Recently, in light of its ongoing confrontation with China, the United States has started seeking opportunities to expand its influence in Africa increasingly more actively. Just as other leading world players, Washington has shown interest in the continent because of its natural resources and strategic location, i.e. the main reasons why the US “battle over Africa” is seemingly ramping up.
At present, the continent’s population exceeds 1 billion, and over 50% of these individuals are young people under the age of 25. Approximately 200 million Africans can now be classified as middle class. In fact, the corresponding figure for the United States is estimated to be lower. In addition, the African continent has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. And if an external player wishes to benefit from Africa’s growing economy and consumer market, it ought to increase its investments in the continent’s manufacturing sectors so that Africans have more money to spend.
As for US policy in Africa, it is important to note that at no point in time did Washington make substantial investments in this continent that could have signaled its long-term commitment to cooperation with its nations. Africa’s natural resource sector is one of few spheres that the United States has been involved in, via transnational companies, over time. And investments made in it were minimal. Many African governments were rather happy with such an arrangement and might have often benefited from it, while the needs of ordinary people remained unmet.
In such a climate and on account of increasing tensions (stoked by Washington) between the United States and China, which have also manifested themselves in a trade war, recently, African nations preferred to develop relations with the PRC (from whom they received substantial investments) rather than the US. Criticism directed by American politicians against China’s predatory policies in Africa did not have a desired impact. After all, Beijing’s long-term commitments in the region and its promises of increased investments with minimum politically-motivated demands in return are not easy to top, especially with words only. Hence, the battle for Africa between the PRC and the United States is only beginning.
It should not come as a surprise that Africa’s relations with nations, such as Russia, China, India and Turkey, are developing far more effectively than those with the USA and Europe. African residents have explained this situation by expressing reservations and fear about the West’s exceedingly militant policies (i.e. resolving issues via armed interventions). Over the past 20 years or so, the United States and Europe have relied on their military clout to foster relations with African nations by cooperating in the security sphere and trying to increase the presence of Western troops in the region. The fact is that the US military presence in Africa has been growing. At the same time, the situation in some parts of Africa periodically deteriorates, and in the absence of positive changes within societies, local protest movements and support for the opposition increase. And various radical religious groups, including Daesh (a terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation), use such instability to their advantage. Revolutions and civil wars in this part of the world do not, for the most part, stem from external factors, unlike in the Middle East (where Washington is the source of instability), and instead from domestic opposition movements and uprisings. All of this pushes governments of African countries to look for new strategic partners who could help them find solutions to complex economic and humanitarian issues.
The US leadership has finally understood the extent of these problems. At the end of 2019, after the US Export-Import Bank approved $5 billion in financing for a liquid natural gas project in Mozambique, US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross stated that the United States planned “to substantially increase two-way trade and investment between the US and Africa”. Providing financing for the Mozambique project supports the US government’s Prosper Africa Initiative, involving the launch of Deal Teams in African countries. The DC Deal Team is a proactive multi-agency US government body, and Embassy Deal Teams have already been established in African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Senegal and Rwanda.
Despite Washington’s push to increase two-way trade and investment between the United States and Africa, including by establishing the United States-Sub-Saharan Africa Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum (AGOA Forum) supported by US Congress, it is important to remember that such efforts are by far not as wide-spread as those aimed at expanding the US military presence in Africa. In order to consolidate the US position in the continent, the United States is continuing to use its military clout to its advantage. The US Department of Defense has recently sought to increase its engagement with agencies in a number of African countries. And this could consolidate the US military presence in the region.
On February 28, 2019, the Tunisie Telegraph website reported that the US company Engility had obtained its first contract in Tunisia. The firm, which provides engineering and logistics services to several US military and civilian agencies, was to focus on protecting key infrastructure facilities in Tunisia, which the US needs, and furthermore on establishing special zones in that country, which the US could later use as footholds to expand its influence in the region. In addition, on May 30, 2020, The National reported that the United States military was “looking to send one of its Security Force Assistance Brigades to Tunisia for training, as part of its assistance programme for the North African country”. However it is obvious today that such actions are aimed at increasing the US military presence in North Africa and at establishing control over the extraction and sale of Libya’s fossil fuels.
In this context, the US leadership is engaging more actively with military and political players in the Libyan conflict as well as Algeria. On October 2, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper visited Algeria. It was the first time an American Defense Secretary came to that country since 2006. The visit was a first step for the US, and Mike Esper hoped “to deepen cooperation with Algeria on key regional security issues, such as the threat posed by extremist groups”.