Recently, I attended a State Department briefing at which an African reporter asked the official conducting the briefing what the United States wanted from the country in question. Essentially, the official answered that America wanted to ensure that the government of that African country better cared for its people by practicing good governance and transparency and provided an opportunity for its people to progress. The reporter’s expression looked like he was thinking: “Yeah, right.”
I didn’t think the State Department official was lying, and actually, I don’t believe the reporter thought so either. However, what we both knew, in fact what we all knew in that room, was that the answer was only a partial one. Surely, the United States has demonstrated a genuine concern for Africa’s people. Our long record of government spending to help Africans, however misplaced at times, and our citizens raising money and engaging in hands-on help for those in need on the continent proves our genuine concern. Still, the welfare of the African people is not our only interest in Africa.
Within this continent are 80% of the world’s strategic minerals, which we and the rest of the developed world need to maintain our economies and lifestyles. An estimated 97% of the world’s platinum is in Africa, especially South Africa and Zimbabwe. About 90% of the world’s cobalt is found in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. Countries such as Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire are where you find 64% of the world’s manganese. Gold mines across the continent in countries such as Ghana and Mali contain half the world’s gold reserves. A third of the world’s uranium comes from countries such as Guinea and Niger. Coltan, the African name given to columbite-tantalite, is mined worldwide, but is found in increasing amounts in African countries such as Ethiopia and Mozambique.
These minerals have enabled the development of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices, and we would be hard-pressed to operate advanced medical equipment to conduct CAT scans or MRIs or construct jet aircraft, automobile catalytic converters or iPods without the minerals found in Africa, and in some cases, almost nowhere else in the world.
This is not to mention the oil and natural gas that this country sources from Africa in increasing amounts. The overwhelming majority of U.S. trade with African nations still centers on American imports of African oil. U.S. oil purchases from Africa comprise nearly a quarter of American oil imports and promises to grow as new sources of oil continue to be found in West Africa and other parts of the continent, such as Uganda. West African crude oil is less costly to produce and refine than oil from other sources, such as the Middle East, and there are no strategic choke points to inhibit its transport – just open ocean between that oil and American refineries.
America has a significant economic interest in the stability of Africa so that these resources continue to flow. We have all seen the economic devastation that oil embargoes or sharp rises in the price of oil can have. Does anyone believe that our relations with nations such as Angola or Nigeria have nothing to do with our oil imports? Even when the diplomats don’t openly discuss such matters, they provide the subtext to all conversations about U.S. relations with the oil-producing nations of Africa.
Some may feel economic interests are our main focus in our interactions with Africa. At one point that was undoubtedly true, but what the State Department official said that day is also true. The many African Americans and African expatriates in America have provided a relatable face to their friends and neighbors about our interests on the continent. The images of starving children and drought-stricken villages often have touched the hearts of Americans. Through church missions, many Americans have shared their time, talent and reassure with Africans. So our concern for Africa has become quite genuine.
My point is that we have multi-level interests in the countries of Africa, and our economic interests are nothing to be ashamed of admitting. Unlike the colonial times, we are not robbing Africa of its resources today. African countries sell because they need the money they can earn from their resources, and we buy because we need those resources to make our 21st century economy possible. So long as this trade is conducted fairly and without coercion, there is a willing buyer and a willing seller. We shouldn’t be ashamed to admit that. When we hide this fact, it makes our humanitarian interests seem phony, and they certainly aren’t.