Even as the United States draws lessons from its unsuccessful, 20-year effort to build a sustainable peace in Afghanistan, it is shaping policies to engage the political and economic rise of Africa. Both the shortcomings in Afghanistan and the opportunities of Africa underscore the imperative of building policy on a full appreciation of local conditions. Yet on Africa, China’s growing presence has seized Americans’ political attention, and scholars of African politics say this risks distracting near-term U.S. policymaking. A requisite for U.S. success in Africa will be to focus on Africans’ desires—which include an ambition to build their futures by democratic means.

Chinese and Ugandans work on a Chinese-funded hydro power project in Uganda. Civil society groups in many African nations seek better transparency in their governments’ finances, including heavy debts contracted with China. (Joao Silva/The New York Times)
Chinese and Ugandans work on a Chinese-funded hydro power project in Uganda. Civil society groups in many African nations seek better transparency in their governments’ finances, including heavy debts contracted with China. (Joao Silva/The New York Times)

In recent years, many Africa-focused analysts criticized the Trump administration for defining its Africa policy almost solely by rivalry with China, discounting local conditions and Africans’ views. They note that, while a good understanding of local conditions is no guarantee of successful policy, its absence guarantees failed policy. As part of USIP’s focus on China in Africa, distinguished fellow Tom Sheehy discussed these questions with scholars Paul Nantulya of the Washington, D.C.-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies and Gustavo de Carvalho of the Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.  

Sheehy: What role do democratic values and human rights play in African relationships with the U.S. and China?

De Carvalho: The rise of democracy in Africa since the 1990s provided an excellent opportunity for the continent to ensure that broader spectrums of society benefit from democratic values and human rights. This context led to an increasing number of elections on the continent, often fractured, problematic, and violent. These dynamics show a common trend in democratization. While most democratic societies tend to be more peaceful, democratization is often a violent process. Therefore, countries like the U.S. must look … [at] democratization as a long-term process and not just as a simple development of liberal peace constructs that create benchmarks based on events (e.g. elections, building of institutions, development of policies). The U.S. can assist African countries to investigate the future with a much longer-term lens, focusing on incremental progress (and its expected setbacks) rather than a simple, event-based linear process. Looking at this process as a linear one generates programmatic funding for the short [rather than the long] term. It puts limits on strategic patience and provides the space for other actors to gain much more influence by looking at their processes with a different lens. For African states, China’s focus on states’ sovereignty … and limited conditionality to its relationships provides an alternative for engagement. Nevertheless, these two approaches should not be seen as mutually exclusive.

Nantulya: African support for democracy is strong despite growing repression, sham elections, egregious human rights abuses and constitutional coups. Sixty percent of Africa’s population is under 25, with a median age of just 19. This demographic is more restive, innovative, ambitious and demanding than others, and it is powering the push for democratic change as shown by the opposition’s recent landslide victory in Zambia. Yesterday’s ageing regimes are out of sync with Africa’s youthful pulse, energy and vitality. In other words, a foreign policy that stands up for democracy in principle, and consistently backs it up in practice, aligns with the Africa of tomorrow.

African audiences will recognize and differentiate this kind of policy from China’s, which is widely perceived to curry favor with ageing leaders and elites in prioritizing stability, regime familiarity and durability. Interestingly, several African scholars are nudging both the U.S. and China to recognize that democracy and human rights were redefined as African norms from inception by the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) and made binding through instruments like the [1981] African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and the African Charter on Democracy and Elections. Along these lines they argue that since China bases its Africa policy in part on the African Union’s principle of “supporting African solutions to African problems,” then it has a duty to encourage democratization processes.   

Sheehy: Both of you agree that there will be continued democratic pressure within African societies, and that this is a good thing. Whether the U.S. and other actors from outside push democracy aggressively or take a longer term, less active approach, the U.S. and China will remain in tension over governance in Africa, as Beijing’s anti-democratic preference for stability and governing parties is unlikely to dim. Regardless of China, the Biden administration policy of promoting democracy on the continent will be increasingly tested as democracy in many African countries suffers democratic setbacks, including recent coups.

Sheehy: Is promoting transparency and anti-corruption in Africa, another Biden administration priority, a worthy U.S. policy priority?

