For many years, the United States had no Africa policy beyond that connected to policy involving the colonial powers – our European allies. During the period in which African nations were gaining their independence, American policy was guided by the policy of the European colonial power in question, except, for example, Liberia and South Africa. Later, it was the Cold War that dominated our view of the African continent.
Then-Vice President Richard Nixon came to support U.S.-Africa trade as the result of his late 1950s visit to Africa for the Eisenhower Administration, but not much resulted from his suggested initiative. The end of colonialism provided an opening for more direct engagement with the new African governments, but that opportunity was not taken advantage of at the outset.
When President George H.W. Bush became president, few would have expected him to do anything much to benefit Africa despite his extensive foreign policy expertise. As it turned out, his Administration came to power at a point in history when the Cold War influence on U.S. policy toward Africa was about to end and colonialism was already finished. Now America could consider relationships with African nations that had nothing to do with European colonial powers or the former Soviet Union. Under the first Bush Administration, the United States fielded a large humanitarian operation in Somalia and created the Africa Regional Electoral Assistance Fund, which would make significant technical contributions to the wave of African elections and transitions to democratic systems in the 1990s.
Moreover, the Administration of the first President Bush issued National Security Review 30, a paper that outlined a broad policy of increased U.S. engagement with Africa. That policy initiative came too late in his Administration to be enacted, but fortunately, President Bill Clinton did enact it. Clinton had no Africa experience to speak of coming into the presidency, but building on the Bush plan, he produced a robust engagement of Africa that has set the tone for his successors. He signed into law the first African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which realized the increased U.S.-Africa trade Nixon had spoken of decades earlier. Many of his Cabinet secretaries visited Africa and involved their departments in Africa programming.
The second President George Bush came into office with no Africa experience as well, but he assembled a remarkable record of achievement on Africa policy, including his Administration’s greatly expanded contributions of funds to combat HIV-AIDS and malaria on the continent, his steadfast advocacy of AGOA, his support for African education (especially for girls) and his partnership with African governments on mutual security issues. His Millennium Challenge Account process has provided billions in development grants to African countries.
We expect President Obama to continue the growing engagement with Africa that his immediate predecessors championed and take America’s relationship with Africa to a new level. Unfortunately, like all Administrations, President Obama faces crises that distract from longer-term planning and implementation of development policy for Africa. There are countries in Africa with active violence underway, such as Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as simmering tensions in countries such as Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Meanwhile, there are long-term issues that also must figure into American policy. Good governance, enhancing agricultural production, creating adequate infrastructure, stemming the tide of disease, raising the level of education, reversing the impact of the brain drain and many other issues pose a challenge in executing an effective Africa policy.
Despite a heightened attention and some solid accomplishments in the last couple of Administrations, a thorough, integrated plan on African development was not among their achievements. The overall framework of Africa policy always seems to depend on several points on which policy will hinge or several pillar countries with whom our government will partner. At some point, one hopes one Administration will put together a comprehensive plan in which development, human rights, trade, security, governance, transparency and humanitarian issues will all mesh so that its successors will have a blueprint from which to work.
One can only hope.