Africa is watching in amazement as America faces what many perceive to be an existential crisis. Never before has the world’s most powerful country been so divided. From continued social injustice and protests, to lockdowns and mass unemployment, to present-day controversies over vote-counting, the only thing that is seemingly certain in the United States is uncertainty.
There is also reason for great optimism: in view of how Americans joined together to respond to injustice and how they turned out to vote in record numbers despite the pandemic. These democratic and aspirational trends represent what we Africans see as the best of America. These are the things that we are striving to emulate.
When the dust of the presidential election inevitably settles, the world will be waiting for America to re-assume its stewardship role and perhaps have a serious rethink of its foreign policy priorities.
While establishing these priorities, it is critically important for President-elect Joe Biden to note that while the United States has not been paying much attention to us — we Africans have been paying serious attention to you.
It’s not too late to heed the call of the voices of a billion young Africans, representing one of the world’s largest sources of human capital, and create lasting partnerships to our mutual benefit.
Failure to do so, to continue the mistake of omitting Africa from US foreign policy priority, will force us to continue to side with nations like China, who have capitalized on our unbridled market opportunities, playing a role in our geo-commercial ascendance and helping make us your next global competitors.
Trump understood Africa’s importance
Early in his administration, President Donald Trump seemed to recognize this and made major changes to US policy toward Africa. While his signature ‘America First’ approach was inherently skeptical of foreign engagements, in 2018, the Trump administration created the US International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC), comprising $60 billion to support US companies in Africa and around the world. This represented a doubling of the budget of the former Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) development agency. However this pales in comparison with Chinese investments on the continent.
Trump’s ‘Prosper Africa’ Initiative also showed promise when it was first announced to “promote international trade and commercial ties to the benefit of both the United States and Africa.” This would mark the first in decades of robust African-oriented investment programs undertaken within an American president’s first term of office.
However, it quickly became clear that the program’s true intentions were primarily fixated on counterbalancing the inroads of China and blocking the country from becoming a rival superpower. This lack of genuine interest by the US to play a meaningful role in the development of the continent as an industrial player and a true partner needs to be addressed.
This aside, programs like Prosper Africa should be encouraged, so long as they do not impose straitjackets on the policies and agendas of countries taking part. Africa welcomes engagement with both the US government as well as the American private sector to collaborate openly in effective investment opportunities and engage with us in constructive, two-way dialogue. But please be warned — Africans will not accept the demand for an all-or-nothing choice.
Under current circumstances, America leaves us little alternative but to continue to look to China for partnership opportunities to the benefit of what is today our continent’s rapid development.
Why Africa matters
Africa, one of the final frontiers of the fourth industrial revolution and today one of the fastest urbanizing regions of the world, presents tremendous opportunities for international investment. The top three countries for real GDP growth in 2019 were all African countries. Rwanda, which grew at 10.1 percent, has been described as the “Singapore of Africa.” Also in the top twenty for GDP growth, and ahead of China, include the African countries of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Ivory Coast, Benin, Tanzania, and Ghana.
Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ethiopia, and the Congo lead the way on rate of change in urbanization. The number of tech hubs in Africa has grown by 50% from 2018 to 2019.
These fast-developing African tech and industrial centers were among the 14 countries surveyed by my foundation, the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, for its inaugural African Youth Survey. The findings indicate that African men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 are actively looking towards the future and taking initiatives to make sure they can be the leaders of tomorrow, not only within their communities and countries, but on a global stage.
Africans are extremely entrepreneurial and intensely interested in leveraging technology, with 81% believing the fortunes of the African continent will be shaped by it.
Critically relevant to American policy-makers is the finding that 74% of African youth polled perceive that the United States regularly impacts modern-day African affairs, and 83% contend that influence is positive. This gives the United States a huge advantage in any heightened engagement with Africa.
Our survey paints a picture of a diverse continent, full of opportunity and striving future leaders in business, community, and national and global affairs. And yet, the dynamic attitudes of Africa’s youth, even their receptiveness to American engagement, investment, trading, and partnerships are little discussed in the United States.
The US has been cracking down on China
In contrast, over the past two years, the United States has stepped up its efforts to call out China, holding it accountable for its questionable and sometimes abusive practices. From the trade war to talks of decoupling and sanctions issued in response to human rights violations, the US is aiming to decrease its reliance on China and punish China when it violates international norms. Capital flows between the US and China are at their lowest level in nearly a decade.
All the while, China has been buying up rights to African resources at a breakneck pace. China accounts for close to 50% of exports in many mineral-rich African countries and as much as 95% of South Sudan’s exports. It is therefore easy to understand why African leaders would turn to China for support of their growth agendas.
In the last 15 years, China invested more than $300 billion in Sub-Saharan Africa, and in the last two years it pledged $60 billion of investment. The Chinese are playing a much longer game. They know that by controlling these resources it ultimately gives them control of whole industries. This is dangerous not only to the US economy but to the rest of the world’s economies. Biden must confront this challenge as a short-term imperative.
Africa could be America’s next China
Africa is a sleeping lion, not unlike China in that, to quote Napoleon, when awoken, she will truly shake the world. Ignored in US foreign policy discussions and underestimated on the world stage, but in my view, Africa is rising, whether the West realizes it or not. The United States has an interest in helping Africa and the capacity to do so. A strong, self-sufficient Africa will be able to stand on its own and resist the pressures of China’s debt diplomacy.
African countries could be partners in American economic growth and initiatives where they share common interests. Or, if ignored or undermined, Africa could become America’s next great geo-commercial competitor — America’s next China.
If you, Mr. President-elect, do not take advantage of the opportunity that we Africans are presenting to you on a plate, it will pass you by.
Ivor Ichikowitz is an African industrialist and philanthropist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. The views expressed are his own.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).