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Home Discussion Papers Africa Watch Assessing the United States’ renewed interest in sub-Saharan Africa
Assessing the United States’ renewed interest in sub-Saharan Africa
Written by Katharine Dennys (1) Thursday, 02 August 2012 08:20

As has been widely reported, Africa is experiencing a period of significant economic growth, which in turn has led to an increased international focus on the continent. On 14 June 2012, the White House released a new “Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa” (the Strategy) in its approach to the region detailing a “proactive and forward looking vision grounded in partnership.”(2) The document, which lays out the “four pillars” of its strategy towards the region, represents a renewed focus on sub-Saharan Africa within United States (US) foreign policy.  President Barak Obama has remarked that “Africa can be the world’s next major economic success story,”(3) whilst US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has recently dubbed Africa the “land of opportunity.”(4)

This interest in Africa has arguably been lacking during Obama’s term of presidency, which has instead shown a focus on Arab Spring uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Syria, the on-going conflict in Afghanistan and the threat posed by Iran and North Korea. This paper assesses the possible effect that the new US strategy will have on sub-Saharan Africa. The timing of the choice to release the Strategy is considered, analysing possible motivations behind the renewed interest in the region shown by the US.

The four pillars

The four pillars comprising the foundation of US’ new strategy are: to strengthen democratic institutions, to spur economic growth, trade and investment, to advance peace and security, and to promote opportunity and development.(5)

In an address delivered to the Ghanaian Parliament in 2009, Obama stated that “Africa does not need strong men, it needs strong institutions.”(6) The US strategy aims to support and empower key reformers to promote the rule of law, strengthen checks on executive power and incorporate responsive governance practices. Expanding African membership of groups such as the Open Government Partnership and Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative is central to achieving these goals.

The Strategy proposes to “create an enabling environment” for trade and investment, which will be mutually beneficial for both the US and sub-Saharan Africa.(7) The US strategy aims to build on international initiatives already in place such as the Open Government Partnership and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. The Strategy also proposes to promote regional integration initiatives, with the aim to create larger markets, improve economies of scale, and reduce transaction costs for local trade.

In terms of advancing peace and security, the White House paper states that “African States are showing increasing capacity to take the lead on security issues on the continent.”(8) However, the paper states that the US is able to make a “positive difference” through countering Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, advancing regional security cooperation and Security Sector reform, preventing transnational criminal threats and supporting United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions in sub-Saharan Africa.(9)

Lastly, the US strategy aims to promote opportunity and development by focussing on sustainable development initiatives. It names three key presidential development initiatives: the Global Health Initiative’, ‘Feed the Future’, and the ‘Global Climate Change Initiative’. Through developing these initiatives the paper aims to promote poverty reduction, promote food security, transform Africa’s public health and increase opportunities for women and youth.

A growing trend towards trade

The White House Paper displays a particular focus on trade and investment, and reflects a shift in focus away from aid to trade. President Obama has stated that “African economies are among the fastest growing in the world, with technological change sweeping across the continent and offering tremendous opportunities for banking, medicine, politics and business.”(10) The United States is keen to invest in this growth to stabilise not only Africa’s economic future but its own weakened economy. US merchandise exports to sub-Saharan Africa during 2010 were US$ 17.1 billion, up 12% compared to 2009.(11) The top US export markets were South Africa ($5.6 billion), Nigeria (US$ 4.0 billion), Angola (US$ 1.2 billion), Ghana (US$ 982 million), and Ethiopia (US$ 764 million).(12) Top export categories were machinery, vehicles and parts, non-crude oil, cereals, and aircraft and parts.(13)

The timing of the release of the paper coincided both with the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Frontiers for Development Conference held at Georgetown University from 11 to 13 June 2012 and the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Forum which took place on 14 and 15 June 2012 in Washington D.C. The collusion of these events emphasise the United States’ commitment to promoting trade in the region. The White House Paper aims to enable sub Saharan Africa to effectively access and benefit from global markets. To achieve this goal, the Obama administration aims to extend the unilateral preferences under the AGOA. The imposition of preferential trade agreements, set to benefit African countries, will have the effect of boosting trade between the US and African states.

The Strategy paper also states that many US businesses had been previously unaware of the expanding opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa, and lays out a “detailed roadmap” aimed at boosting US business participation in Africa through investment, including the launch of the “Doing Business in Africa Campaign.”(14) Through this campaign the US Government aims to assist US businesses in “identifying and seizing” opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa.(15)

Competition for the ‘land of opportunity’

Clearly the Strategy, in theory, represents the potential for great benefits to sub-Saharan economies through increased trade with and investment from the world’s largest economy. However, the region is not the only party set to benefit. Hilary Clinton has recently called Africa the “land of opportunity,” stating that “Africa offers the highest rate of return on foreign direct investment of any developing region in the world.”(16) It is clear that the US stands to gain much financially from promoting economic growth and security within sub-Saharan Africa.

