What Would the Biden-Harris Policy for Africa Look Like?

Joshua Lawal
300-level Medicine & Surgery
University of Ibadan

The Biden campaign made brief mention of Africa in the Biden-Harris Agenda for the African Diaspora published on the campaign website. Under US-Africa policy, the agenda reads: “Biden will bring to the presidency decades of foreign policy experience and a demonstrated commitment to Africa. He will renew the United States’ mutually respectful engagement toward Africa with a bold strategy that reaffirms our commitment to supporting democratic institutions on the continent; advancing lasting peace and security; promoting economic growth, trade, and investment; and supporting sustainable development”. To get a glimpse, then, of what such an administration holds in store for Africa, we need only look to the past. Biden’s most significant stint with foreign policy is arguably his double tenure as vice-president to Barack Obama; and an assessment of the US-Africa policy in that period, through the lens of what this campaign promises, might prove illuminating.

First, the campaign promises to advance lasting peace and security but does not say how. In 2014, the Obama administration refused to sell lethal weapons to the Nigerian Army as an aid in the fight against terror. This action, or lack thereof, was based on Nigerian soldiers having been accused by human rights groups of carrying out many atrocities, including torturing and executing suspects. The Leahy laws of the US prohibit giving military assistance, including the sale of weaponry, to any military force found guilty of gross human rights abuses. This move becomes interesting because, in that same year, the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation program received widespread condemnation, particularly from the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, who claimed that the program “violated all accepted norms of human rights in the world”. In response, President Barack Obama said it was time to “move on”, despite acknowledging some of the CIA’s actions amounted to torture. Joe Biden, as VP, was a member of the National Security Council. How a Biden administration will reconcile such hypocrisy with advancing lasting peace and security is something we can all hope for without being optimistic about. Interestingly, Trump does not seem to share that sanctimony. On November 13, the Nigerian Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Sadique Abubakar, revealed that Tucano fighter jets, ordered by the federal government from the US in 2019, are due to arrive in the country in the second quarter of 2021. Will President-elect Joe Biden block that? Time will tell.

Another promise on the agenda is promoting economic growth, trade and investment. However, despite the Obama administration being in the White House from 2008 to 2016, US investment in Africa barely increased from 2010 – 2018. Instead, there was more focus on aid than on trade. In 2018, Africa received 32% of all US foreign aid, the largest of any region. Evidence has shown over the years that foreign aid, at best, is a crutch that keeps its recipients dependent and at worst, a chain that attempts to keep its recipients submissive. A perfect example of this is the aftermath of the anti-gay bill passed in Nigeria in 2011. The US government, headed by the Obama-Biden duo, announced that the fight against discrimination because of sexual orientation would be a central point of its foreign policy, and transgressing nations, like Nigeria, could be denied aid. That showed an existent propensity to act as a global culture monitor. With Biden being hoisted to power by a liberal base that has grown more belligerent over the years, it is not difficult to imagine that such demands on the predominantly-conservative African continent will be just another Wednesday in a Biden administration. Trump, on the other hand, has been averse to foreign aid, favouring trade, evidenced by his push for foreign aid cuts. He also launched the Prosper Africa Initiative in December 2018 to assist US companies seeking to do business in Africa by boosting trade and investment between the two. The Development Finance Corporation (DFC) was also established in 2019, and its investment portfolio, as stated on its website, boasts total active commitments in Africa to the tune of $8 billion.

Meanwhile, the investment lacuna facilitated by the Obama-Biden administration has made Africa ripe for the taking by other international power brokers, some with markedly less-than-straightforward intentions. Chinese investment in Africa grew twofold between 2010 and 2016: Russia recently convened its first-ever African summit, which attracted 43 heads of state. China is estimated to have invested $22 billion in natural resource extraction, finance, infrastructure, power generation, textiles, and home appliances in the continent. China is also Africa’s biggest trading partner, with a trading volume of $166 billion in 2014. That is likely to continue to increase and reach an estimated $1.7 trillion in 2030. A fallout of this has been the overdependence of African countries on China for loans which are given for infrastructural developments. Consequently, the recipient country’s stakes in the infrastructure are usually used as collateral. It has created what has come to be known as debt-trap diplomacy, as many of these African countries default and go into debt distress, giving the Chinese government leverage over them. Zambia is an example: in 2018, $7.4 billion of Zambia’s total $8.7 billion foreign debt was owed to China. It was reported that the Zambian government was in talks with China, which could result in the total surrender of the state electricity company, ZESCO, as a form of debt repayment. In May 2020, Nigeria owed China $3.1 billion, 11.2% of her total external debt profile, and was in the process of acquiring another $17 billion loan from China. These loans are tied to infrastructural development projects such as rail lines, and experts have warned of Nigeria’s tendency to default and the possibility of Nigeria falling into the debt trap like some other nations have. Despite this, if the Biden Administration is anything similar to the Obama administration, and it is logical to assume it will be, African countries will continue to look to China as the trading partner of choice.

Summarily, the existing record leaves much to be desired and puts an appreciable dent in the grandiose speculations that have been a dime a dozen recently. The logical course of action would be for African countries to watch how things pan out and adapt accordingly while recalibrating unrealistic expectations in light of available evidence — to avoid disappointments of Buhari proportions.

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  1. This article is both superb and terrible at the same time. Superb because of the sheer amount of profound truths it contains, but terrible because Africans (and by extension Nigerians) don’t like truths; na cruise we like 😂😂😂. Biden is the epitome of cruise, a true demagogue, only time can tell now. Nicely done. 👏

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