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Is the United States once again “rediscovering” Africa? What has our approach been and what should it be now? The author, a former Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs, reviews the past and charts a course for the future. The article is reprinted with permission from “American Foreign Policy Interests”.—Assoc. Ed.

The United States and Africa: Non-Vital Interests Also Require Attention During the transition between the Clinton and Bush administrations in late 2000, I asked a friend who had been selected for high office in the State Department about his prognosis for U.S. policy toward Africa. Only half joking, he responded: “Let’s build a fence around Africa and forget about it.”

Ever since the late 1950s, when most of the African colonies were in the final stages of the independence process, the United States has attempted to play a secondary role to that of the Europeans. During President Eisenhower’s second term (1957-1961), the National Security Council proposed a division of labor for the developing world. The Europeans would be responsible for Africa, while the United States would play the dominant role in Latin America, its own backyard. The experience of the past four decades, however, tells us that this policy has been easier to articulate than to implement. As much as it has tried, the US has been unable to avoid a significant presence in Africa, in support of shifting sets of priorities and interests, powered by unexpected and intermittent requirements to intervene.

Today, Africa’s rapidly growing capacity to lower our crude oil dependency on the Middle East, its potential for terrorist penetration, and its geographic back door on the Persian Gulf have given US policy makers reasons to take another one of its periodic new looks at the continent as a growing national security challenge.

As far back as the beginning of World War II, the US has been drawn to Africa by non-African imperatives. Because the Nazi regime made travel through the Mediterranean too dangerous between 1940 and 1944, transit to the Middle East and South Asia for US forces was via West Africa. The international airports in Senegal, Liberia, Ghana and the Gambia on the West African littoral were built or expanded by US Army engineers. General de Gaulle began his military campaign to return to France with his Free French forces from bases in Equatorial Africa. The uranium used for the first nuclear weapon was obtained from the Belgian Congo. Ethiopia was the first wartime occupied country to be liberated from the Axis powers in 1942.

After the wave of African decolonization that began in 1956, US policy was driven by a combination of Cold War concerns and development idealism. Thanks to then Vice President Richard Nixon, the US decided to place an American embassy in every independent African country. He was motivated largely by the fear of communist takeovers in many of the fragile newly- independent nations. At the same time, Wilsonian idealism required that the newly emerging African nations receive US assistance for development. Major aid programs were launched in response to a sympathetic US domestic constituency.

The US policy of trying to play second fiddle to the former colonial powers was undermined right from the start by the botched Belgian transition to independence in the Congo, a territory as large as the United States east of the Mississippi. The woefully unprepared Congo collapsed into chaos and violence within months of its independence on June 30 1960. This was too big a prize to leave to the Soviets. In the absence of Belgium, the United States had to assume a pro-consular role in the Congo. Under US leadership, the UN launched the first peacekeeping operation directed from the New York headquarters since its establishment. From 1960 to 1975, the US played a dominant role in the Congo, assuming the post-colonial responsibilities that the impotent Belgians had abandoned.

By 1970, the US and the USSR had determined that the initial implementation of the Nixon-Brezhnev détente understanding would take place in Africa. In a speech in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1971, Secretary of State William Rogers called for an end to the Cold War in Africa. He said that the international community should focus on development in Africa rather than on east-west competition. But the arrival of Cuban expeditionary forces in Ethiopia and Angola in 1975 to prop up newly empowered Marxist regimes caused President Gerald Ford to repudiate the worldwide détente relationship inaugurated by his predecessor. Ethiopia and Angola were too big on the African scene for the Soviets to miss an opportunity to score points for communism. In Africa, the Brezhnev Doctrine trumped détente.

During Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 again thrust the African continent into a Cold War supporting role. US eaves-dropping had picked up Soviet military planning for possible operations beyond Afghanistan into Iran and Kuwait. As a result, US diplomacy sought and obtained military base rights, facilities, and transit authorizations from East African countries close to the Persian Gulf, including Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti and Kenya.

During the Reagan Administration (1981-1989), the “Reagan Doctrine” was invoked in Angola where the Soviet-supported Marxist regime was waging war to crush the pro-western UNITA insurgents who were receiving their only external support from the apartheid regime in South Africa. (In one of the great ironies of the Cold War, the Marxist Angolan regime was able to purchase arms from the Soviet Union with the revenues earned through American oil companies whose drilling rigs were protected from the UNITA rebels by the Cuban expeditionary force.)

Reagan was able to persuade the Congress to repeal earlier prohibitions on US aid to the UNITA rebels in Angola, and began a “covert action” to provide both lethal and non-lethal military support to the movement. In 1987, the US leveraged its support for UNITA to preside over a tripartite negotiation that led to the departure of South African and Cuban troops from Angola, and the South African decision to relinquish its controversial UN mandate over Namibia. This was a diplomatic tour de force by the Reagan Administration that activated a process leading to the end of the hated apartheid regime in South Africa two years later in 1990. (The American Left has neither given credit to, nor forgiven, the Reagan Administration for taking over and resolving their flagship African issue of the 1980s.)

The fact that Soviet diplomats lent their discreet, effective support to the Reagan Administration during this two-year negotiating marathon in southern Africa (1987-1988) served as a precursor to the end of the Cold War in 1989. President Bush I returned the favor to Gorbachev by intervening diplomatically in Angola and Ethiopia after he took office in order to end violent conflicts, thereby relieving Russia honorably of its costly burden of military and economic support to these two Marxist regimes.

It was only after the official end of the Cold War that the United States could begin to develop an Africa policy without worrying about non-African imperatives. It was at this point that the US could concentrate unambiguously on the promotion of democracy, good governance, and growth oriented economic policies in Africa. In the area of economic development, however, the US reverted to its original low profile by relying on the World Bank and the IMF to bear the major responsibility for leading the Africans toward market economies and private sector led growth.

Even in the sector of Africa’s economic orientation, the Russians were quite helpful to the US and Europe. After the end of the apartheid system in South Africa in early 1990, power shifted from the white minority to the black majority led by the African National Congress of Nelson Mandela. Because of the loyal and consistent support it had received from the Soviet Union over the years, the leaders of the ANC came out of long years in prison prepared to implement Marxist policies similar to those that had ruined the Soviet and eastern European economies between World War II and 1989. They were truly living in a time warp. When the ANC leadership traveled to Moscow for guidance, they could not believe their ears. Gorbachev and his colleagues bluntly told the South Africans not to make the same mistakes they did. The Soviet leadership insisted that the path of market economics was the only viable one. To the great chagrin of the South African Communist Party, one of the oldest in the world, Nelson Mandela and his team decided to follow Gorbachev’s advice to take the capitalist road.

For the rest, both the first Bush administration and President Clinton tended to rely heavily on the French and the British to play the leading mentoring roles in their former colonies. Nevertheless, because the Portuguese botched the independence process for both Mozambique and Angola, the Bush and Clinton administrations were forced to play activist roles in conflict resolution in those countries. The same held true for Ethiopia and Liberia that had never had the benefit of western colonialism, and looked first of all to the United States for mentoring.

For a variety of reasonsCold War, development idealism on the part of certain American constituencies, and the abdication of responsibility by Belgium and Portugal in their former coloniesthe United States was thrust into periodic interventionist roles that undercut its overall policy of keeping the Europeans out in front in Africa. Nevertheless, during most of the 1990s, in the absence of strong domestic pressure demanding enhanced American involvement in Africa, the Clinton Administration was able to get away with doing the minimum, albeit proclaiming great accomplishments. After sixteen American soldiers working in Somalia to prevent starvation were massacred by warlords in 1993, the US appetite for close involvement in Africa’s problems diminished substantially. Within the Clinton Administration, the overhang of the Vietnam syndrome coupled with the fresh trauma of Somalia placed Africa in the category of “hazardous to your political health.”

After September 11, the US began to identify sub-Saharan governments as potential national security partners in the context of the worldwide coalition against terror. Many African governments are weak, and are therefore unable to extend their administrative controls much beyond their capital cities. There is a risk that El Qaeda terrorists could hide in, and plan new actions from several of the more vulnerable countries. Elements of El Qaeda have already been identified as laundering money, trading drugs, and infiltrating legitimate businesses in some of the less stable African countries.

The El Qaeda terrorist attacks against Israelis in Kenya in late November 2002 illustrated how vulnerable certain African countries are in the face of well-planned infiltrations by terrorist operatives. Kenyan citizens were apparently not members of this particular terrorist operation that was planned and implemented by persons coming from the outside. Neither Muslims nor Christians in Kenya are candidate suicide bombers. Neither will they provide knowing support to terrorist teams. This type of activity is alien to their culture. Indeed far more Kenyans than Americans or Israelis were killed or maimed in the terrorist attacks on the US Embassy in Nairobi in 1998 and the Israeli tourist hotel in Mombassa in November 2002. But the deterioration in Kenyan governmental discipline since 1960, the deep poverty, and low morale in the civil service have opened this and other African countries to dangerous penetrations by worldwide terror networks. African leaders acknowledge that they have a problem, and are looking to the US and Europe for solutions. In return, they are ready to contribute to the war on terror with intelligence, police, and military cooperation, as well as with air and maritime facilities.

In the hydrocarbon sector, American oil and gas companies have become enthusiastic about West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea in recent years. Today, the United States imports approximately fifteen percent of its crude oil from offshore fields adjacent to Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, Congo, and Equatorial Guinea. American corporations, including EXXON-Mobile, Chevron-Texaco, Marathon and Ocean Energy have invested several billion dollars in the sub-region. Other major multinationals investing in the oil sector in West Africa include Shell, BP, ELF and Norsk Hydro. Conservative prognosis indicates that US crude oil purchases from Africa n countries will increase to 25% of imports within ten years. Within the overall objective of diversification of crude oil supply away from the Persian Gulf, Africa’s potential is not insignificant.

As in 1979, the geographic proximity of East African states to the Middle East has again raised the profile of this sub-region considerably since September 11. As of December 2002, American military units were stationed in the Republic of Djibouti where strikes against El Qaeda terrorists in Yemen were being launched. Neighboring Ethiopia’s army has been helping to root out Islamist terrorists in Somalia since late 2001. US naval units are utilizing port facilities in Kenya and Eritrea to patrol the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. It is not surprising, therefore, that in December 2002 President George Bush invited the heads of state of Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia to make official visits to the White House, an honor that is not conferred on African leaders that frequently.

In addition to September 11, another issue that has raised Africa’s profile in the US under the current Bush Administration is the civil war in the Sudan. Since 1983, African rebels representing people living in the southern third of Sudan have been fighting the Arab-dominated central government operating from the capital city of Khartoum. The war has cultural, ethnic, economic and religious roots. The southerners feel, with much justification, that they have been repressed, excluded, and deprived of their basic human rights. They have gained the sympathy of many Americans who have heard about their plight mainly through church and academic channels.

The Christian Right, a key domestic political support group for President Bush II, views the war in Sudan as a religious one between repressed Christians and animists living in the south, and Arab Moslems holding power in Khartoum. The issue is complicated by new oil production situated on the internal border between the Arab north and the African south, adding the question of resource sharing to the political, ethnic and cultural mix of problems. Under pressure from the Christian Right, the Bush Administration has been much more interventionist in the Sudan than its predecessor, and is deeply involved in efforts to mediate a fair end to the war. The subject is all the more interesting because the Sudan is on the official US list of terrorist states, and has the dubious distinction of having hosted Osama bin Laden prior to his resettlement in Afghanistan in 1995.

African governments view El Qaeda and other terrorist networks as dangers to their own security. They have seen first hand how money laundering and drug trafficking can destabilize their own societies. The bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998 killed and maimed far more Africans than Americans. Half of the 800 million Africans are Moslems. While the vast majority practice a form of Islam that eschews the medieval rigidities and bigotry that is prevalent in the Persian Gulf, if only a tiny percentage can be subverted by the extremists, the dangers to mainstream African interests could be significant. American policy makers, therefore, have expressed an interest in assisting African governments to implement preventive measures, and for the most part, African leaders have ordered their different services and bureaucracies to cooperate.

The one substantial Muslim population in Africa that was emitting danger signals at the end of 2002 was in northern Nigeria. In this large federal nation, governors of states are chosen through democratic elections, and therefore have legitimacy, power, and financial resources. Several of them in states with majority Muslim populations have jumped on the fundamentalist bandwagon in order to assure their re-elections. The main result so far has been an increase in tension between Moslem and Christian communities who normally live side-by-side peacefully. Violence has erupted in several large northern cities such as Kaduna and Kano. Fundamentalist Christian sects have responded with counter-violence. It is too early to tell if this ominous development will have negative ramifications for the war on terror, but it is clear that Washington needs to work with Nigeria’s secular Federal Government to prevent the international terrorist networks from taking advantage of confessional conflicts in the northern states.

Another group to watch are the Lebanese business communities that are active in all West African countries. While the vast majority of them are legitimate apolitical business investors who have been living in West Africa for generations, some are subject to extortion and blackmail directed against their families living in the Middle East.

The bottom line for US-African relations post September 11 adds up to growing crude oil production in West Africa, important ports and airfields available to US military units along the East African littoral, and a mutual interest in cooperating against international terrorist networks at every level. In addition, the three African seats on the UN Security Council are particularly important now that the US has decided to pursue a multilateral approach in dismantling weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and presumably are planning to do the same in the rest of the Gulf sub-region later.

African cooperation is not surprising. Looking back over the past half century, one can see a consistent pattern of African support for US policy objectives each time Washington has said: “This is important. We would appreciate your assistance.” At the end of the day, African governments understand that the American security umbrella is the only reliable game in town for them. As far as Washington is concerned, the need to intervene in Africa has once more submerged the long-standing policy of the US playing a secondary role in that troubled continent.

Has the terrorism overhang currently dominating US foreign policy totally eclipsed Washington’s support for democratization, good governance and economic development that were the hallmarks of US African policy during the 1990s? In his speech to the UN summit on sustainable development in Monterrey Mexico in March 2002, President Bush spoke of the need to reduce poverty and hopelessness that are the breeding grounds for terrorism. He announced the establishment of a new category of foreign aid: the Millennium Challenge Account that would reward good economic policy, good governance, and democracy among the best performers among the least developed countries. The funds for this new aid category would be as much as fifty percent over and above regular annual appropriations. It is clear from the President’s rhetoric that the Administration perceives a connection between grinding underdevelopment and global lawlessness, and that he intends to pursue new avenues for economic cooperation. Nevertheless, when one sees senior US officials in the corridors of foreign policy power in Washington, the policy aspiration one hears most often with respect to Africa post 9/11 can be summarized by one word: “STABILITY.”


Professor Cohen is a former assistant secretary of state for African Affairs. He is currently a professorial lecturer at the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is also president of Cohen and Woods International, a consulting firm that assists U.S. business in Africa. His e-mail address is His website is


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