Haven’t We Done This Before? Lessons From and Recommendations for Strategic Competition in Sub-Saharan Africa

Judd Devermont
Monday, April 15, 2019, 8:36 AM

A trio of White House strategies have heralded the return of strategic competition between the United States and its adversaries, China and Russia, in sub-Saharan Africa.

Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, 2015 (Source: Flickr/Government of South Africa)

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A trio of White House strategies have heralded the return of strategic competition between the United States and its adversaries, China and Russia, in sub-Saharan Africa. In the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and President Trump’s Africa Strategy, the U.S. government committed itself to countering threats posed by its global rivalries. In December 2018, National Security Adviser John Bolton claimed Beijing and Moscow’s activities “stunt economic growth in Africa; threaten the financial independence of African nations; inhibit opportunities for U.S. investment; interfere with U.S. military operations; and pose a significant threat to U.S. national security interests.”

This is a back-to-the-future moment for U.S.-Africa policy. We are witnessing African leaders draw on an old playbook, pitting the United States, China and Russia against each other to increase access to new resources, generate new leverage and lessen dependency on any single foreign patron. African political elites are very adept at telling U.S. officials what they want to hear; for instance, nine African leaders told President Trump that “we would prefer to do business with the United States and other western countries” over China. Or, African leaders will dangle the possibility of greater cooperation with U.S. adversaries to soak the United States for additional support. Former Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua, for example, ordered his petroleum minister to explore deals with Chinese and Russian oil companies as “bait to extract value and concessions” from Western companies, according to a memoir by one of his aides.

If the United States wants to treat Africa as an arena for great power competition, it needs to avoid the mistakes of the past. It should play the game smartly and anticipate the traps. I have spent the past 20 years studying and working on sub-Saharan African issues, and I believe we can distill clear lessons from the history books. Below are nine principles that should guide the U.S.’s approach, investments and partnerships in this new phase of global competition in Africa.

Judge African Governments by What They Do, Not by What They Say

It is a fool’s errand to dissect every statement from an African leader for clues about their allegiances. This is a poor barometer of how they think about the United States, China, Russia or other foreign actors. African leaders, oppositions and publics routinely craft messages to elicit a desired response from a targeted audience. Rulers, often disingenuously, will vow they would never align with U.S. geostrategic rivals or claim they are only reluctantly working with China or Russia. In 1961, Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah reportedly said, “I am not a Communist, but they are the only ones who will help us …. I ask [the Americans] to help me in my cause for which in return I would help them in Africa, but they refused.” African political elites continue to use this same tactic; Nigeria’s opposition leader Atiku Abubakar, who lost his presidential bid in February 2019, recently railed that Chinese loans led to misappropriation while acknowledging that African governments have had to look to Beijing because Washington is not engaged.

It Is Usually About Domestic Politics, Not the United States

There is a serious risk of misreading the actions of African political leaders when they pertain to China or Russia. U.S. policymakers want to interpret punitive measures or harsh rhetoric against China as an indication of a budding geostrategic realignment. The truth is that it is often more than not about internal politics. In 1962, the British director of intelligence argued that Kenyan politician Oginga Odinga—father of opposition leader Raila Odinga—was “no ideological convert …. [I]nternational affairs mean little except in the purely parochial context of how they can best be turned into local—and by implications, personal—advantage.” This same dynamic is playing out today. Sierra Leone’s new president, Julius Maada Bio, recently canceled a Chinese contract for a $400 million airport. Maada Bio, however, was not necessarily fed up with Beijing. He had merely shelved a project that had been negotiated by his predecessor. He later signed a deal with China for a bridge project estimated to cost $1.3 billion—more than four times the cost of the airport.

A Row With China Doesn’t Mean a Rupture

There is a tendency to conflate bumps in the bilateral relationship with strategic shifts toward one side or the other. African governments bristle at allies who meddle as much as they reject interference by adversaries. In 1961, Guinean President Sekou Toure threw out the Soviet ambassador, Daniel Solod, for spying but did not sever ties with Moscow.

These bilateral spats continue to pop up, but rarely do they derail the relationship. Kenya has managed its relationship with China, despite multiple run-ins with Chinese traffickers, hackers and racist businesspeople, as well as a dust-up with Beijing over tilapia fish imports.

You Can’t Buy a Country’s Loyalty

The United States often regards its partnerships as enduring in part because of shared interests or investments. However, history is littered with examples in which African leaders switched sides—from the Soviet Union to the United States, from the United States to the Soviet Union, from North Korea to South Korea, and from Taiwan to China. Most African governments do not subscribe to the “partner of choice” paradigm. It is more advantageous to have a diversity of partners rather than dependency on one patron. Or, as a former U.S. ambassador once said, African governments always want to add “another string to their bow.” In 1977, Somalia’s Siad Barre ditched the Soviet Union for the United States because Moscow was backing the new government in Ethiopia. African governments continue to toggle between foreign rivals. Within three weeks of the rupture between United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in 2017, eight sub-Sahara African countries severed or downgraded ties to Qatar. In 2018, Burkina Faso became the 48th country in the region to abandon Taiwan. Chad recently renewed ties to Israel after more than four decades, and it appears that Sudan and Mali are making similar moves toward the Jewish state.