De Carvalho: Transparency and anti-corruption approaches are always important issues to pursue. The continent still needs strengthened governance and systems that move beyond an elite-based engagement. However, the concern from many African states is that the promotion of transparency and anti-corruption is often … part of the conditionality of engagements that reduce African voices to mere recipients of aid rather than equal counterparts. Therefore, the U.S. should continue with its attempt of pursuing and promoting transparency and anti-corruption, but it should also equally engage on how its approaches are conducted and perceived by local and national actors. Africans see very clearly that the United States is inconsistent in promoting transparency and anti-corruption policies—a principle it dilutes in its relationship with Saudi Arabia, for example. This can leave Africans feeling that the U.S. is condescending in its relations with them.

Nantulya: Yes, because winning over people as opposed to regimes is a smart way to compete. Moreover, transparency is a top priority for Africans given the rampant irresponsible borrowing and flagrant theft of public resources by African elites, which ultimately, ordinary citizens must pay for. Regimes often manipulate donor assistance to build their machineries of patronage and repression. Citizens decry China for failing to hold its partners accountable, but they also decry Western and multilateral lenders in similar measure. Opportunities exist for the U.S. to distinguish itself by employing all its anti-corruption tools consistently and without hesitation regardless of … [the risk of complications to other] foreign policy objectives.

Sheehy: You two share a view on the importance of the U.S. pressing for greater transparency and exposing corruption, but urge that it must be done with greater consistency and as a higher foreign policy priority globally, distinguishing Washington from Beijing. I’d suggest that empowering African legislatures and civil society is one way to press for these objectives without the heavy hand of conditionality. Pressure for accountability is best coming from the grass roots.

Sheehy: How can African governments best manage Chinese engagement and how should the United States help?

De Carvalho: In Africa, while most Western countries see the rise of China with fear and suspicion, African states generally engage with China much as they engage with other global powers. As the continent seeks support, it navigates around a complex relationship in which it tries to gain benefits either from the “West” or the “Rest.”

Nantulya: Five lessons can be gleaned from recent experience. First, African countries need clear strategies and institutional mechanisms to engage China based on national plans and priorities. Second, senior leaders should not interfere to “speed up” negotiations, [on Chinese trade and infrastructure deals] but instead should empower their negotiators. Third, they should involve all relevant government departments in the process. Fourth, they must include the public and allow oversight mechanisms to play their role unhindered. Fifth, they should invest in professional acumen and expertise, including language skills. The U.S. can provide targeted capacity-building in all these areas.

Sheehy: I fully agree with Paul’s recommendations for African governments and agree that the U.S. can help build capacity in these areas. Gustavo offers a helpful cautionary note about this aid not being framed as anti-China initiatives, but instead as programs that help Africans. This may seem to be not a big distinction, but the messaging of any public policy matters to its success.

Sheehy: Paul, do you have any thoughts on how U.S. frames its policy?

Nantulya: [Yes], Beijing vigorously promotes Africa as a land of abundant opportunities through numerous policy initiatives. Chinese scholars, intellectuals and analysts tend to echo this perspective loudly. American views of Africa are largely humanitarian and security related. Africa ought to be seen as a place of opportunity, not merely one of natural disasters and insecurity. U.S. engagements should also be strategic, not merely a reaction to China.

African stakeholders fear that if the U.S. narrows its Africa policy to “great power competition” with China, then two things will happen: first, it will undermine and ignore African agency, aspirations and efforts. Second, it will create a strong incentive for the U.S. to put values aside and engage and enable abusive governments and institutions lest they “pivot” to China. This would make Washington very unpopular.

Sheehy: It sounds as though the bottom line is that the U.S. should not underestimate the determination of Africans to shape their own future. Most want to do that through democratic means, a preference aligned with U.S. interests and policies, not China’s. While Washington and Beijing will be at odds over a number of issues in Africa, U.S. policymakers should avoid framing Africa policy wholly within the context of competing with China. Africa’s realities are far more complicated than that, with many developments being beyond Chinese influence. The best way for the U.S. to challenge China’s harmful influence in Africa is to intensify bilateral engagement with Africans at all levels of government and civil society with the goal of promoting democracy, human rights, and transparency.

USIP is publishing a series of articles exploring U.S.-China relations as they impact Africa. See previous articles in the series:

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