by Herman J. Cohen
President Trump’s Africa policy appears to be off to a bad start.
First, there was the unfortunate leak of a remark made privately to a group of U.S. senators in February in which the President referred to African nations as “shithole countries.”
Secondly, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s official goodwill visit to several African countries in March was spoiled by the fact that he had to cut his visit short by one day because he heard that the president was about to dismiss him.
Nevertheless, there are clear signs that the Trump Administration is following the historic, bipartisan U.S. policy toward Africa that emphasizes economic development and downplays big power politics.
In September 2017, President Trump addressed a group of African heads of state in New York during the annual debate of the United Nations General Assembly. This initial message to Africa said that the U.S. would be happy to see Africa become wealthy, and that the U.S. government is available to encourage potential American investors. He urged African nations to improve the environment for the private sector. Of particular interest, the President did not impulsively declare that he would reverse everything that President Obama did in Africa.
In March 2018, during his goodwill visit, former Secretary Tillerson addressed the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. His message was the same as Trump’s: “Let’s work together to encourage investors, both international and African.”
Continuity Over Change
Both Trump and Tillerson also pledged continued military support for certain African nations that are facing attacks from “jihadist” guerrilla groups currently operating in ungoverned spaces in the Sahel region, as well as in Somalia in the Horn sub-region. This policy is a continuation of the initiative taken by President George W. Bush who established AFRICOM to serve as a single coordinated US combat command in order to support African militaries in anti-terrorist operations. In this effort, the United States now has approximately five thousand military personnel in Africa acting in supporting roles. In addition, Trump has pledged $65 million to support the G5 Sahel force comprising Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso.
In addition to anti-terrorist support, the Trump administration is continuing all the significant projects initiated by his three predecessors.
In the last year of his administration, President Bill Clinton signed into law the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). This legislation, which gives most African exports duty-free entry to the United States, was extended to the year 2025 in 2015 by the Republican congressional majority. So far, the Trump Administration has looked upon AGOA positively, with the objective of negotiating free trade agreements with individual African countries—so much for Trump’s distrust of free trade.
President George W. Bush established the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) that reaches out to external experts in order to rate African countries with respect to the environment for private business, political freedom, and overall stability. African countries that receive high ratings receive large amounts of aid financing for major infrastructure projects. The MCC has been very popular in Africa, and Trump shows every sign of wanting to keep it. Equally important, President Bush established PEPFAR, a comprehensive program designed to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic that has had a devastating impact on the populations of thirty-five African nations. This program provides anti-viral treatment to millions of infected Africans, and also helped reduce the prevalence of the disease considerably through prevention programs. PEPFAR continues under the Trump Administration.
President Obama established two major programs that are highly effective in Africa: Power Africa and Feed the Future. Power Africa addresses Africa’s significant electric power deficit by helping African countries create conditions to attract private investments in power generation. Feed the Future has the objective of bringing modern agricultural technology and practices to the African farmer so that African nations will no longer have to spend most of their export earnings on importing food. As of April 2018, the Obama programs remain funded and in place.
The bottom line Is that U.S. policy toward Africa has been bipartisan and virtually unchanged since the early 1960s, when the majority of Europe’s African colonies gained their independence: promote economic development and avoid big power conflict. If anything has changed, it has been in the evolution of economic development policy. In the early 1960s, the U.S. felt confident that the foreign assistance bureaucracy could bring about major change in Africa. After much experimentation, U.S. policy has evolved to where African nations bear the major responsibility for creating an environment that attracts private investors, both foreign and domestic.
What About Great Power Competition?
The first Cold War challenge for Washington in Africa took place in 1960 when the Belgian Congo fell into a state of near anarchy immediately after independence. The first elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was viscerally anti-western. He was immediately surrounded by Soviet diplomats who provided lots of material support. In keeping with his policy to avoid involving Africa in the Cold War, President Eisenhower decided that stabilization of the Congo should be done by a UN peacekeeping force that the Security Council initiated in October 1960. Lumumba himself was assassinated by pro-Belgian elements in the copper mining region, much to Washington’s satisfaction. The UN operation, and the disappearance of Lumumba, effectively deprived the Soviets of what little influence they were able to develop in the Congo. The absence of U.S. or other NATO forces in the UN’s successful three-year stabilization effort in the Congo effectively made the Cold War irrelevant there.
