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USA/Africa: Build Back Better on Africa Policy

AfricaFocus Bulletin
November 30, 2020 (2020-11-30)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

“President Trump's overt contempt for Africans is encapsulated in his famously crass remark about African countries. But the principal damage to Africa has stemmed from his administration’s broader policy choices, such as the disastrous rejection of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris climate accords; harsh curbs on legal immigration and asylum; and gutting of gender equality programs. … Nevertheless, the Biden administration should not merely go back to the pre-Trump status quo. … We argue that an even more fundamental questioning of U.S. Africa-related policy is needed.” - Imani Countess and William Minter

As in all areas of the incoming administration's policy, there is much uncertainty about what it will be and what self-imposed and external restraints it will face. This AfricaFocus Bulletin does not answer those questions with any assured predictions. The outcomes will depend not only on the administration itself, Congress, grass roots pressure, and the diplomacy of African countries themselves as well as the impact of other global developments.

This article contains the article cited above, which appeared first in Responsible Statecraft, laying out not policy predictions but rather an alternative framework for policy. It also contains brief excerpts and links to other analyses of the potential Biden policies, and another article also published in Responsible Statecraft, by Elizabeth Shackelford, who was a U.S. diplomat until December 2017 when she resigned in protest of the administration. She served in Somalia, South Sudan, Poland, and Washington, DC. Shackelford's article focuses on the failures of current U.S. policy on Ethiopia.

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin sent out today, and available on the web at http:///, focuses on potential shifts in climate policy under the new administration.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on U.S. Africa policy, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

To build back better on Africa policy, the Biden administration needs new thinking on priorities

by William Minter and Imani Countess

First published in Responsible Statecraft on November 25, 2020

President Trump's overt contempt for Africans is encapsulated in his famously crass remark about African countries. But the principal damage to Africa has stemmed from his administration’s broader policy choices, such as the disastrous rejection of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris climate accords; harsh curbs on legal immigration and asylum; and gutting of gender equality programs.

Most recently, Trump’s remarks supporting Egypt in its dispute with Ethiopia over the construction of a dam on the Nile River have inflamed tensions in a volatile region. And now his administration's failure to call for deescalation and dialogue in the conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region is likely to have disastrous consequences in fueling expanded war.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration should not merely go back to the pre-Trump status quo. As noted by John Campbell of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trump administration has made fewer changes to Africa policy than expected. Campbell calls for a “reset.” We argue that an even more fundamental questioning of U.S. Africa-related policy is needed.

The record of both Republican and Democratic administrations, over more than six decades, has been mixed, ranging from destructive interventions to neglect to—far less often—productive collaboration with Africans on common goals. If the Biden mantra of Build Back Better is to be applied to Africa, we need to think about new frameworks to guide policy rather than retreading the shibboleths of the past.

The new administration should abandon the temptation to offer lessons to Africa. Instead, the United States should strive to understand African realities and address problems in a spirit of collaboration and mutual learning. This requires rebuilding the capacity for diplomacy and also taking account of how other U.S. government agencies and institutions outside the foreign policy arena directly affect Africa's future.

The following guidelines are essential for not repeating the many mistakes of the past.

First, do no harm

1. Avoid counterproductive military engagements, a point also made by earlier commentators in Responsible Statecraft. Whether in the Sahel, Nigeria, or Somalia, counterinsurgency efforts and government repression have fueled rather than quelled Islamic insurgencies. Analysts are virtually unanimous that foreign intervention to counter the growing insurgency in Mozambique's Cabo Delgado province would be a disaster.

There are no easy answers to such conflicts. But the U.S. priority must be to support multilateral initiatives in conflict resolution and peacekeeping, as well as humanitarian relief. Rather than assuming that Washington knows best, the incoming administration should heed advice from knowledgeable sources, such as the recent letter from over 80 African studies scholars on response to police brutality in Nigeria.

2. Do not subordinate Africa policy to a new cold war with China. For decades, U.S. Africa policy was harnessed to the Cold War with the Soviet Union. This led to disastrous interventions in the Congo and to the de facto alliance with apartheid South Africa. The competition with China in Africa is economic rather than military. but a blinkered vision ignoring Africa's own interests is self-defeating. It also misses the opportunities for cooperation as well as competition with China.

