By Phillip Dexter and Roscoe Palm
In 2014, US President Barack Obama hosted the first US-Africa leaders’ summit.
“I do think that it’s important for Africans to make sure that these interactions are good for Africa,” he said. “There has been a long history of extracting resources from Africa, you take raw materials, you send them someplace else where they get used, processed, sometimes sold back to Africa. The profits stay there, and not much stays in Africa.”
The purpose of the summit was to present the US as an equitable trading partner, pivoting away from the hitherto exploitative extractive practices. But the reality was that while the US had been preoccupied with defending and advancing its strategic interests in the Middle East, it had neglected building any kind of sustainable, mutually beneficial partnership with African nations.
In 2014 it had been five years since China surpassed the US as Africa’s biggest trading partner. The total trade volume between the US and Africa in that year was estimated at between $64.3 billion and $72 billion, while the trade volume between China and Africa was measured at around $220 billion. Xi Jinping became the president of the People’s Republic of China in 2013, the same year that China overtook the US in purchasing power parity. Seven months thereafter, Xi unveiled the Belt and Road initiative, a network of massive infrastructure projects that would be the connective tissue of a new international trade paradigm.
The seeds of a multipolar world had already been sown. Obama’s sales pitch for a new era of mutual benefit and partnership was a thinly veiled concession by the US that its political and economic leverage over African nations was diminished. No longer in a position to dictate to African nations, Africa had to be wooed, wowed and made a deal with, because Africa had forged partnerships beyond the orbit of Western nations.
This project ran into serious problems with Donald Trump’s presidency, and his “America First” doctrine and contempt for “shithole” countries which alienated African nations, who largely continued to accelerate trade relations with China and others, including Germany and France, filling the vacuum of US neglect.
A history of domination
Today, with President Joe Biden in office, there is a strong lobby in the South African public sphere pushing for South Africa to become a client state of the US. It is important to recall that the US interest in Africa was never truly developmental. On the contrary, it has historically been about countering socialist aspirations and protecting US security interests in terms of military matters as well as food, minerals and energy.
The US government has a long history of political interference in Africa, often for the benefit of its corporations and to access strategic resources. It has supported the overthrow of democratically elected leaders. For instance, the CIA was active in the newly independent and resource-wealthy Democratic Republic of Congo in that country’s nascent independence. The US supported a coup against Patrice Lumumba in 1960 and although it has never admitted the scope of its role in his assassination, it released documents in 1972 that showed it had discussed the possibility of poisoning the then-prime minister of the DRC.
In Ghana, the US was extremely hostile to Kwame Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanist Socialist vision for Africa. The US withheld Ghana’s request for loans despite promises of food products. The CIA was reported to have advised and supported those who orchestrated the coup against Nkrumah.
In the Niger Delta, the Western grab of oil resources has caused widespread environmental damage and placed the health of Nigerians in jeopardy. A UNEP environmental assessment of Ogoniland found that over 50 years of oil operations had left massive devastation in its wake and called for the undertaking of “the most wide-ranging and long-term oil clean-up exercise” to restore important ecosystems. The Federal high court in Abuja found that ExxonMobil was liable to pay N81,9 billion (approximately $178 million) in compensation to the fishing and farming communities of the Ibeno local government area for oil spills at the company’s facilities between 2000 and 2010.
Progressive forces in Africa have always opposed the repressive character that came to dominate ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe, but the newly-renewed sanctions regime against Zimbabwe that the US has maintained for 21 years was imposed after the violent land reform initiatives in that country. Rwanda, a repressive US client state, is supported rather than sanctioned. The imposition of sanctions in Zimbabwe following the land reform programme was a clear shot across the bows of two other former settler colonial states, Namibia and South Africa.
Today, the US maintains 29 military bases in Africa. It has a long history of launching military campaigns against African leaders in defiance of the sovereignty of individual nations.
One example is the Horn of Africa where, from the time, the US resourced the Somali army during the Cold War, adopting it as an ally and a bulwark against the Marxist government of Ethiopia, right up until and beyond the Obama-era drone programme. US military intervention in the Horn of Africa has consistently upset the apple cart of regional stability. In 2006, the US supported an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, which led to the ousting of the Islamic Courts Union and the installation of a pro-US government.
In the 1970s, the US supported coups in Mozambique, which were led by right-wing military factions that were seen as friendly to American interests. In Angola, the US supplied arms and financial support to the FLNA and UNITA in the Angolan civil war, in order to contain the possibility that the country would be ruled by the communist MPLA.
In 1986, the US launched airstrikes against Libya in an attempt to assassinate Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, who was seen as a threat to American interests in Africa and the Middle East. In 2011 Gaddafi was captured and killed after Nato forces had invaded Libya.
No other nation that Africa deals with — not China, Russia, Saudi Arabia or Turkey — has used its military to impose its will on the continent in the way that the US has.
Charting an independent path through the new Cold War
It is no secret that ever since the US’s declaration of an economic war on China, its interest in Africa has sharpened, suggesting that it sees Africa as a theatre of struggle to maintain its global, unipolar dominance in its new Cold War. This does not bode well for Africa.
On the eve of the 2022 US-Africa summit in December, chairperson of the AU, President Macky Sall of Senegal, told the New York Times: “When we talk, we’re not often listened to, or in any case, not with enough interest. This is what we want to change. And let no one tell us ‘no, don’t work with so-and-so, just work with us’. We want to work and trade with everyone.”
The 2022 summit took place in the context of an even weaker US-led hegemon in the world order than there had been eight years prior. Where the US could in the past demand political and material support for conflicts that it was involved in directly or by proxy, the majority of African nations adopted a neutral stance to the Ukraine-Russia crisis.
There is a strong view among many African leaders and intellectuals that with all its raw materials and young labour force, Africa should look to develop its own industries and innovate in the field of energy, semiconductors, defence, communications and others that it relies on global powers to supply. In areas where Africa has a clear monopoly of resources, it should not hesitate to be a price maker in the market, like OPEC is with oil.
It is widely thought that Africa should not choose sides in the US-China competition but should rather work to build the power of Africa and the Global South on the international geopolitical stage. BRICS remains an important tool in this regard. South Africa in particular, must mobilise more African nations to ally with the BRICS group of countries as they seek to build a more multipolar world, break US hegemony, and leverage Africa’s position economically and politically.
Phillip Dexter and Roscoe Palm are directors of the Pan-African Institute for Socialism. This piece was originally published here.