December last year, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton unveiled a new US policy for Africa.
Like everything Trump, it’s bold and brutal. The US will deal with Africa based on a three-pronged policy of advancing US trade and commercial ties with nations across the region, countering the proliferation of radical Islam and other forms of violent conflicts across Africa.
The other one was ensuring that all US aid sent to the continent is used efficiently to advance peace, stability, independence and prosperity in the region.
In many aspects, Trump’s policy is not unlike Obama’s. Obama’s running theme for Africa was “trade, not aid”.
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Speaking in Ghana in 2009 as he announced his policy for Africa, retired President Obama declared: “I will focus on four areas that are critical to the future of Africa and the entire developing world: democracy, opportunity, health, and the peaceful resolution of conflict.”
It was the first comprehensive policy drafted for the continent. Hardly 10 years later, President Trump has a similar project, only bolder.
In principle, the new policy resembles the Marshall plan - the European Recovery Programme launched by the then Secretary of State George Marshall in 1948 to help western European countries rebuild after the Second World War.
It was also the first diplomatic strategy on the 40-year-long cold war between the US and the Soviet Union, meant to insulate Europe from the advancing communist ideology.
In his speech, Bolton puts it more overtly: “In developing our strategy, we are revisiting the foundational principles of the Marshall Plan.”
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The US-China trade war is finding its way to Africa. With it, Trump is drawing a line on the sand with an old American demand: “you are either for us or against us.”
As long as this titanic battle focused on Africa is economic, Marshall-like investment is inevitable to the benefit of Africans. If it gets militant, however, we may see a new round of coups and counter-coups just like during the cold war era.
The scramble for Africa is on.
Already, the Trump administration has created the International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) with an arsenal of $60 billion (Sh6 trillion) for Africa to counter China’s fund for Africa announced during its Sino-Africa Summit in Beijing last year.
I foresee a scenario where this money will be used to draw a new line of ideology in Africa; those countries allied to the US and those that are not.
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But why did Africa tilt towards China? At the end of the cold war in the 90s, Western aid to Africa reduced significantly - propelled by the demand for reforms. This was further exacerbated by the global economic recession of 2009. Realising the diplomatic void, China moved into Africa and started dangling unconditional loans for development.
To date, it has investments worth over $40 billion (Sh4 trillion) strewn across the continent. As Bolton said after his remarks, “China thinks over a longer structural timeframe.”
To effectively counter China, the US needs to offer an alternative development partnership and tone down on its ‘big brother’ overtures. It’s a tight balance. The new policy is full of contradicting statements that suggest an internal conflict and a desire for that balance.
First, the US is in Africa for its self-interest - to support American jobs and expand export market access.
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This is exactly why China is in Africa. In fact, China is using the US cold war era diplomatic rulebook, albeit with a few modifications.
It was the era of economic hit men who forced leaders of smaller nations to take up unsustainable debts, of financing development for natural resources, mainly oil and ignoring human rights abuses by dictators and governments allied to them in South Africa, Egypt, Uganda, among other countries. A change of tack with similar objectives makes for an intriguing diplomatic thesis.
There is a commitment to fight terrorist groups and conflicts, on one hand, while proposing to withdraw dollar support to failed states, a move that would make these groups thrive in those countries.
South Sudan, Somalia and Libya will require delicate management. “America’s vision for the region is one of independence, self-reliance and growth — not dependency, domination and debt”.
This might work contrary to the interests of former colonial powers in Africa, US allies, who perpetuate neo-colonialist ideals with their former colonies.
For instance, France demands that all revenues from their former colonies are banked with them before they then give debts to the governments for expenditure.
The long-standing comradeship between France and the UK would definitely come in the way of these noble objectives.
Perhaps, the most overt irony is when he said: “Countries that repeatedly vote against the US in international forums, or take action counter to US interests, should not receive generous American foreign aid.”
This while promising that they want African nations to “succeed, flourish and remain independent in fact and not just in theory. Like a typical step-uncle who’s all of a sudden remembered an old relation, Uncle Sam’s Christmas gift, the US policy for Africa, was a bag of mixed fortunes.
-The writer is an independent analyst based in Nairobi.