After their Congo disappointment, the Soviets showed that they were not very adept at playing the development assistance game. As a result, their influence was minimal. The only exceptions involved the former Portuguese colonies who obtained their independence suddenly in 1974 without any preparation, and Ethiopia, where a military regime took power in 1972 and proclaimed itself “Marxist.”
The former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique also fell under the control of “Marxist” parties. All three of the “Marxist” regimes in Ethiopia, Angola and Mozambique were confronted by armed opposition. The Soviets came to their assistance with expensive major military support programs. In Angola, in particular, the pro-Soviet MPLA party had to call upon Cuban troops in 1975 to help keep them in power.
The presence of Cuban troops in Angola was especially galling to the Ford Administration, which had suffered a collapse in Vietnam only six months earlier. As a result of the Cuban presence in Angola, President Ford proclaimed the end of “détente” with the Soviet Union. Secretary Kissinger wanted to provide covert assistance to Angola’s “pro-western” UNITA rebel group. However, he was stymied by a law called the “Clark Amendment” that prevented support for any armed group in Angola. Not surprisingly, the recent Vietnam war experience had put a chill on the idea of any new U.S. interventions in foreign conflicts.
Thus, between 1975 and 1986, the Soviets had a monopoly over military support to three major African nations in conflict. The U.S. was in a standby mode. This changed in 1986, when President Reagan proclaimed his doctrine designed to counter Soviet support for Marxist regimes worldwide. In Africa, Reagan’s first target was Angola, where Cuban troops were into the eleventh year of their operations. He persuaded Congress to repeal the Clark Amendment, and the CIA began a covert action program to support the UNITA guerrillas who were still actively fighting the MPLA regime—and, indirectly, Cuba.
Reagan’s action in Angola became the first U.S. Cold War activity in sub-Saharan Africa. It lasted only three years. Shortly after President George H.W. Bush came into office in 1989, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev made a personal plea that the US and USSR work together to bring an end to civil wars in Angola and Ethiopia. The Soviets were spending $1 billion per year in each nation in the form of arms flows and military advisers on the ground. Gorbachev considered those programs to be a waste of money.
During the last two years of the Reagan Administration, his Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Chester Crocker, negotiated with South Africa, Angola, and Cuba to bring about the independence of Namibia, a trust territory of the United Nations. This resulted in the departure of the Cuban troops from Angola in 1988, thereby removing a major Cold War political irritant for Washington.
In addition to support for the UNITA rebels in Angola, President Reagan was also inclined to provide support for the anti-government rebels in Mozambique, RENAMO, who opposed the Marxist regime there. RENAMO’s main source of arms was the white minority apartheid government in South Africa. As his Senior Adviser for Africa on the National Security Council staff in early 1987, I persuaded Reagan not to embark on that path because of RENAMO’s horrendous human rights violations.
Thus, President Eisenhower’s initial policy decision in 1957 to discourage big power confrontation in Africa has largely been upheld, except for the brief three-year period, 1986-1989, when the Reagan Doctrine was applied to Angola.
China’s Role in Africa
Over the past two decades, China has established a major presence in Africa. China has provided a large amount of soft loans to African governments to enable Chinese state-owned companies to do major infrastructure projects in Africa. In return, China has been able to assure guaranteed access to African commodities needed by its own economy, mainly oil and strategic minerals. The United States has viewed China’s growing presence in Africa less as a hostile challenge to U.S. influence, and more as a set of problems that Africans need to manage. The U.S. does not view China’s presence in Africa as a danger to U.S. interests on the continent.
The overall U.S. message to Africa, continued by the Trump Administration, is “development depends on your own policy reforms. To the extent that you do the right things, the U.S. is with you all the way.”
The one aspect of Trump’s international policy that might have adversely impacted Africa was in his first budget, which called for a 30% reduction in foreign assistance worldwide. Fortunately for Africa, the Congress did not go along with the reduction, thereby giving the continent at least another year of full U.S. support for their economic reform programs. The Africans have received a signal, however, that good times are not likely to continue indefinitely.
Herman J. Cohen is a retired State Department career ambassador who specialized in US-Africa relations. He was assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President George H.W. Bush, and senior director for Africa on the National Security Council staff under President Ronald Reagan. Since retirement from the Foreign Service, he has been doing consulting work for American companies doing business in Africa.