Experts believe that the timing of the renewed interest is a direct result of China’s increased trading presence in sub-Saharan Africa. China-Africa trade has grown dramatically in the past two decades, with the trade volume increasing from US$ 10.6 billion in 2000 to US$ 160 billion in 2011. In comparison, US trade with Africa was worth US$ 38.6 billion in 2000 but only grew to US$ 125.9 billion by 2011.(17)

It has been noted that President Obama has made only one trip to sub-Saharan Africa in his term in office.(18) During this time, China has grown to be a dominant presence in the region.  The United States’ renewed interest in sub-Saharan Africa can therefore be seen as an attempt to counter and compete against China’s growing influence in region. As Agence France Press (AFP) reports, “The freshened focus on Africa comes as China increasingly funnels investment toward the continent, seeking to bolster its diplomatic footprint partly as a route to new energy sources.”(19)

The unveiling of a “shadow war”

It has also been noted that the timing of the paper is in response to the recent controversy generated by news stories reporting of the US’ “shadow war” in sub-Saharan Africa.(20) On 13 June 2012, the Washington Post published an exposé detailing the US’ increased secret intelligence operations across Africa, overseen by US Special Operations, which has resulted in the opening of a number of intelligence bases “from the fringes of the Sahara to jungle terrain along the equator.”(21) The article states that surveillance operations are carried out in order to monitor terrorist threats on the continent through the use of “small, unarmed turboprop aircraft disguised as private planes.”(22) The information provided has allegedly been pieced together through the examination of unclassified military reports, US Government contracting documents and diplomatic cables released on Wikileaks. The report goes on to state that these previously undocumented surveillance missions have increased over the past two months.

The US’ controversial covert surveillance operations are a result of its need to protect its national security interests against the threat posed by the Islamic extremist groups Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). However, the operations have resulted in the current US foreign policy being portrayed in a negative light, and it is plain to see why the US would be keen to improve its image in its dealings with Africa.

Although the terrorist threat posed by Islamic extremist groups operating in sub-Saharan Africa is mentioned in the recent White House Paper, the use of covert surveillance techniques are omitted from the document. Andrew Meldrum argues that the US sub-Saharan Strategy was greeted with a “collective yawn” within Washington, due to the similarity with previous Africa policies.(23) However, he argues that the revelations exposed by the Washington Post generated much more interest. This has led to allegations that the US has not been entirely honest regarding its motives in sub-Saharan Africa.

Concluding remarks

The release of the Strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa is indicative of the current global interest in investing in Africa. It is clear that the paper is aimed at creating a mutually beneficial trading relationship between the US and Africa, and the paper holds within it great benefits for African nations within sub-Saharan Africa.

The paper, however, has been criticised for being “long overdue and short on substance.”(24) Obama’s lack of focus on sub-Saharan Africa during his term of presidency has been noted, which leads to the question of why the White House has chosen this specific point in time to release the paper. Africa’s growing economic potential is a key reason. However the United States’ need to protect its interests in the global arena is ever present.  It can be asserted therefore, that analysing the timing of the paper is crucial in understanding the United States’ aims and motivations behind the Strategy and its renewed interest in sub-Saharan Africa.


(1) Contact Katharine Dennys through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Africa Watch Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) ‘US rejigs strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa’, How We Made it in Africa, 21 June 2012, http://www.howwemadeitinafrica.com.
(3) ‘Obama pushes for US investment into Africa’, Private Equity Africa, 29 June 2012, http://www.privateequityafrica.com.
(4) ‘US President Barack Obama unveils US Africa strategy, BBC News, 14 June 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(5) ‘U.S. Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa’, White House paper, June 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov.
(6) ‘US rejigs strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa’, How We Made it in Africa, 21 June 2012, http://www.howwemadeitinafrica.com.
(7) ‘U.S. Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa’, White House paper, June 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov.
(8) Ibid.
(9) Ibid.
(10) ‘US rejigs strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa’, How We Made it in Africa, 21 June 2012, http://www.howwemadeitinafrica.com.
(11) Office of the United States Trade Representative, http://www.ustr.gov.
(12) Ibid.
(13) Ibid.
(14) ‘Obama pushes for US investment into Africa’, Private Equity Africa, 29 June 2012, http://www.privateequityafrica.com.
(15) ‘U.S. Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa’, White House paper, June 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov.
(16) Collinson, S., ‘Obama unveils new Africa strategy’, AFP, June 14 2012, http://www.capitalfm.co.ke.
(17) ‘What is behind Obama’s new Africa strategy?’, AlJazeera, 20 June 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(18) Murphy, T., ‘United States’ new sub-Saharan African plan: Trade not aid’, The Christian Science Monitor, 15 June 2012, http://www.csmonitor.com.
(19) Collinson, S., ‘Obama unveils new Africa strategy’, AFP, 14 June 2012, http://www.capitalfm.co.ke.
(20) Whitlock, C., ‘U.S. expands secret intelligence operations in Africa’, Washington Post, 13 June 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com.
(21) Ibid.
(22) Ibid.
(23) Meldrum, A., ‘Obama on Africa: Speak softly and use good spy planes’, Global Post, 15 June 2012, http://www.globalpost.com.
(24) Ibid.


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