U.S. policymakers should recognize that, despite the wide disparities in size and power, African countries, like the United States, must find their way in a multipolar world. This requires managing opportunities for cooperation, as well as threats, from a wide range of external powers, and is incompatible with simplistic binary choices.

3. Do not impose the false gospels of austerity and privatization on African countries. In developed and developing countries alike, market fundamentalism, denying the essential role of government in promoting development, has failed to deliver. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have begun to admit this failure, but old guidelines are still applied to countries too weak to determine their own policies.

U.S. policymakers should instead learn from African thinkers such as Thandika Mkandawire and the economists at the Addis Ababa–based UN Economic Commission for Africa. They share the growing global consensus that state investment in public goods and strategic state leadership in development strategy are prerequisites for sustainable and equitable development. This thinking is reflected in a new co-authored book, African Economic Development: Evidence, Theory, Policy, available for free download from Oxford University Press.

U.S. policymakers should learn from African thinkers such as Thandika Mkandawire and the economists at the Addis Ababa–based UN Economic Commission for Africa. Pictured above from left to right are Thandika Mkandawire and the most recent executive secretaries of the UNECA, Carlos Lopes and Vera Songwe.

Then, think globally and work collaboratively

The United States and African countries face many of the same global issues, and these must be addressed at multiple levels. Coordination is complex and always imperfect. But collaboration is essential, both with African countries and, to the extent possible, with multilateral agencies and other external actors.

The U.S. contribution can be significant in three areas:

1. Global health: Despite lack of resources, African countries have done better than the United States and many European countries in coping with the Covid-19 pandemic. While they have not matched the success of the Asia Pacific region, they have benefited from early action and from proactive coordination by the WHO regional office and the Africa CDC.

The United States, which lags the world in recognition of the universal right to health, needs to put its own house in order. But it also has a responsibility to pay its fair share in supporting public health in African and other developing countries. As Covid-19 makes clear, that is the prudent as well as moral thing to do.

2. Climate change: Africa is the continent most vulnerable to global climate change, though it has contributed the least to causing it. Many African countries depend on fossil fuel exports. Much of the rural population relies on charcoal for cooking, contributing to the loss of tree cover. Fiscal resources for both mitigation and adaptation fall far short of the need.

The U.S. return to the Paris climate agreement will be only a first step. Renewable energy is expanding rapidly in Africa and there is enormous potential for additional expansion, drawing private and public investment from the countries most responsible for the problem. There is room for both the United States and China if they are willing to work with African partners.

3. Tax justice: Tax evasion, tax avoidance, and illicit financial flows have eroded the fiscal capacity of African governments. African civil society as well as governments have called for international action. But success depends on action in the United States and other major financial centers, where global banks, accounting firms, and legal firms help secretive corporations and individuals hide financial assets.

Giant multinational corporations also avoid taxation by shifting assets to jurisdictions with lower tax rates. The internet giants Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, for example, avoided as much as $2.8 billion in taxes in 20 developing countries.

In the United States, legislative action is key to greater transparency, as advocated by the Financial Transparency and Corporate Accountability Coalition. But strong executive actions also have a role to play. Stemming illicit financial flows could have more impact on African countries’ fiscal capacity to meet their own needs than either aid or trade.

It is likely that the Biden administration’s Africa policy will largely reflect continuity with previous administrations. But Africa and the United States share common interests that are increasingly visible, and this gives some hope that, with creative diplomacy, greater humility, and attention to African concerns, policymakers can move closer to mutually beneficial engagement.

The bottom line is that U.S. Africa policy will be most productive if U.S. policymakers are willing to learn and collaborate rather than to preach or dictate.

Other Commentaries on Biden Africa Policy

Center for International Policy Policy Brief

Africa Program, November 20, 2020

Biden Administration's US-Africa Foreign Policy Plan

This 2-page brief provides an overview of what is likely to happen. It also contains these specific suggestions under the title “What We Want to See.”

