By Charles Ray | Foreign Policy Research Institute
Most Americans generally have one of two images of Africa: a primitive home of famine, disease, and civil war, or an idyllic motherland. Neither image is entirely correct. While Africa does have more than its fair share of problems and is the homeland of many Americans, it is a diverse continent of more than 50 nations and hundreds of ethnicities and languages.
Africa is also the youngest continent in the world with a host of possibilities for the future. Other than those Americans of African ancestry, does this matter to the people of the United States? Should it matter? Why do we even need to ask this question? We rarely ever see articles about whether or not Europe or Asia matters to the United States. For a whole host of reasons, the answer to these questions is yes.
The American connection to Africa dates from before the country was founded, and it is past time to replace the misperceptions that Americans have about Africa with the diverse, complex reality. While many of the problems currently experienced by the nations of Africa are self-inflicted, they are also the result of outside intervention from colonization to the Cold War competition. The violence in many countries—while rooted in ancient rivalries—has often been exacerbated by the actions of outsiders.
Africa matters in terms of size, population, and rate of population growth. It is the continent currently most affected by climate change but is also a continent that can have a devastating impact on climate change globally because of the importance of the Congo Basin rainforest, which is the second-largest absorber of heat after the Amazon rainforest. The destruction of this important ecosystem could further accelerate global warming. As residents of the region come into increasing contact with the animals of the rainforest, this region could be the origin of the world’s next viral pandemic. Violent extremism and terrorism are increasing in Africa, and while now mostly localized, the danger has the potential to spread beyond the continent. Crises—natural and man-made—cause massive relocations of populations, both on the continent and abroad, which can have negative economic, social, and political impacts.
Why Africa Matters
The African continent is the world’s second-largest, with the second-fastest growth rate after Asia. With 54 sovereign countries, four territories, and two de facto independent states with little international recognition, the continent has a current population of 1.3 billion. By 2050, the continent’s population is predicted to rise to 2.4 billion. By 2100, Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, will have a population of one billion, and half the world’s population growth will be in Africa by then.
The population of African countries is also overwhelmingly young. Approximately 40% of Africans are under 15, and, in some countries, over 50% is under 25. By 2050, two of every five children born in the world will be in Africa, and the continent’s population is expected to triple. These developments have positive and negative potential impacts on the United States and the rest of the world. Young Africans have, for the most part, completely skipped the analog age and gone directly digital. Comfortable with technology, they form a huge potential consumer and labor market. If, on the other hand, the countries of Africa fail to develop economically and do not create gainful employment for this young population, then there is the risk that they will become a huge potential source of recruits to extremist and terrorist movements, which currently target disadvantaged and disenchanted youth.
Lack of economic opportunity, increased urbanization, and climate-fueled disasters will also contribute to movement of people seeking better lives, which will impact economies and security not only on the continent of Africa, but also the economic and security situations around the world. Nations, lacking adequate critical infrastructure, education, and job opportunities are ripe for internal unrest and radicalization. In particular, inadequate health delivery systems, when coupled with natural disasters, such as droughts or floods that limit food production, cause famine and mass movements of populations.
The Challenges for U.S. Policy
Prior to World War II, the U.S. policy towards Africa was not as active as it was toward Europe, Asia, or Latin America. During the Cold War, Africa policy was primarily viewed from a perspective of super-power competition. The end of the Cold War and the rise of international terrorism introduced this as a major component in U.S. Africa policy along with competition with a rising China and increased Chinese engagement in Africa.
Before his first official trip to Kenya, U.S. President Barack Obama said, “Africa had become an idea more than an actual place . . . with the benefit of distance, we engaged Africa in a selective embrace.” This is probably an apt description of U.S. policy towards African nations despite the bipartisan nature of that policy. The United States, with the many domestic and international issues it has to cope with, can ill afford to continue to ignore Africa. Going forward, U.S. policy must include a hard-headed look at where Africa fits in policy priorities.
The incoming Biden administration will face a number of important issues and challenges as it develops its Africa policy. The most pressing issues are the following:
Climate Change: Climate change is an existential problem that affects the entire globe, but Africa has probably suffered more from the effects of climate change than other continents—and the problem will only get worse with time. In an October 2020 article, World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said,
Climate change is having a growing impact on the African continent, hitting the most vulnerable hardest, and contributing to food insecurity, population displacement and stress on water resources. In recent months we have seen devastating floods, an invasion of desert locusts and now face the looming specter of drought because of a La Nina event. The human and economic toll has been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Climate change impacts water quality and availability, and millions in Africa will likely face persistent increased water stress due to these impacts. A multi-year drought in parts of South Africa, for instance, threatened total water failure in several small towns and had livestock farmers facing financial ruin. Another pressing climate-change issue is the need for protection of the Congo Basin rainforest. This 178-million-hectare rainforest is the world’s second largest after the Amazon and is currently threatened by agricultural activities in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon. Countries in the Congo Basin need to address the preservation issue, while also enabling sustainable agricultural activities to ensure food security for the region’s population. In addition to the impact on global climate caused by destruction of the rainforest, such destruction also brings human populations into closer contact with the region’s animals, creating the risk of future animal-to-human transmission of new and possibly more virulent viruses similar to COVID-19, which will have a global impact. In a January 2021 CNN report, Dr. Jean-Jacques Muyembe Tamfum, who as a researcher helped discover the Ebola virus in 1976, warned of possible new pathogens that could be as infectious as COVID-19 and as virulent as Ebola.
