By Hany Besada
FRAUGHT with intractable violence, interminable disease and abject poverty, Africa is traditionally observed by policymakers through a humanitarian lens.
However, Africaâ€™s emerging geo-strategic importance transcends such condescending colonial overtones of the continentâ€™s inescapable realities to command US attention beyond the moral, humanitarian and security imperatives.
Distracted by long winded plans to end the war in Iraq, one is hard-pressed to detect any semblance of serious interest on the websites of American presidential candidates that goes beyond ending the genocide in Darfur or supporting HIV/AIDS initiatives in Africa.
Indeed, American foreign policy towards Africa has seldom been addressed by US presidential hopefuls. Equally disheartening has been the fourth estates deafening silence on this matter. As if to further ostracize the continent into inconsequentiality, foreign policy questions filed by prominent national newspapers prior to the final Democratic debate in Ohio neglected to address a single African issue directly.
The US strategy of indifference towards Africaâ€™s ever-growing importance is counterproductive and potentially dangerous. The US economic stake in Africaâ€™s success cannot be overstated. Energy-hungry nations like China, India, Malaysia, South Korea and Brazil are fiercely competing for access to Africaâ€™s resources to fuel their voracious economies.
China, in particular has made significant inroads in securing African resources and agricultural produce with financial incentives from Beijing encouraging more Chinese companies to invest. Currently, Africa provides 16% of US oil imports, equivalent to Middle Eastern supplies, and is poised to double its output in the next decade. A surge in competition however may thwart attempts to secure future supplies.
Africaâ€™s energy oasis is of great strategic importance to the US considering that nearly all of the continentâ€™s oil reserves lie in unstable countries threatened by strife and violence.
Turning a blind eye to serious violations of human rights and weak governance may risk jeopardizing long-term US interests in the region. Meanwhile, according to the United Nationsâ€™ most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Africa may be most vulnerable to adverse environmental impacts.
Rampant poverty, fragile governance, lack of disaster management and limited financial resources present a sobering threat for some countries given their low adaptive capacity.
Unpredictable harsh weather patterns and increasing temperatures would further strain already scarce water resources and food supplies leading to a widespread humanitarian crisis. This looming danger not only threatens coastal communities and infrastructure in vital oil-producing regions but more importantly undermines subsistence agriculture, the only livelihood for many Africans.
Expanding US military and security interests on the continent has broad appeal in exerting regional influence while battling insurgents in Americaâ€™s war on terror.
However, this has not shielded Washington from a barrage of criticism for its decision to set up its new African Command (AFRICOM), a Unified Combatant Command of the United States Department of Defense.
Fully operational by September 2008, its mandate will facilitate US military operations for all African states, with the exception of Egypt.
Despite assurances to the contrary and apart from Liberiaâ€™s vocal support, AFRICOM is viewed by many as yet another US veiled attempt to cement its foothold in Africa to safeguard precious energy imports and counter terrorist threats; notably in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. These efforts would bolster several military initiatives, such as the Combined Joint Task Force of the Horn of Africa and the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative already in operation.
Critics, both on the continent and abroad, however remain wary and have long argued that this new combatant command centre will essentially serve US geo-political interests while enticing terrorism and instability on the continent.
Perhaps the only issue where the US has received much praise, even from its fiercest critics that chide socio-economic development on the continent, has been its health initiatives.
The Bush administration has devoted more attention in recent years to supporting Africaâ€™s battle to contain the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the devastating effects of malaria.
Since 2003, the US government has allocated $15b over five years â€”$10b in new money â€”to provide desperately needed drugs to more than $1.3m people who would not have been able to afford them. This has had a tremendous impact in scaling up access to AIDS treatment.
The Presidentâ€™s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief is the largest ever global initiative dedicated to tackling a single disease. Although candidates remain focused on addressing the domestic issues of a crumbling economy and a tattered healthcare system; changing the perception that Africa only matters marginally in US foreign policy must evolve not on moral merit alone but more importantly for the USâ€™s future stability and prosperity.
There is a need to move beyond the colonial misconception that Africa is merely a region endowed with abundant natural resources and plagued by regional conflict. â€œAll change is not growth, as all movement is not forward,â€ warns the adage.
Growth however requires change, and only then may forward movement occur. To believe that one leaderâ€™s â€œaudacity of hopeâ€ can transform Washingtonâ€™s audacity of indifference, first requires each citizen to become the change they want to see. Americans deserve to hear more from their presidential hopefuls about their vision regarding the land of hope: Africa.
This article was co-authored with Miran Ternamian. Both writers are researchers at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Canada