  • Abandon the over-militarized approach to counter-terrorism and close all U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) bases. Promote peaceful negotiated resolutions of conflicts in Somalia, Libya, the Sahel and Nigeria beginning with ceasefire agreements to protect civilians in the time of COVID19.
  • Resolve Africa’s last colonial question by working through the United Nations and with the A.U. to re-establish a ceasefire between Morocco and the Polisario Front, and to implement the UN-backed referendum for the Western Sahara to achieve self-determination for the Sahrawi people.
  • Become a reliable partner in Africa’s fight against COVID-19 and join the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) facility to ensure that African countries get equal access to a potential vaccine.
  • Support Special Drawing Rights (SDRS) and debt cancellation efforts while supporting the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTA).
  • Rejoin the Paris Agreement and help Africa mitigate the effects of climate change through financing.
  • Reverse the travel bans imposed by the Trump administration on citizens of Somalia, Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania and Libya. Halt the deportations of Cameroonians and other Africans fleeing conflict. Provide protection for immigrants and refugees.
  • Help African countries invest in the youth through job creation.

The Biden-Harris Agenda for the African Diaspora

“How a Biden administration will change US-Africa relations, “ by Yinka Adegoke
Quartz Africa, November 6, 2020

“U.S. Africa Policy Needs a Reset: Trump Didn’t Tear Up the Playbook, but It Still Needs to Be Rewritten, “ By John Campbell
Foreign Affairs, October 12, 2020

"Obama didn't deliver for Africa: Can Biden show black lives matter everywhere" by Vava Tampa
The Guardian, November 30, 2020


U.S. diplomacy is failing in Ethiopia, in new ways and old

by Elizabeth Shackelford

Responsible Statecraft, November 28, 2020

Elizabeth Shackelford was a U.S. diplomat until December 2017 when she resigned in protest of the administration. She served in Somalia, South Sudan, Poland, and Washington, DC.

The conflict in Ethiopia emerges from a long and complex political history and could easily spiral further out of control. U.S. diplomacy today is under-resourced and uncoordinated, with its leadership asleep at the wheel, leaving Washington poorly positioned to help avert the emerging disaster. America’s blunt diplomatic approach to Ethiopia historically, however, would struggle to play a constructive role, too.

On November 4, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed kicked off a war by sending troops into the Tigray region. Tigray is home to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a well-armed political party representing an ethnic minority that makes up about six percent of the Ethiopian population. Abiy asserts that the military offensive was in response to an attack by TPLF forces on a military base, but an ongoing communications blackout complicates efforts to confirm facts on the ground, including allegations of widespread human rights abuses.

The Ethiopian government has been quick to investigate ethnically motivated attacks allegedly committed by the TPLF, including the reported massacre of 600 civilians in the town Mai-Kadra, but its access restrictions have prevented investigations into reports of government forces targeting civilians. Meanwhile, Tigrayan civilians in the capital Addis Ababa and across the country are reportedly being harassed and detained, raising the alarming possibility of a broader campaign of ethnic targeting. These concerns are reinforced by the Ethiopian government’s forceful repatriation of Tigrayan officers serving in U.N. peacekeeping missions outside the country, and fears they may face torture or even execution upon their return.

The TPLF and central government have been at odds since Abiy’s election in 2018, following the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn that ended 27 years of repressive TPLF rule. Abiy is the country’s first prime minister from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo. Resolving the growing political tension between the central government and the TPLF was always going to be a challenge, but a deliberate and robust diplomatic effort to press for transparent accountability and inclusion from the start would have had far better chances of success than hasty efforts now to stop the violence. Unfortunately, that has not been the modus operandi of U.S. foreign policy, under this administration or prior ones.

With the U.S. election underway, Abiy likely saw his last opportunity to pursue a violent resolution to Tigrayan defiance with minimal international pressure. American leadership here would be meaningful, but under the Trump administration, Washington has demonstrated little concern for human rights, stability, or the welfare of civilians.

A Biden administration, on the other hand, would care about all three and coordinate expertise and resources to demonstrate it. It would understand the stakes and fear a turn towards mass atrocities, given the harsh rhetoric and the conflict’s ethnic nature. A Biden National Security Council would have elevated attention to the conflict rapidly, facilitated by an NSC staffer with expertise in the Horn and an appreciation for potential impact in the broader region, from security in Somalia, where Ethiopian peacekeeping forces play a major role, to Sudan, itself in a fragile transition that could be complicated by conflict on its border and the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees.

