Biden’s Africa policy — time to be bold!
During the Trump administration, I did my small part to keep African issues on the agenda, despite the presidential misstatements that often overtook headlines, like when Trump pronounced Namibia as Nambia, starting a social media phenom in search of the newly-discovered nation, and most notoriously, when the U.S. president labeled Africa a continent of ‘shithole’ nations.
Through it all, I gained some social media followers, but they were dwarfed by the trolls and bots stalking my column’s comments section, reflective of America’s deep political divide, where advocating for Africa is perceived as coming at the expense of America, and siding with Trump on anything, is considered morally repugnant.
Even so, I called it like I saw it: the good, the bad, and the disparagingly ugly. I promise to do the same with the Biden administration — a Democratic government which was propelled to office by Black Lives Matter protests, whose domestic agenda is grounded in combatting racial injustice and social inequities, and with glass-ceiling-shattering Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman, and woman-of-color to hold that office.
During the Trump era, I was often a critic. I wrote about his feeble response to the growing military presence of Russia in Africa, and of the broad, bipartisan rebuke of Trump’s plan to withdraw American troops from Africa. I blasted the decision to let Ivanka take her father’s seat at the G-20 table during the Africa discussion, suggesting that the last thing the continent needed was American nepotism on full display.
I disapproved of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the WHO in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, while still suggesting that the organization had made serious mistakes, and that China needed to be held accountable for an institutional cover-up.
After Jan. 6, 2021, which I watched unfold from Accra, Ghana, I wrote about the betrayal I felt by a U.S. president who failed to accept electoral defeat, particularly poignant for me after witnessing three decades of failed autocratic, dictatorial, strong-man rule in Africa.
But I was also happy to commend the Trump administration’s constructive African engagements.
I welcomed the “Prosper Africa” policy, creating a whole-of-government approach, with the goal of doubling two-way trade. I expressed support when the administration deployed the full force of the U.S. Center for Disease Control to combat the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and celebrated the establishment of the U.S. Development Finance Corporation.
Nearly five months into Biden’s term, I have seen some encouraging signs.
Many senior political appointees have deep African experience, most notably Linda Thomas Greenfield, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. They could become advocates and educators for a White House as it maps out its foreign policy priorities. Further, there has been high-level attention to Africa in these first few months, with many statements, tweets, and media interviews. This includes President Biden’s virtual address to the African Union Summit of 2021 where he signaled a new tone, ‘one of solidarity, partnership, support and mutual respect.’
In addition, the Biden administration has rejoined the WHO, COVAX, and the Paris Climate agreement, and has revoked the Trump-era restrictive immigration policies — decisions which disproportionately favor Africa.
While the above actions should be duly credited, let’s face it — they are catnip for the Democratic base, are hardly bold, and Africans get that.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s virtual tour of Africa in April was perceived as a diplomatic consolation prize; the African exception to the Secretary’s otherwise robust COVID-19 travel schedule. The commentary across the continent was muted at its very best.
The hope is that more strategic engagements will come after the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs-designate, Mary Catherine Phee, is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
But being bold requires the readiness to expend political and financial capital, a level of engagement that must come from the White House.
The good news is that if the Biden administration does decide to go big, at its disposal are comprehensive policy proposals — bipartisan in spirit, and transformational in character — similar in ambition to the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the United States’ President Plan for Emergency Relief for HIV Relief (PEPFAR), and the Better Utilization Leading to Development Act (BUILD).
These initiatives can offer a pathway for America to reclaim its place as Africa’s indispensable partner. They include the need to balance climate concerns with a deficit of power generation, and a U.S. trade policy that offers incentives to American investors seeking to capture the opportunities of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (now the world’s largest market). There are also ideas on how to close the $100 billion infrastructure gap and provide an alternative to China’s Belt Road Initiative, as well as programs for digital transformation, recognizing the importance of Africa’s youthful, tech-savvy population, and their role in generating economic wealth, and electoral accountability.
In the immediate term there are two matters sitting on President Biden’s desk that cannot wait for the Senate to confirm his Africa chief: whether the U.S. will support the African New Deal which emerged from the French-Africa heads of state summit last week and is specific to the liquidity crisis from the pandemic’s economic shocks, and second, whether the U.S. will rally to the petitions to immediately deliver stockpiled vaccines to Africa before it is hit by the South-Asian third wave.
It’s early in the Biden administration, and there may indeed be willingness to deliver on the much-needed structural changes to U.S.-Africa relations. But, as evidenced by French President Emmanuel Macron last week, and by our strategic competitors, including Russia and China, time waits for no one, particularly so in times of global pandemic.
K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson