An American “Reset” for Africa?

Africa no longer needs the U.S. as a benefactor. It wants a relationship based on mutual interests.

August 6, 2014

U.S. President Barack Obama in Accra, Ghana, in 2009. (Credit: Pete Souza - White House)

By all accounts, the United States – which generally prides itself on being a discoverer of trends – is essentially a “Johnny Come Lately” to the “Africa Rising” story.

As if to make amends, President Obama is hosting the largest ever gathering of African heads of states and business leaders in Washington, D.C. The effort goes to show the seriousness with which his administration sees the need for a “reset” in U.S.- Africa relations.

The “reset” is long over due. Obama knows full well that it should have been among his first-term priorities, especially in view of the expectations that were created by his historic election victory in 2008.

Back then, most Africans thought he would put their continent first. That did not happen. Most Africans think Obama’s engagement with Africa thus far has not lived up to what they thought would be possible under a U.S. president born of a Kenyan father and a U.S. mother.

This summit, in many ways, presented Obama with the opportunity to redeem himself, mainly by showing concrete ways of how the U.S. plans to engage with Africa.

A relationship of mutual interests

Mind you, this is not the “old Africa game.” Our continent does not need the United States as a benefactor. We want a relationship with the United States that is based on mutual interests.

Simply put, the Africa of yesterday is not the Africa of today.

The shadow of an Africa riddled with stories of famine, war and thuggish dictators is fast dissipating. There is a sustained push underway by Africans to build a prosperous continent.

The Africa of this generation needs true allies — not prospectors.

Today’s Africa represents an immense opportunity for the United States to play a key role in its development. This is especially relevant in critical areas of technology, education, infrastructure, energy, healthcare, environment, entrepreneurship and governance.

Although the United States has seen its economic fortunes badly bruised by the financial crisis of 2008-9, it still commands serious clout as the world’s most advanced economy. It should not rest on its past laurels. After all, China readies itself to become the world’s largest economy in a few years with great determination.

That it has taken this long for the United States to get its act on Africa together suggests that Washington has not been quite certain about how to go about doing that.

Commerce and Economic Opportunity

In recent years, Washington has put far too much emphasis on the security dimension, as compared to commerce and economic opportunity. While the former is important, the best long-term strategy against political and military insecurity, of course, is strengthening economic growth.

The challenge for Obama, though, is that the reality of any new commitment will depend on the number of tangible outcomes emerging from the summit. Africa is no longer a continent where warm and mellifluous words suffice.

To be convincing, the summit needs to show the world real plans, deals, investments and partnerships that speak to the interests of both the United States and Africa.

Convening a summit is always the easy part.  The hardest part will be when Africans at the summit start saying: show us the money. In that regard, the Chinese have blazed a trail.

Chinese slogan: “Seek truth from facts”

China has put Africa left, right and center of its investment and development strategy.

I recall a conversation I had recently with a senior Chinese government official. He shared one Chinese saying with me: “Seek truth from facts.” Not everything is golden when it comes to Chinese activities in Africa. But the truth is that China has positioned itself as a partner for Africa.
In fact, most Africans would be hard pressed to see China as anything other than a committed ally.

And the cold fact facing the United States right now is that by and large the United States needs Africa more than Africa needs the United States.

Despite his latest effort, Obama will be hard pressed to become the game-changer for the U.S.-Africa partnership. Even if he pulled off a stunner, let’s be realistic: The success of his latest initiative will be determined by those U.S. administrations that follow him after he leaves office.

Takeaways

The US is essentially a “Johnny Come Lately” to the “Africa Rising” story. Can it catch up?

China has put Africa left, right and center of its investment and development strategy.

Amazing world: The US needs Africa more than Africa needs the US.