The U.S. plans to continue diplomatic and military support for African nations but expects its counterparts to step up significantly in areas ranging from fighting corruption to countering terrorism and stopping arms purchases from North Korea, U.S. officials said during a symposium at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

In one of South Africa’s largest protests in years, tens of thousands rallied against Zuma, spurred by the firing of a popular finance minister who was held as a bulwark against corruption and cronyism, April 12, 2017. Photo Courtesy of NYT/Joao Silva
In one of South Africa’s largest protests in years, tens of thousands rallied against Zuma, spurred by the firing of a popular finance minister who was held as a bulwark against corruption and cronyism, April 12, 2017. Photo Courtesy of NYT/Joao Silva

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon said Africa has moved from an afterthought of global geopolitics to a rapidly developing hub that touches U.S. interests in virtually every region of the world. African allies and partners of the U.S. are wrangling with persistent conflicts and humanitarian crises on the continent, Shannon noted. Yet, the majority of African states are moving toward more open markets and stronger rule of law, trends that encourage the U.S. to continue supporting their success, he said.

The day-long symposium on Sept. 13 brought together officials and scholars specializing in Africa in the U.S. and on the continent to discuss topics ranging from governance to economic partnerships, with an emphasis on ending the civil strife that is holding back development in some parts of the continent. The event was co-sponsored by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, the Institute for Defense Analysis, the National Intelligence University and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

While the U.S. signaled its policy direction for the first time, African and U.S. experts said they were concerned that there’s a vacuum in U.S.– African relationships currently that increases the difficulty of rebuilding those relationships if time lapses. Many speakers called for closer ties more involvement by civil society and young people to address the grievances that fuel violent conflict.

U.S. Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, detailed U.S. efforts to improve the capabilities and professionalism of African troops, seeking to support political solutions to local conflicts and establish a level of security that allows economic development. He and Shannon separately outlined an American diplomatic and military strategy that positions Africa to solve its own problems, even as civil wars, insurgencies and terrorism afflict parts of the continent.

Noting approvingly that the balance of U.S. trade with Africa is near parity. Shannon said the administration is moving its economic focus for the continent “from aid to trade and investment,” aiming to create jobs for both Americans and Africans. He cited figures showing that six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa.

Oren Whyche-Shaw, acting senior deputy administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the U.S. has to acknowledge its competition for investment in Africa – China. That global power is making 150 investments per year in the continent’s manufacturing sector, up from only two in 2000, he said.

Interaction With North Korea

On international security, Shannon said the U.S. is asking African countries to help restrict political and economic interaction with North Korea by shutting down illicit trade networks and openly opposing North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests. The U.S. is making clear that the cost of continued engagement with North Korea will increase “reputationally and politically” as time goes on, Shannon told reporters in a briefing at USIP after his remarks. Trade with North Korea includes guest workers, military ties forged through arms sales and sanctions-busting money laundering, he said.

“Numerous African partners have taken concrete actions, but more needs to be done,” he said.

Regarding terrorism, Shannon praised the blows African states have delivered in recent years to terrorist groups including Boko Haram and affiliates of al-Qaida and ISIS. But he stressed that sustained peace can only come from addressing the root causes of conflict, including marginalization and inadequate economic opportunity for a bulging youth population. In addition, counter-terrorism efforts are undermined by abusive and illegal behavior of security forces, he said.

“The challenge now is for our African partners to complement their successes on the battlefield,” he said.

Waldhauser echoed Shannon, citing what he called an old adage for measuring an army’s real effectiveness.

“If an African military [unit] walks down the road in a village and the women and children are running inside their huts, those guys aren’t doing their job,” he said. If they come out to talk and shake hands, they are. “That’s how we measure success in terms of capacity building for our militaries.”

Mass Atrocities

Shannon said the U.S. will keep working with the African Union to end violence and mass atrocities in conflict-wracked countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. However, the U.S. will demand deeper commitment to action by African leaders, he said, adding that “the long-term sustainability of our financial commitments requires contributions from our assistance partners.” The United States is intent on seeing that its “investment is effective and enduring,” he said.

Finally, Shannon said that expanding democracy, good governance and the rule of law in Africa is critical to furthering the peace and security the U.S. seeks to build in the region.

“As far as the United States is concerned, Africa is already a continent of allies and partners,” Shannon said. “With a few notable exceptions, the vast majority of African states share our commitment to free markets, equitable trade, democracy and the rule of law, secure borders and effective responses to global terrorist threats.”

Ambassador Donald Yamamoto, acting assistant secretary of state for Africa, said the U.S. plans to expand “on areas which have been highly successful and which are critical to our national strategic interests but also to the future of Africa.”

“The fundamental issue is we need strong institutions, not leaders who are dictators or strongmen,” Yamamoto said.

The Costs of Corruption

Shannon referred to an oft-cited 2002 study by the African Union that calculated the continent loses $150 billion a year to corruption. Low-level corruption erodes faith in government and increases the wealth gap, while high-level bribery deters foreign investment, weakens the delivery of basic services and degrades the capacity of security forces, he said.

Increasing that capacity is a core mission of Africom, which supports national armies with training, intelligence, technical expertise, equipment and air support. Efforts have helped rout ISIS from Libya and push back extremists in Somalia. Such assistance “bought time” for the United Nations-recognized government in Libya to take a stronger leadership role and supported Somalia’s strategy for stabilizing its elected government and rebuilding its economy, he said.

But only capable local forces can help create long-term stability, Waldhauser said. Even then few, if any, of the challenges faced by the U.S. in Africa can be resolved primarily with military force, he said.

“The military guys realize the necessity for development more than most,” Waldhauser said. “We’ve been striking al-Shabab and al-Qaida for some time and we’re still at it.”

Asked about a possible jobs program in Somalia to encourage defections by al-Shabab militants, Waldhauser said, “I would start by talking about the drivers that push young boys into these extremist organizations. It’s the need for education, jobs, livelihood, hope for a future. Success will come from individuals not going for money or promises from extremists in the first place.”

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