Reportage. First Biden abolished the Muslim ban, then he overturned Trump's veto of Okonjo-Iweala to helm of the World Trade Organization. But now the US administration must stop viewing the continent as a chessboard for geopolitical maneuvers against China.

Biden on the new road to Africa

The first strong signal of change in the foreign policy of the United States after Joe Biden’s election has arrived: the White House has dropped its veto against the election of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as president of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The Nigerian ex-finance minister, the first African candidate for the top position of the organization, will now be able to take the place of outgoing president Roberto Azevêdo.

Okonjo-Iweala, 66, a world-renowned economist who had succeeded in the arduous task of restoring Nigeria’s finances and setting up a number of processes for the inclusion of women and young people in the life of the country, had immediately received the support of 162 of the 164 member states of the WTO—but the United States, which had been seeking to reassert control over international bodies during Trump’s presidency, had blocked his nomination, instead supporting the Minister of Commerce of South Korea (the other state that was opposed to his candidacy), Yoo Myung-hee.

The change in position, announced by a note from the Office of the United States Trade Representative, has been considered by all political analysts as a confirmation of the new administration’s intention to break with the previous four years. After all, Joe Biden had already begun the dismantling of Trumpian policies at a fast pace, signing 25 executive orders within a few days of his inauguration. Now, many are wondering what his next foreign policy moves will be, especially in areas of major strategic interest such as Africa.

During Donald Trump’s presidency, the African continent had been reduced to an area of fighting against Chinese hegemony, and diplomatic relations between the US and African countries had reached an all-time low. To cite just two highly significant data points, for two years, the positions of US ambassadors to almost half of the African states remained vacant, and even the position of Secretary for African Affairs (the most important position of responsibility for Africa in the US government) remained vacant for almost half of the term, or was occupied by pro tempore officials. The first and obvious conclusion that can be drawn is that for Trump, Africa was not a political priority.

As a result, the former president tried in every way possible to cut funding for African countries by pressuring Congress and the international organizations in which the United States hold decisive influence. Starting with a drastic reduction in the development and cooperation funds provided by his government, Trump then refused to fund the agencies of the United Nations, and, most recently, attempted to withdraw from the World Health Organization in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that is bringing many African countries to their knees.

And then, there is China—Trump’s obsession. Since 2013, as part of its “New Silk Road” plan, the Chinese government has been investing billions of dollars to create land and maritime infrastructure in about 70 countries around the world, and Africa is one of the nerve centers of this program. In Africa, since the beginning of the new millennium, China has built more than 6,000 kilometers of railway, 6,000 kilometers of roads, 20 ports, 80 power plants, industrial parks and special economic zones, in addition to the headquarters of the African Union. It is also true that from 2010 to today, according to a study published by Johns Hopkins University, the number of Chinese workers in companies operating in Africa has been around 200,000 per year, with peaks of almost 250,000.

As if to make this enormous commitment official, on January 10, Beijing issued an official communiqué clearly explaining that the “New Silk Road” was the pillar of its foreign policy and, in consequence, the project that all its adversaries will have to reckon with. In Nigeria, for example, the construction of a new railway line has just been announced that will connect the megalopolis of Lagos to the country’s second center, Ibadan. The 156 km of track will be financed through a loan of 1.3 billion euros from the Chinese Import-Export Bank.

At some point, the U.S. reaction will have to go beyond accusations against the “Chinese model.” It seems unlikely to expect some sort of new Marshall Plan, especially after four years of Trumpian isolationism, but one can no longer limit oneself, as then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did in 2018, to pointing a finger at China’s encouraging of “dependency using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices, and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty, denying them their long-term, self-sustaining growth.” Especially as the U.S. itself moves further and further away.

If we go back to Nigeria—to cite an obvious case, but we could just as well talk about Sudan, Somalia or Eritrea—it has been years since U.S. migration policies have been tightened. Trump’s “Muslim Ban” has only accentuated the rupture: it was already virtually impossible for a Nigerian (even a university graduate, financially well-off or a relative of U.S. residents) to obtain a visa for the United States.

On the other hand, there’s no point in downplaying it: Africa needs investments. Leaving aside the historical causes of this state of need (causes that have seen those with blood on their hands from the past turn into the “benefactors” of today), the African Development Bank, a non-profit financial institution, has pointed out that there is a deficit of between 68 and 108 billion dollars per year in infrastructure financing. These funds will inevitably have to be found somewhere, but, as we know, when it comes to such important interests, nothing comes for free.

To return to the present, to Joe Biden, many of the first executive orders he signed involve Africa. First and foremost, there was the abolition of the so-called “Muslim ban,” i.e., the ban on travel to the United States against those coming from countries with a Muslim majority. This measure is part of a broader framework of electoral promises that the Biden-Harris duo had made to African immigrants in the United States, the so-called African diaspora community, committing themselves to allowing the reunification of families and restoring the “principles of American immigration policies” (as stated on the president’s personal website).

But the new administration has also committed itself to providing support for anti-COVID vaccines, the most pressing problem for many states that are currently experiencing an economic crisis even more crippling than usual, as well as logistical and economic aid.

On the political level, the choice of institutional figures also seems to mark a break with the previous four years: Representative Gregory Meeks, a historic supporter of an active policy on the African continent, will be nominated to the Domestic Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Bob Mendez—a senator who was at the center of attacks against the Trump administration during Tillerson’s trip in 2018 as he had highlighted the lack of US commitment on the continent—will be nominated to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

  1. Gyude Moore, former Minister of Public Works of Liberia and Senior Policy Fellow at the Center for Global Development, identified a few key areas in which the Biden administration should act differently from previous administrations. First of all, it should stop considering Africa as a chessboard on which only the balances of power between the U.S. and its rival, China, are being played out. Secondly, it should revitalize the AGOA program (“African Growth and Opportunity Act”), the plan for cooperation and economic and trade assistance to Sub-Saharan African countries launched by the U.S. Congress in 2000. In addition, it should invest in education, a fundamental resource for the growth of the continent, and establish campus branches on site, as Carnegie Mellon University did when it established the first African branch of an American campus in Rwanda, or fund scholarships.

In the final analysis, the U.S., like China and all other wealthy states, should stop interfering with African states’ attempts at self-determination. On January 1, 2021, the AfCFTA came into effect, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement signed between 54 of the 55 nations of the African Union, potentially shaping up to be the largest free trade area in the world, with a $3 trillion market volume. “As 54 individual entities, we lack power and leverage when dealing with continent-sized economies like the United States, China, India or the EU,” said Moore. “If you support African prosperity in words, then show it in your actions. Do not undermine the AfCFTA.”

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