U.S. Upgrades Its Relationship with Africa

University of North Carolina at Charlotte students protest against starvation and genocide in Darfur. (Photo: David E. Powers,

The Obama administration announced last week a new strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa that seeks to balance long-term interests with immediate future concerns. The long-term strategy is to work closely with an economically strong and resilient Africa as part of a global coalition for inclusive economic growth and international peace and security. The near-term goal is to strengthen the capacity of Africa to address political, economic, social and security challenges.

The new strategy builds on elements of U.S. President Barack Obama's 2009 address to the Parliament of Ghana. In the address, Obama unambiguously called for an Africa free of despots. He also talked of an Africa that provides dividends of democracy to its citizens, building durable national institutions capable of laying a strong foundation for continental renaissance and providing as much opportunity as possible for the continent's youth.

Strengthening democratic institutions

The United States is adopting a hard line position on democracy in Africa, seeking an Africa firmly on the side of population-based democracy, equity, rule of law, good governance and respect for human rights. The U.S. government pledges to "evaluate elections against the highest possible standards of fairness and impartiality." In a sharp departure from usual diplomatic niceties, it warns that individuals and organizations threatening transparently elected governments in Africa will not be given free rein. Furthermore, governments that trample on the democratic rights of their citizens should expect a vigorous response. As part of institutionalizing democracy, the United States will continue to support women and minority rights, civil society and independent media.

U.S policy makers have concluded that repressive or illegitimate governments represent a profound danger to sustainable partnership with Africa. This conclusion is not surprising following last year's Arab Spring revolt that resulted in the ouster of "stable" governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Many questions remain as to what exactly would trigger a U.S. response in the region, and what that response would be, the answers to which would of course depend on circumstances.

Africans will have a lot to say on free and fair elections and legitimacy of governments. Both the United States and Africa are likely to engage in extensive consultation to strengthen democracy in the continent. In particular, the African Union, African national governments and civil society will be actively involved.

Facilitating economic growth, trade and investment

The United States is looking forward to an Africa less dependent on development assistance and more able to generate economic growth, nurturing resilient public institutions and a thriving middle class. It also expects continued progress on regional integration efforts and access to markets in Africa.

Africa represents only 1 percent of U.S. global investment. The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, the signature U.S. trade initiative with Africa, accounts for only 2.5 percent of U.S. annual imports. Doing business in Africa is not easy, either. It takes about 38 days to import from and 32 days to export goods to Africa compared to less than 10 days in Europe. Onerous customs and immigration procedures in Africa slow down trade as well.

The push for closer economic cooperation will likely move the United States and Africa towards a comprehensive trade agreement that removes impediments to trade and investments, enforces fair trade practices, promotes high product standards and addresses access issues to global public goods. A trade agreement could jumpstart Africa's transition from predominantly natural-resource exports to finished goods. It could also help the continent increase its share of the global market. According to the World Bank, Africa contributes less than 2 percent of the global market despite accounting for more than 10 percent of the global population.

Advancing peace and security

The new strategy states that Africans must take the lead in confronting conflicts and other security challenges. The U.S. government places security issues at the center of endemic poverty and other development woes in Africa, emphasizing its commitment to fighting terrorism and transnational crime. Operationally, the strategy focuses on strengthening civilian control over military and law enforcement agencies in Africa, preventing conflicts, avoiding visible militarized presence, assisting post-conflict states, strengthening regional collaboration efforts and supporting multilateral peace building efforts.

The document does not address whether the United States will support a continental deterrent and peacekeeping stand-by force. Lack of funds is reportedly delaying the introduction of such a force. The takeoff date has been postponed from 2010 to 2015.

Promoting opportunity and development

Bilateral and multilateral efforts will aim to fight global poverty, address food security concerns and improve public health. Additional strategies include empowering women, supporting environmental sustainability and enhancing the capacity of local institutions to respond to humanitarian emergencies. These issues have been important in the U.S.-Africa relationship.

What appears different in the new strategy is the President's Young African Leaders Initiative, which suggests a more hands-on approach to leadership development in Africa. The initiative acknowledges that the United States has the next generation of African leaders in mind. However, it is not clear whether the initiative will depart from the traditional channels of providing educational opportunities for promising young men and women to study in the United States.


The United States has shown in its new strategy document that it intends to upgrade its relationship with Africa, shifting the focus from aid to sustainable growth and prosperity. The ball is now in the court of African leaders and institutions. What does Africa want from the United States?

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