Well before the three-week mark, policy would be coordinated at the highest levels across the interagency, with the direct engagement of the secretary of state, the national security adviser, and possibly the president himself. Under the Trump administration, there has been no policy direction, and outreach has largely been left to U.S. Ambassador Michael Raynor, whose default position has unhelpfully been unquestioning support for Prime Minister Abiy. That a National Security Council tweet calling for mediation is now lauded as escalated engagement is a sad reflection of the state of U.S. diplomacy today.

I feel confident this is how a Biden administration would respond because I witnessed a similar mobilization with many of the same players under the Obama administration when conflict broke out in South Sudan in 2013, amidst harsh ethnic rhetoric and divisions. As a U.S. diplomat in Juba, South Sudan, I saw firsthand the rapid escalation, interagency coordination, and engagement.

I also watched this approach fail. Robust diplomatic engagement is essential but not sufficient. How we engage and our history of engagement matter too. Today’s crisis in Ethiopia has brought into stark relief my question for the incoming foreign policy team: based on the staffing decisions so far, we can rest assured this team will be staffed with experienced professionals who care deeply for our country and are committed to our diplomatic capacity — but have they learned from our past mistakes? Will our foreign policy be better, not just than Trump’s, but better than the foreign policy that prevailed before that too?

For decades, our Africa policy has taken a blunt approach, quickly designating the good guys and the bad and painting each with a broad brush that demands unquestioning loyalty or enmity. This offers little room for nuance in our relationships and leaves us unprepared to engage effectively in the continent’s complex political and historical realities. For example, U.S. foreign policy is still beholden to leaders like Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda based on the decision a generation ago to deem these rebel leaders Africa’s “new generation.” Today, the United States remains a loyal friend of both, turning a blind eye for years to their many authoritarian transgressions. Accountability, transparency, and our credibility are all casualties of this approach.

Abiy has demonstrated this point on a particularly compressed timeline. When he came to power in 2018, the United States was not alone in rapidly anointing him savior. In less than two years, he’d won a Nobel Peace Prize. We hung on Abiy all of the hopes for reform and openness that we had bottled up for 27 years while exhibiting enthusiastic support for Ethiopia’s prior repressive regime. Abiy’s early days were promising, as he released political prisoners, introduced political reforms, and made peace with neighboring Eritrea. In our enthusiasm, however, we refused to see the warning signs, as Abiy embraced many of the tools of repression his predecessors utilized, treating his political enemies as traitors, locking up critics, and obstructing transparency. These trends are easier to discourage early on, when their scale is small and the costs of a course correction much lower. The right incentives and deliberate diplomatic engagement could have gone a long way at that stage. By continuing to look away, however, we helped ensure that what began as a bad trend adapted from Abiy’s predecessor became the new government’s culture too.

America must start engaging Africa’s leaders for who they are and what they do, not who we hope them to be. We must stop being so afraid of risking access and relationships that we fail to put in the hard work to ensure those relationships work for us and help to elevate the values and conditions that promote long-term stability and prosperity. This does not mean Washington should expect to dictate the actions of our partners. Rather, it means we should be honest about the implications of their actions, even when we fail to shape them.

In the example of Ethiopia today, that doesn’t require that we abandon support for Abiy to push for a power-sharing arrangement; we can appreciate the need for a central government to defend its authority against armed actors. At the same time, however, we can remind Abiy’s government of the role its illiberal acts have played in reinforcing the political and ethnic strife that helped fuel this rebellion, and Abiy must understand there will be reputational and assistance consequences for a war conducted in violation of international humanitarian law. If Abiy is, as he claims, conducting law enforcement activity against criminals and not an ethnic group, we must press him to demonstrate that through transparency.

The Biden administration has an opportunity for a fresh start in Africa. It should set a new baseline in our relationships, grounded in honesty and transparency, treating complex friendships with the complexity they deserve, and investing heavily in the diplomatic long game to make that approach productive.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter. For an archive of previous Bulletins, see,

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