back,” pledging that the U.S. would pursue “diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values” by “defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”
Biden followed that up with some immediate gestures aimed at reassuring African countries that he would be true to his word. He immediately reversed immigration restrictions on Nigeria and other African countries imposed by Trump. He and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held calls with several of their African counterparts in the first few weeks of the new administration. In advance of the 34th African Union Summit in February, Biden sent a prerecorded message emphasizing Washington’s commitment “to rebuilding our partnerships around the world and re-engaging with international institutions like the African Union.” And his administration withdrew U.S. opposition to the candidacy of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala—a two-time former Nigerian finance minister and former foreign minister—for director-general of the World Trade Organization.
For his part, Blinken made video remarks to the G-5 Sahel Summit in February. Two months later, he embarked on a virtual visit to Africa, including stops in Kenya and Nigeria, where he again stressed the importance of strengthening democratic governance as well as security cooperation and commercial relations between the U.S. and Africa. For African heads of state, policymakers and citizens, these demonstrations of high-level engagement by U.S. officials were a welcome departure from the previous four years of uncertainty and outright hostility from an administration that famously referred to African nations as “shithole countries.”
There’s just one problem with the change of tone: There hasn’t been any accompanying substantive change in policy, despite a decades-old bipartisan U.S. approach to Africa that is in need of a revamp. Nowhere is this lack of ambition more readily apparent than in West Africa, where last weekend’s coup d’etat in Guinea served as a stark reminder of the United States’ failing strategy for helping regional and international partners combat democratic deconsolidation, violent extremism, poor governance and other drivers of socio-political instability in the region. After a promising start, West Africa, and indeed the continent writ large, has scarcely drawn the attention of senior members of the Biden administration. Where it has, they have generally stuck to the same old script of counterterrorism and strategic competition with China.
If the gap between Biden’s values-based rhetoric and actions, as well as the tensions between his stated objectives and U.S. interests, are being laid bare in Washington’s West Africa policy, it is in large part because of the realpolitik considerations of China’s broadening and deepening footprint in the region.
Last year, incumbents in Togo, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire violated term-limit norms and held dubious elections under conditions neither free nor fair, so as to ensure they could not lose. Yet, upon taking office, the Biden administration continued a business-as-usual approach to working with these governments. Meanwhile, state security forces in both the Sahel and coastal West Africa that have been the beneficiaries of U.S. support continue to engage in repressive behavior against their countries’ populations. Even Ghana, generally regarded as the region’s best performer on human rights and democratic values, recently proposed an anti-gay rights bill that would, among other things, criminalize support for LGBTQ rights, to mostly muted reaction from Washington.
Where Africa has drawn the attention of senior Biden administration officials, they have stuck to the same old script of counterterrorism and strategic competition with China.
Despite years of diplomatic support as well as security and development assistance from the U.S. and other Western partners, governments across West Africa continue to struggle with issues of economic growth, corruption, governance and weak state capacity.
Nevertheless, nearly 20 years after the creation of the U.S.-led Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, or TSCTP, Washington’s engagement in the Sahel remains overreliant on military instruments, at the expense of its diplomatic, development and cultural tools. Millions of dollars spent annually on security assistance and technical support for central governments in the Sahel have yielded few benefits, with the security situation in the region continuing to deteriorate amid a growing humanitarian crisis.
Biden’s decision to continue these counterterrorism efforts inherited from Trump, but also former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, is a mistake that calls for a course correction. While there are no easy answers to complicated problems the U.S. and the region’s other international partners barely understand, there are options Washington could explore as part of a reconsideration of its engagement in the Sahel and West Africa. As I wrote in a January briefing on U.S.-Nigeria ties for WPR, trade and investment, governance and democratic stability offer opportunities for improved engagement with Africa’s most populous country and its largest economy, none of which would even necessitate a dramatic shift in policy. The same approach could be scaled up regionally and even continentally, without inescapably requiring the U.S. to completely abandon all of its security priorities.
In this effort, coronavirus vaccines should be considered low-hanging fruit. With less than 2 percent of Africa’s population fully vaccinated and the rhetoric of multilateralism drowned out by vaccine nationalism in wealthier countries, the time for decisive action to release more of the U.S. vaccine stockpile and commit to a clear strategy for African vaccination is now. When it comes to achieving Biden’s values-oriented foreign policy objectives, the administration couldn’t possibly do any better than an accelerated U.S. response that prioritizes sending vaccine doses to the least vaccinated part of the world. The humanitarian and diplomatic implications are just as consequential as the epidemiological ones.
In the longer term, the U.S. is well-positioned on the continent in terms of the values it purports to cherish. Despite more than two decades of deepening economic and commercial relationships with China, not to mention four years of a hostile Trump administration, the majority of Africans still prefer the U.S. over China as a development model, including in West African powerhouses like Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. U.S. programs such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act, the President’s Malaria Initiative, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, imperfect as they all have been, have had an impact. Even if they are not scaled up dramatically, they could be improved upon.
The value preferences and policy priorities of West Africans—if not their governments—broadly align with Washington’s stated values and the development initiatives that form the basis of U.S.-Africa cooperation, such as democratic norms and social investment. For all the positives in the Africa-China relationship, Beijing’s weak public diplomacy efforts in the region and the Communist Party’s support for authoritarian leaders pose obstacles to the democratic aspirations of young West Africans and could weaken Chinese credibility in the long term. The English language continues to grow in popularity and ubiquity, particularly among younger West Africans seeking to break with the French colonial legacy, and American popular culture is a significant outlet for those expressions of interest. U.S. brands and companies like Apple, Nike, Coca-Cola and Google remain popular and in demand from Cotonou to Conakry. Put simply, U.S. soft power continues to have an enduring hold in what is the youngest geographic subregion in the world.
In light of all this, it’s time for Washington to use other options in its engagement toolkit besides security cooperation in building a direct relationship with West Africans and, through them, their governments. An approach that empowers ordinary citizens would be a smart way to make the U.S. more competitive, while safeguarding its geopolitical interests, on the world’s youngest continent.
Chris O. Ogunmodede is an associate editor with World Politics Review. His coverage of African politics, international relations and security has appeared in War on The Rocks, Mail & Guardian, The Republic, Africa is a Country and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @Illustrious_Cee.
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