L'Europe et l'Afrique : The United States takes a fresh look at Africa

Longtemps considéré comme relevant de la seule responsabilité des anciennes puissances coloniales, le continent africain suscite de plus en plus l’intérêt des investisseurs et du gouvernement américains. Même si l’Afrique, notamment francophone, demeure une terra incognita pour la majorité des Américains, les progrès réalisés en termes de démocratisation et la plus large part donnée au secteur privé jouent en faveur de certains pays africains. Ceux-ci devront toutefois accélérer leur intégration régionale et produire à meilleur coût s’ils veulent accéder au marché américain et convaincre les investisseurs privés de venir chez eux. Car, vue d’Amérique, l’Afrique reste trop instable et trop morcelée. Et, bien qu’elle ne constitue plus un bloc homogène, elle doit encore faire ses preuves.

The American view of Africa is beginning to change. It is now more realistic and less romantic or condescending than it has been in the past. For the relatively small number of Americans who are interested in Africa, the continent used to present one of two images. For the political left, Africa represented the anti-colonial struggle and the fight to limit the "plundering grasp" of the multinational corporations. For the political right, Africa represented an object of humanitarian concern requiring international charity rather than capitalist investment for which the continent was considered to be not well adapted.

Other factors contributing to America’s distorted view of Africa included the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and above all a general sense of guilt because of the slave trade and the more recent civil rights struggle for Black equality within the United States. All of these factors prevented the American Government from speaking frankly to African leaders about the misguided economic policies they adopted after independence in the 1960’s. These policies of state-centered ownership and control of the major productive enterprises were guaranteed to cause economic decline in Africa. The Americans knew this, but preferred to remain silent because the Africans were given a special exemption from criticism. In any event, from the point of view of overall foreign policy, the United States preferred to assign primary responsibility for Africa to the former colonial powers.

The turning point of the Gulf War

The end of the Cold War, the Middle East Peace Process, and the end of apartheid in South Africa have removed the main external or emotional issues from U.S.-Africa relations. Americans are now looking at Africa more as potential economic partners, and as allies in the area of the so-called "global issues" — environment, non-proliferation of nuclear and conventional weapons, narcotics traffic, human rights, democratization, terrorism, and international peace-keeping operations.

Americans who follow African developments closely take a positive view of what has been happening there since 1990. The U.S. Government was surprisedand pleased in 1990 with the way Africa enthusiastically joined in the United Nations decision to forcibly eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Until that moment, Saddam Hussein had made many friends in Africa through the nonaligned movement. Washington feared that Africa would demonstrate solidarity with Saddam against the American "imperialists". But the Africans saw the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait for what it really was, naked aggression. As former Head of the Nonaligned Movement, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, said at the time, "We Africans do not like it when big countries gobble up little ones".

The Americans are also pleased with the way so many African governments are moving toward democratization and free market economic systems. They are particularly drawn toward the "second generation" of African leaders who are replacing the original group that came to power in the 1960’s. The leaders who are making a particularly favorable impressions in the U.S. include Museveni of Uganda, Konaré of Mali, Rawlings of Ghana, Chissano of Mozambique, Bédié of Côte d’Ivoire, Masire of Botswana, Diouf of Sénégal, Mkapa of Tanzania, and Mbeke of South Africa.

The danger of civil conflicts

While the majority of African countries have started political transitions from the one-party state toward democracy, there are several that are blocked by ruling groups who are trapped in the old systems of ethnic patronage. As far as these countries are concerned, the United States is worried about the dangers of civil conflict which inevitably leads to major humanitarian catastrophes as we have witnessedin Somalia, the Sudan, and the Great Lakes region. That is why the Clinton Administration is placing so much emphasis on helping the Organization of African Unity build capacity for conflict prevention,management and resolution. Included in this scenariois the development of an African Crisis Response Force of 10,000 trained and well-equipped troops that will be able to answer a call from the OAU or the UN to intervene in a civil conflict in order to prevent genocide, starvation, and other disasters. If the OAU, the U.S., France andthe UK can agree on a formula, the crisis response force should become a reality before the end of the century.

For the emerging democracies, the U.S. understands quite well that full democracy cannot be achieved overnight. Democratization is always in a state of evolution, even in the West. That is why the American Government feels that the achievement of good governance over the short term merits a high priority in Africa. The President of France expressed agreement with this concept in December, 1996, during the biennial France-African Summit Conference in Ouagadougou. For this reason, American development cooperation in Africa in the immediate future will give increasing emphasis to the building of civil society, transparent government and the rule of law.

