America’s present relationship with Africa is frustratingly complex. In matters of security, it appears the multilateral, multidimensional partnerships that seek to bind the continental divide have been in their very nature, characterized by contradictions.
The primary challenge as I see it for the United States, while the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit of 2014 comes to a close, will be to overcome the reputational damage caused by the infamous mantra of the ‘regime change’ approach in years past. This bellicose security and defense issue remains a major concern to African emerging market actors and, much like the modern interpretation of African integration opportunity itself, is a theme long overdue for refreshed perspective.
It is ‘regime change’, often caused by military force and executed in countries such as Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan that has left chaos and destruction in its wake. It is regime change that has transformed the perceptions of the U.S. in the minds of many African thought leaders to one of skepticism, wary of the methodology with which America pursues its own national interests; one can argue theirs has been a chase perhaps at the expense of the civilian populations of developing countries.
This skepticism persists unabatedly and without clarification. Importantly, it can lead to harsher sentiments, given the near-dangerous apathy that they are met with by those with political authority in Washington.
Such relative ennui undermines the notion that the U.S. can be a reliable ally in Africa, or anywhere else for that matter. And this was the true backdrop of the Summit that many believe was politically motivated by the administration of President Obama and if true, undertaken well behind the curve.
If President Obama and key Heads of State in Africa are to pursue their ‘reset buttons’ on their relationships and divulge their shared ambitions for years to come, this neglect witnessed over the last six years will have to be addressed and checked as a matter of urgency. For without mutual trust and renewed comprehension for the Africa opportunity, it becomes frustrating for all parties. Moreover, the prospects for cooperation in ‘high-trust’ activities such as counter-terrorism and intelligence gathering will be that much more difficult to achieve with any sense of tangible value.
Two years ago, Africa saw hope in a renewed U.S. commitment within the budding continent. A revitalized strategy was put forward towards sub-Saharan Africa in particular, one based on the four pillars of recognized, accredited democratic institutions; growth, trade and investment; peace and security; and lastly, opportunity and development.
This relative about-face was welcomed, although some of America’s African friends wondered what was ‘new’ about this endeavor at all, as it had long been assumed to be the existing strategy. It seemed similar to the kind of arms-length agenda one would have associated with relations to a distant planet like Mars, rather than the basis for doing business in matters of security and otherwise with so-called friends and promising geopolitical actors.
It did not appear that America was truly reaching out a hand in friendship nor opening a door for partnership, but rather, offering a lackadaisical smile and an ‘all-knowing’ nod. If this sounds unfair, it is only because the U.S. has done very little for the past few years to modify that view with Africans at home or throughout the Diaspora.
Conversely, Africa is of course very aware and grateful for the generous support that it has received from the U.S. for many decades. By far, the greatest contributions to Africa’s welfare have come from the United States, via United Nations Agencies such as the World Food Programme, the World Health Organization and many other numerous NGOs and charities. Also, large U.S. corporations, such as Ford, General Electric, Coca Cola, and many others have been assisting in the development of Africa in sustainable fashion for decades; helping to build economies and infrastructure, providing jobs and training, supporting local enterprises and bringing with them the values and standards that have made the U.S. such a great country and an example to the world.
Hence the contradictions in the U.S.-Africa relationship that I speak of.
So what are the opportunities for cooperation in counter-terrorism? Clearly, working bilaterally between governments to deal decisively and consistently with globalizing, fundamentalist-driven, militant cabals would be an obvious starting point.
As witnessed with the recent kidnapping of the Cameroonian Vice Prime Minister Amadou Ali’s wife by Boko Haram forces emanating from Nigeria, borders are arbitrary when the capability of those dead-set to challenge territorial integrity matches or morbidly exceeds those of the regions in which they operate.
Thusly, renewing a commitment to cross-border, cutting edge technological surveillance and assisting in the allocation of international patrols could limit the aggressive expansion mission of cabals such as Boko Haram, a plan which is today undeterred and therefore, would accomplish great feats in a very short-term.
In our view, Africa’s potential is limited only by the imagination of those thought leaders within and engaging with it. It is a continent of 55 independently diverse countries with over a billion people. Indeed it was carved up by colonial powers in the late 19th century, among the British, French, Germans, Portuguese, and Belgians. However, since that time and in the face of unprecedented adversity, Africa and the emerging markets therein have gained identity, a sense of belonging and naturally, due to imposed divides, suffer from fragmentation.
In light of the U.S.-Africa Summit of 2014, a revitalized viewpoint on Africa, its challenges and moreover, its opportunities for the intrepid investor should now take center stage. And more specifically, with regard to the unequivocally timely theme of security, America should look to work with African partners to combat globalizing forces that have the capacity to not only export their mantras and missions overseas, but country to country, intercontinentally and perhaps at a global level in due course, their operatives, taking advantage of what has lacked up until this distinct opportunity in the throws of August: understanding.