John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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American Foreign Policy Toward Africa

by John Campbell
January 2, 2014

People stand and walk at a beach in the old port of Mogadishu, November 13, 2013. (Siegfried Modola/Courtesy Reuters)


For many of us, the American lack of attention toward Africa is short-sighted and frustrating. It is to the great credit of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy that it has devoted the entire November-December issue of its journal, American Foreign Policy Interests, to “Africa’s Conflicting Challenges: Security vs. Modernization.” The guest editor of this special issue is Herman J. Cohen, a former assistant secretary of state for Africa.

The lead articles are by Macky Sall, who was elected president of Senegal in 2012 in free and fair elections and born after the colonial era was over, and Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for Africa throughout President Obama’s first term. President Sall argues for a new U.S.-Africa partnership based on trade and investment, while Ambassador Carson details the successes (often quiet and not dramatic) of the Obama administration’s Africa policy.

In contributions by other authors, Sudan and South Sudan receive detailed attention. Ambassador Princeton Lyman, ret., analyzes South Sudan’s unresolved issues, especially timely given the current fighting there. Ambassador Dane Smith, ret., looks at the governance challenges and their contexts in Khartoum. Col. Laura Varhola and Col. Thomas Shepherd look at the U.S. and Africa from a military perspective, while I question whether Washington’s approach is becoming too influenced by military considerations related to terrorism. Ray Leonard, a president and CEO with extensive experience in the hydrocarbon industry, looks at the future of African oil production. The issue concludes with Ambassador Cohen’s review of Richard Dowden’s important book, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles.

Ambassador Cohen’s introduction lays the table for the intellectual feast. His concluding “For the Record” gives high marks to the Obama administration’s Africa policy, with one glaring exception: it has been too silent on Rwandan and Ugandan intervention in the eastern Congo.

Too often an assessment of an administration’s Africa policy is based on a numbers game, how many visits an American president and a secretary of state have made to the continent, how many African heads of state have visited the White House. This volume is an important corrective to the view that somehow the Obama administration has “ignored” Africa.

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  • Posted by Zainab

    You say American lack of attention toward Africa is “short-sighted and frustrating”. Many would argue that ignoring Africa is a strategic blunder.

    Sometime last year, I was at an one of Aljazeera’s popular Head to Head debate which had New York Times’ Thomas Friedman as a guest. He spoke about American Foreign Policy. The debate lasted for almost two hours and not once was Africa mentioned. The Q&A session was quite short, thus I didn’t get the opportunity to draw his attention to that fact. It just goes to show how surprisingly, Africa — with all that is happening in the continent right now — doesn’t seem to be on the American government’s agenda.

    As you rightly noted, and as many Africans have come to realise, America is too preoccupied with military engagements and security issues on the continent. With Africa’s economic growth rates, growing young population, most Africans want to hear policy discussions focusing on investments, provision of employment and education opportunities and infrastructure. America is far too occupied with Africom- and drone-speak. It was only in 2013 that Obama belatedly pledged $7 billion towards the Power Africa initiative. This pales into insignificance when compared with the annual cost of financing Africa’s infrastructure deficit estimated at $93 billion by the African Development Bank.

    Let’s also not forget the China factor here. China has made too many inroads through bilateral agreements with individual countries, it speaks a language of railways, roads and hospitals Africans understand and want to hear, never mind the methods. America needs to step up its game in the battle for hearts and minds in Africa — I don’t think it’s winning at the moment.

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