Your African Allies May Cost More Than Your Adversaries

While African leaders publicly reject the great power competition framework, African elites recognize that geopolitical rivalry increased their country’s strategic importance, and they expect to profit—either as a government or personally—from the uptick in attention. In 1975, Zaire’s leader, Mobutu Sese Seko, told the U.S. ambassador that he purchased tanks from China because he had no choice but to turn elsewhere. A year later, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recommended that the United States sell tanks to Zaire because “[i]f Zaire goes, every African state will draw the conclusion that the Soviet Union (which they don’t like all that much) is the wave of the future.” There are several modern-day equivalents. Djiboutian President Ismail Guelleh, whose country hosts several foreign military facilities, including China’s only overseas base, negotiated a hard bargain with the United States to continue its lease of its base there in 2014. He extracted a U.S. commitment to pay $63 million a year—almost double the $38 million that the United States had previously paid.

The United States and China Is Not the Only Game in Town

When the United States uses a framework like great power competition, its field of vision tends to narrow. Not only does this paradigm push Africa to the background, but it also has similar effects on how U.S. policymakers view other foreign actors. These other governments become marginal in U.S. planning and analysis, and it blinds Washington to both opportunities and challenges. In the late 1970s, Saudis, French, Moroccans, Iranians and Egyptians worked together—in what was called the Safari Club—to defeat the Zairian rebels backed by Angola and Cuba. The Saudi ambassador to the United States explained that “[o]ur American friends are in trouble, their intelligence collection and capacity has diminished … so we, as friends of the United States, we should get together and try to do something to face the Community threat on our doorstep.”

The chessboard of foreign actors is even larger now than it was during the Cold War. The Center for Strategic & International Studies recently published a brief, “The World Is Coming to Sub-Saharan Africa. Where is the United States?” to show how the international community is growing its diplomatic, security and military ties to sub-Saharan Africa. These countries, which include new entrants as well as traditional partners, are forging closer ties with the region because they see new openings for trade and investment, as well as growing threats from terrorism, criminality, epidemics and irregular migration. This flurry of activity presents new opportunities to burden-share responsibilities and build a broad consensus to counter negative Chinese and Russian behavior.

It Is About What the United States Does, Not What China Does

The United States has slipped into the habit of criticizing China for what it is doing and wagging its fingers at African countries for being led astray by China. This is not a winning strategy. U.S. chiding of African leaders who accept Chinese financing is often viewed as paternalistic and infantilizing. Maada Bio, for instance, hit back at critics in September 2018, saying, “[W]e are not fools in Africa.” In the late 1960s, U.S. diplomats understood the shortcomings of this approach. They recommended to President Johnson’s National Security Council that the “US should be more subtle and circumspect” in pointing out the dangers of communism to African governments as the latter are anxious to keep the Cold War out of Africa at all costs. The diplomats also complained of instructions requiring them to bother African chiefs of state and foreign ministers on every little communist issue.

If the U.S. government aims to strengthen its position vis-a-vis Beijing, it needs to harness its private sector, stand up for U.S. values, and institute more robust education and cultural exchange programs with African nations. Moreover, the U.S. needs to do more to court African leaders—of whom only Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta have visited the White House. The ambassadors in the mid-1960s made the same point. They argued that personal relationships between chiefs of state are important in Africa: “[F]or US policy objectives to be advanced, it is desirable that African leaders be made aware of the US President’s personal interest in African affairs.”

Serve as an Honest Broker

Instead of simply positioning the United States as a competitor, there are opportunities to step in and act as a referee to protect U.S. interests and forestall further negative developments. This is what former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker did in southern Africa, negotiating the Cuban withdrawal from Angola in the 1980s. It allowed the United States to stay above the fray, while ensuring U.S. equities were advanced. In cases where there isn’t a U.S. company in the mix for a business opportunity, the United States could offer its good offices to assist with environment and labor assessments, and support negotiations to ensure African governments obtain the best economic package from China or other foreign actors.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

It is essential to draw a finer distinction between which of China’s activities threaten U.S. national security priorities and which Chinese engagements are neutral or complimentary to U.S. objectives. If the United States portrays all of Beijing’s endeavors as antithetical to U.S. goals, it will fail to develop and implement an effective policy response. In my testimony to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, I argued that some of the current apprehension about Chinese economic investment is overblown and ill informed. Unlike the current U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, I am not troubled that there is “a stadium that is built without exception by the Chinese” across the region.

I recommend focusing U.S. efforts to counter Chinese activity that undercuts U.S. military access and operations, U.S. information and communication platforms, and U.S. relations with current and emerging African leaders. It is imperative to leverage U.S. strategic advantages, including soft power where Washington has traditionally had an edge over Beijing. This was a central tenet of President Kennedy’s African policy, leveraging the president’s personal engagement to prevent African counterparts from fully aligning with adversaries. It was also part of Nixon’s vision for U.S.-Africa relations. Following his trip to the region in 1957, he told President Eisenhower that Africa’s “understanding of the principles for which we stand as a nation is a tremendous asset to us in this area. The maintenance of the present high prestige we are fortunate to have in Africa will depend whether the people of the continent continue to understand our dedication to the principles of independence, equality, and economic progress.”

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He previously served as the national intelligence officer for Africa, the Central Intelligence Agency’s senior political analyst on sub-Saharan Africa, and the National Security Council director for Somalia, Nigeria, the Sahel, and the African Union.

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