Africa not anymore in the "charity case"

With respect to American economic policy toward Africa, the growing conservatism of U.S. domestic policy will undoubtedly be reflected in foreign policy. For many years until the present time, Washington has viewed Africa less as an object of economic policy and more as an object of humanitarian policy. This is unfortunate, because as many as fifteen African countries have begun to experience significant economic rates of growth above five percent per annum. But Washington’s obsolete view of Africa continues to dominate economic policy. One need only look at U.S. programs in the CIS states, most of which are far behind Africa in terms of infrastructure, to understand that Africa has been languishing in a special category which one could call "the charity case". When one asks why the U.S. programs in the CIS states, agro-industry development for example, are not duplicated in Africa, the response is usually, "Africa is not ready for such initiatives."

Thanks to the conservatives and the pragmatists in the U.S. Congress, American economic policy toward Africa is in the process of change. The Republicans, who do not like social welfare at home, are also disdainful of social welfare programsabroad. They are looking increasingly at Africa and are saying, "What can we do to help Africa become viable trade and investment partners ?"

An increased access to U.S. Markets

When African countries begin to earn significant revenues from trade and investment flows, they will be in a far better position to finance improvements in infrastructure, health and education than with official development assistance, which is declining. Most financial flows from the developed to the developing world are now in the form of private transfers. The American conservatives want to help Africa capture a far greater share of those flows than their current low level of only two percent. For that reason, we will probably see major changes in U.S. foreign assistance policy toward Africa which will emphasize increased access to U.S. markets for African exports, and the financing of joint ventures between the American and African private sectors.

As far as the U.S. private sector is concerned, interest in Africa is increasing which is demonstrated by the growing power in Washington of the Corporate Council on Africa. This is a grouping of the 100 most important American corporations that have business interests in Africa. The CCA’s influence on African policy is significant as seen by their ability to block the imposition of severe economic sanctionson Nigeria during 1996.

For the short term, American private sector interest in Africa is likely to be limited to oil exploration, mining (especially gold), electric power production, and telecommunications. Electric power and telecommunications, of course, have very large potentials for expansion in Africa given the low degree of development so far. As far as other types of investments are concerned, especially in manufacturing and agro-industry, Americans are finding some opportunities in selected countries in such areas as flour milling, automobile assembly, fishing, and water pump production.

American investments are not likely to become very significant, however, until Africa becomes more competitive in terms of the cost of doing business. The costs and reliability of electricity, water supply, transportation and other services are still too high in Africa compared to Asia and Latin America. For example, the same container ship that can be unloaded in four hours in Hong Kong harbor still takes four days for unloading in the port of Mombasa. The same problem holds true for sea transportation where monopolistic cartels maintain artificially high prices compared to other regions. Finally, the size of many African internal markets are considered to be too small for today’s manufacturing industries.

Toward more regional economic integration

The twenty or so countries in Africa that are starting to experience significant growth understand the importance of becoming more competitive to attract investments. They are starting to become serious about regional economic integration in order to establish larger markets. This is especially true in the South where the Southern African Development Community is advancing toward a common market, as are the Eastern trio of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and the seven francophone countries of West Africa in the Union économique et monétaire de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (UEMAO).

With the same objective of increased competitiveness, the serious countries of Africa are beginning to privatize the key industries of importance to investors such as telecommunications and power production. Such actions serve the triple role of improving infrastructure, lowering costs, and introducing the successful foreign purchasers to their countries. American telecommunications and power generating companies that are now moving into Africa will undoubtedly be followed by others if their initial experiences are positive.

A selected approach to Africa

Americans are finally beginning to cast aside the distorted and over-romantic views of Africa that burdened them until recently. They are now looking for Africans who can attract their investments and trade. They know that generalizations about Africa are no longer valid. Forty percent of African countries are starting to become interesting for the business community. The others are lagging behind or are in serious trouble because of internal conflict. Americans are beginning to understand the differences and to react accordingly.

One cannot say that Africa is likely to become a continent commanding as high a policy priority in the U.S. during the next five years as the rest of the world. But to the extent that Africa can make itself more competitive for business investment and trade, it will find the U.S. private sector more than willing to play a major role in the continent’s future development. A deeper relationship between the U.S. and a selected number of African countries will undoubtedly develop because these countries are responding to the new U.S. approach with a determination to end their dependency on foreign assistance and to do what is necessary to become competitive in the global market place.

By contrast, the African countries that continue to refuse political transition to democracy and good governance, and are therefore in danger of disintegration, will be of interest not to investors, but to the United States Government and to humanitarian organizations which will do everything possible to help Africa prevent, manage and resolve civil conflict. While still not as well understood by Americans as Asia and Latin America, Africa is now sufficiently known in the United States so that when African countries present interesting economic opportunities, they will find Americans present for the rendez-vous.

Publié dans la revue l'Année Européenne 1997, dans le dossier l'Europe et l'Afrique