Dehai News Column: The Trump administration is starting to pay attention to Africa

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Column: The Trump administration is starting to pay attention to Africa

President Donald Trump’s first policy statement about Africa took place at the United Nations last September when he hosted a lunch for African heads of state. He correctly identified two major internal conflicts in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as urgent priorities for the international community. He sent Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, to visit both countries, and she returned with policy recommendations that are now being implemented.

In late January, after he was alleged to have made disparaging remarks about Africa, the president sent a very warm message to the 30th summit meeting of the African Union, and announced that he would be sending Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to visit Africa in March. The fight against "jihadist" terrorism is the administration’s highest priority in Africa, which is not surprising. Because of the active terrorist militias in Somalia, northeast Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, the United States has about 5,000 military advisers and some combat forces deployed in and nearby these nations.

In the strategic country of Djibouti, at the southern entrance to the Red Sea, the United States has 2,000 military deployed against the terrorist group al-Shabaab in Somalia. United States air attacks from Djibouti against Shabaab concentrations have been effective in keeping this terrorist group off-balance while the Somali government builds up its own forces.

In the Republic of Niger, just below the Sahara Desert, the U.S. military is establishing a drone base to enable rapid identification of moving terrorist militias throughout the sub-region. In addition, the Trump administration has contributed $65 million to a new counterterrorist grouping, called the G-5, made up of the republics of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.

In the realm of economic policy, Trump’s message to the African heads of state emphasized the importance of private sector investment as the main motor of development. He expressed the view that economic growth will come mainly from the expansion of the private sector that should gradually replace foreign aid. He said that he would like to see more American companies investing in production facilities in Africa, and that Tillerson, as a former president of Exxon with significant experience doing business in Africa, will help facilitate the arrival of U.S. companies.

The idea of trade and investment replacing foreign aid as the main motors of development in Africa started to gain strength during the Clinton administration that enacted the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). This legislation provides for duty-free entry of merchandise produced in Africa, thereby giving African countries a significant advantage over exporters in other regions. Until now, African countries have not been able to take much advantage of AGOA because of deficiencies in infrastructure, mainly in the power and transportation sectors.

President George W. Bush’s administration established the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) that identifies the countries with the best performance in good governance and fiscal management that will receive special attention in the allocation of aid for expensive infrastructure projects.

President Barack Obama’s administration established the "Power Africa" project designed to attract private investors into power generation. This project has helped a number of African countries increase their power capacity to the point where investors in production facilities are starting to move in.

Because of the work of the United States and other donors, especially the World Bank, Africa now has a growing middle class representing about 10 percent of the continent’s overall population of 1 billion. These people have purchasing power that is attracting companies like Walmart and the Ford Motor Co.

The race against population growth, the ongoing fight against "jihadist" terrorism, and the importance of expanding infrastructure are Africa’s most important challenges. The Trump administration is clearly on the right track in addressing these issues in Africa. Unfortunately, the administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2018, which calls for a 30 percent reduction in foreign aid, is contrary to its own policy priorities in Africa. Hopefully, Congress will rectify this policy/budget contradiction.

Herman J. Cohen was a career Foreign Service officer and specialist in African and European affairs. In his last position before retiring, he was assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President George H.W. Bush.

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