Rule of Law/Mitigation of Corruption: A key to African development, given the increasing urbanization, population increases, and youthfulness of the continent’s population, will be an increase in domestic and international investment to build the industries that can provide meaningful employment and improved standards of living. In order for this to be successful, African nations will need to address the issues of rule of law and corruption. Investors will not risk money if the business climate comes with a level of political risk that is too high. Government leaders throughout Africa need to establish legislation that provides an acceptable level of security for investments and take action to curb the endemic corruption that currently discourages investment. Corruption in Africa ranges from wholesale political corruption on the scale of General Sani Abachi’s looting of $3-5 billion of state money during his five years as Nigeria’s military ruler to the bribes paid by businessmen to police and customs officials. The “tradition” of having to pay bribes, or “sweeteners,” drives away domestic investment and scares away foreign investment, leaving many countries mired in poverty.
Violent Extremism and Terrorism: A number of African nations are currently plagued with rising extremist movements. While primarily a domestic issue, the mass movement of people fleeing violence and the disruption of economic activity have the potential to negatively impact the rest of the world. African nations need regional responses to curb extremist and terrorist organizations, many of which are supported by international terrorist organizations, such as ISIS and al Qaeda. In addition, the underlying conditions that helped to create these movements must be addressed. Terrorist groups in Africa range from relatively large and dangerous groups, such as Boko Haram, a group in Nigeria that has received support from al Qaeda and that aims to implement sharia law in the country; Al-Shabab, an al Qaeda affiliate aiming to overthrow the government in Somalia and to punish neighboring countries for their support of the Somali regime; and Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, a fundamentalist Christian group. Terrorist groups in the fragile political climate of Libya also pose a threat to sub-Saharan Africa.
Great Power Competition: As the world’s second-largest economy, and with its increasing participation in international activities, China will continue to be a factor in Africa for the foreseeable future. This, however, is more a problem for the nations of Africa than it is for the rest of the world. The West can compete best by outperforming China in areas of strength by providing those goods and services that are unquestionably superior, and let African governments decide how to deal with China and its often-predatory lending practices and the Chinese tendency to import Chinese workers for its projects and investments rather than hiring locals. At the same time, Russia, which did not completely turn away from Africa at the end of the Cold War as many in the West sometimes believe, must still be considered a significant factor on the African landscape. In an effort to compensate for Western sanctions and to counter U.S. and Western influence, Russia is once again increasing its presence on the continent. Russian mercenaries, in exchange for diamond mining rights, have trained military forces in the Central African Republic, raising concerns about human rights abuses. Of particular concern is the presence of the Wagner Group, a private military company associated with Yevgeny Progozhin, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin, who was indicted in the United States for trying to disrupt the 2016 U.S. elections. To date, Russia has, in addition to seeking basing rights, signed military cooperation agreements with 28 African nations. Russian activity is a combination of military and commercial, with Progozhin at the center of both. From 2010 to 2018, Russia nearly tripled its trade with African countries. While the activities of both Russia and China in Africa are of concern, and should be closely monitored, neither is of critical importance to U.S. national security.
With climate change, disease outbreaks, famine, extremism, and inter-ethnic violence, Africa will still experience crises in the foreseeable future that will be beyond the capacity of most nations on the continent to deal with. Climate change is probably the greatest cause of humanitarian crises in Africa, but mainstream media outside the continent either fail to notice or under-report them. Some of the crises, like Ebola or the next viral infection, can impact the rest of the world. These crises will cause starvation, mass movement of people, and increase internal and regional instability. Africa matters to the United States and the rest of the world. Its impacts can be felt far beyond the continent’s borders, but if approached as a partner rather than as a patron—with a focus on assisting African nations to improve governance, build critical infrastructure, boost domestic economies, and provide essential services to all—then Africa can be a positive contributor on the global stage.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.Charles A. Ray
Charles A. Ray, a member of the Board of Trustees and Chair of the Africa Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, served as U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Republic of Zimbabwe.