By Arab News
By Hafed Al-Ghwell *
In its approach to a continent crisscrossed by the effects of competing national self-interests among far-off powers and aspiring hegemons, it is a little unsettling that the world’s largest economy and military power would sooner relegate itself to a back seat in Africa than pursue a coherent policy to better safeguard its professed ideals.
In the past few decades, a less than wholesome US presence in the Maghreb, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa has mostly prioritized counterterrorism operations and concomitant, albeit limited, humanitarian interventions.
Over the years, billions of dollars have been poured into endless wars on “undesirables” as a preamble to promises of building things anew or restoring some semblance of peace, order and stability. It does not take more than cursory reflection, however, to realize how little has been achieved where so much has been expended.
This is not a criticism of the spirit and intent of what the US hopes to achieve in Africa between now and 2050, which would be a much-needed departure from a hypocritical, paternalistic and “all stick, no carrot” approach that changed very little throughout the colonial era and even after the Cold War.
Rather than take an active role in fostering democratization, reshaping geopolitics on the continent and establishing mutually beneficial partnerships, Western policies have always prized short-term “wins” that gambled on repressive regimes to maintain a veneer of stability.
As a result, extremist violence has increased threefold in the past decade, doubling in the past three years alone. Aside from the humanitarian toll resulting from the accelerating self-predation among states, prolonged periods of instability and insecurity also endanger globe-spanning efforts to, for example, combat the debilitating effects of climate change, worldwide hunger, poverty and illiteracy, as bullets, bombs and mortars fill the vacuum where dialogue and state-building have failed, if they were even initiated at all.
Unsurprisingly, decades of neglect and fly-by, self-serving diplomacy practiced by Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington have created a palpable trust deficit across Africa as geopolitical tensions simmer the world over.
More assertive leaders, eyeing some measure of leverage in the widening rifts among the world’s foremost powers, are increasingly resistant to dubious overtures from the West. Instead they are strengthening political and economic ties with China and security links with Russia.
There is very little nostalgia for the heydays when Washington, Brussels, Paris or Berlin dictated affairs on the continent with little pushback. On the other hand the renewed appreciation for, and intensifying competition over, Africa’s vast untapped potential has prompted a fresh scramble to engage with the continent, with new embassies popping up, commercial ties rapidly expanding and defense ties increasing even among nontraditional geopolitical actors.
The White House hoped to upend this emerging dynamic by convening a US-Africa Leaders’ Summit last week, the first since 2014, which would encourage a reworked strategy that aims for fewer guns and more governance. After all, a severe lack of the latter remains a major driver of bitterness, violent extremism, partisanship, terrorism and/or the absence of the rule of law across African sub-regions. This in turn fuels existing transnational threats or sponsors new ones, creating incentives for rival forces to wade in and complicate conflict dynamics, which only makes peace-building and state restoration all the more challenging.
In the north, for instance, poor governance has decimated any likelihood of Tunisia emerging as the first truly democratic state in the Arab world, following the 2011 upheavals in the country and the decade of consternation that followed.
Meanwhile, Libya remains deeply fragmented as an array of external actors compete to guide the trajectory of the country through a troubled transition toward some as-yet undefined end state, with very little participation from the ordinary Libyan people who bear the brunt of the endless malaise.
Elsewhere, across the Sahel failed counterterrorism strategies have left citizens marginalized as their governments, compromised by corruption and incompetence, unleash unaccountable security forces on the public, exacerbating grievances and fueling the emergence of extremist groups that have some support from desperate locals.
In West Africa, the US-Nigeria partnership established to combat the Daesh affiliate Boko Haram suffers from the same immutable malignancy of failed security-focused interventions, resulting in Nigerian government forces perpetrating some of the worst examples of human rights abuses with weapons bought from the Americans.
The Horn of Africa is perhaps the biggest example of how years-long, security-focused interventions have yet to materially turn the tide in an unstable part of the world. The endless struggle against Al-Shabab has resulted in needless civilian casualties from airstrikes and joint US-Somali military operations, which only helps to fuel the extremist, Al-Qaeda-linked group’s propaganda and recruitment of disaffected youths.
The examples are as endless as they are gruesome and serve as grim reminders of the woeful legacy from the West of a combination of absenteeism, overbearing paternalism and lop-sided anchor-state strategies in Africa.
Through its new strategy announced in August, and showcased during the summit last week, the US seeks to dissociate itself from its historical failures of training, equipping and partnering with elements notorious for their human rights abuses and state collapse, simply because they could aid counterterrorism or counterinsurgency operations.
Overall, the current administration in Washington is ticking all the right boxes when it talks about open societies, democratization dividends, climate change, energy justice and economic opportunities, all of which are critical issues that need to be tackled as part of the efforts to reset a fraught relationship between the US and the African people along with their leaders.
However, the efforts should not stop at expressions of idealism, rousing speeches and waxing poetic about the need to recognize Africa as a major player that can help address a number of global issues on which the US cannot make progress without the continent’s input and acquiescence — America simply must do more.
Positive intent has to be matched by actual investments in improved governance and the aforementioned priorities, which are still lagging even as US credibility hangs in the balance on a continent slowly waking up to the changing realities of a fragmented world.
For every dollar currently invested on the continent, only five cents go toward addressing the underlying fragilities that undermine any progress Washington hopes to make to resuscitate its tattered reputation and restore credibility for its strategy of reengagement.
If America wants its efforts in Africa to succeed this time, it must bring more to the table because the continent has repeatedly demonstrated that it has no qualms about engaging with Washington’s rivals, even if they would sooner escalate conflicts or prolong malaise instead of engaging in good faith on a range of shared issues.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the Ibn Khaldun Strategic Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell