Four U.S. Policy Priorities for Africa in 2016

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Four U.S. Policy Priorities for Africa in 2016

January 15, 2016 5 min read Download Report
Joshua Meservey
Joshua Meservey
Former Research Fellow, Africa
Joshua studied African geopolitics, counterterrorism, and refugee policy at The Heritage Foundation.

There were some positive developments for U.S. interests in Africa in 2015. Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation and boasting its largest economy, peacefully elected a new president. Congress reaffirmed the U.S.’s commitment to Tunisia, a fledgling democratic ally in the crosshairs of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The African Growth and Opportunity Act, a linchpin of U.S. engagement with the continent, was renewed.

However, many challenges remain for 2016. The U.S. and its allies still lack a strategy for Libya even as the nation descends deeper into chaos. Democratic gains are being rolled back across the continent, and terrorist and political violence threatens a number of American allies in the region.

Here are four African policy priorities for the U.S. in 2016:

1. Counter political and Islamist terrorist violence. Africa hosts an array of transnational Islamist terrorist groups that are destabilizing important American allies and inflicting terrible suffering in parts of the continent. Some of these terrorist groups pose a threat to the U.S. itself.

In Nigeria, the ISIS-affiliated Boko Haram terrorist organization surpassed ISIS as the deadliest terror group in the world in 2014. Al-Shabaab continues to terrorize Somalia and neighboring Kenya, and is trying to reinvigorate its recruitment of Americans. ISIS has established a significant beachhead in Libya, and has designs on the country’s lucrative oil fields, while al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and a rat’s nest of other armed groups destabilize northern Mali and other parts of the Sahel region.

Political violence will be a real danger as well in 2016. In the Central African Republic, tensions remain high between Muslims and Christians in a sectarian battle exacerbated by dysfunctional politics. Election-related violence in Burundi, a country with a history of genocide, is threatening to metastasize into an ethnic conflict that could inflame the central African region. South Sudan has been locked in civil war since December 2013, with the leaders of each side showing no commitment to peace, all while the nation faces a looming famine.

To respond to these crises in Africa, the U.S. should:

  • Continue providing military support—particularly training and intelligence—to responsible countries battling terrorism.
  • Make enabling regional responses a priority. Neighboring countries often have a deeper understanding of these conflicts and strong incentive to solve them.
  • Remain strongly engaged, as circumstances dictate, with countries gripped by political violence.

2. Promote economic freedom in Africa. A recent global slump in commodity demand is bringing economic challenges to the significant number of African economies that are overly reliant on commodity exports. Zambia is in economic free-fall as copper prices tank, while major economies such as Angola and Nigeria are scrambling to plug budget shortfalls due to the plummeting price of oil. China, a major importer of African commodities, is also slowing economically, adding to the pain for many countries.

The World Bank still estimates that sub-Saharan Africa grew at a 4.2 percent clip in 2015, although that is down significantly from the 6.4 percent average growth it enjoyed from 2002–2008.[1] Moreover, this rate of growth is insufficient, in many countries, to meaningfully raise the standard of living for their swelling populations.

The current crunch is an opportunity for countries to undertake reforms that will bring long-term, stable growth. The U.S. should:

  • Urge and assist commodity-dependent countries to build more competitive economic climates. Only seven African countries are ranked “mostly free” or “moderately free” in The Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal 2015 Index of Economic Freedom,[2] while in the World Bank’s latest Doing Business report, the majority of African countries rank in the bottom quarter.[3]

3. Remain watchful toward other countries’ growing influence on the continent. In 2009, China overtook the U.S. as Africa’s largest trading partner, although the U.S. still outstrips China in aid and investment to the continent. China’s need to protect its large investments in volatile areas of the continent has led to change in its traditional non-interference policy in African countries’ internal affairs. In January 2015, for the first time in its history, China began deploying an infantry battalion to a U.N. peacekeeping mission, in this case to South Sudan, where it has significant oil interests. This is part of a major increase since 2000 of China’s contributions to U.N. peacekeeping operations, more than 80 percent of which are in Africa.[4]

In November 2015, China announced that it would build its first overseas military outpost in the strategically located nation of Djibouti, which also hosts the U.S.’s only permanent military base in Africa. Additionally, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended a December 2015 summit in South Africa, the first time China has engaged in such a high-level event on African soil. At the summit, Xi doubled China’s previous aid pledge to Africa by promising $60 billion over three years to African countries.[5]

Russia, too, is looking to the continent. Its trade with Africa increased more than tenfold between 2000 and 2012. Russia needs some African natural resources, but it is also pursuing commodities such as oil and natural gas as a hedge against Western diplomatic and economic pressure. State-owned companies Gazprom and Lukoil are developing major hydrocarbon deals in Algeria, while two state-owned Russian commercial entities under Western sanctions have struck a recent deal to develop platinum mines in Zimbabwe, despite Russia already controlling 30 percent of the global supply of platinum.[6]

Africa has more than enough opportunity for all, but nations such as China and Russia, which frequently challenge U.S. interests in other parts of the world, are likely to follow the same playbook in Africa.

The U.S. should:

  • Nurture its African friendships by all available means to prevent potential challenges from competitors. A good start would be making the successful 2014 U.S.–Africa Leaders Summit an annual or bi-annual event.
  • Enhance U.S. influence with African states by increasing cooperation with allies active on the continent, such as Germany, the U.K., and France.

4. Encourage countries to recommit to their democratic transitions. President Obama has, to his credit, explicated the importance of democracy in a number of prominent speeches delivered in Africa. The Obama Administration has also decried the undemocratic activities proliferating around the continent, and has tried to stem the election-related crisis currently gripping Burundi.

Yet the President last year also visited Ethiopia, one of Africa’s most repressive and least-democratic countries, a few months after Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman praised the country’s democracy.[7] Ethiopia is important to U.S. interests, but a presidential visit was an unnecessary reward, and a setback for the cause of democracy on the continent.

The Administration has also been reluctant to push a strategy of democracy promotion, despite a democratic slide on the continent. Vaguely worded security laws have been used to crack down on political opposition and the press, while laws targeting nongovernmental organizations have hollowed out civil society in a number of countries. Since 2001, 16 African heads of state have fiddled with constitutions, and engaged in a range of other machinations, in an attempt to extend their stays in power.[8]

The U.S., as the world’s standard-bearer for democracy, should:

  • Revitalize its commitment to African democracy by assisting and rewarding those countries making democratic gains, and by working to put regressing countries back on track for democracy.

The Growing Importance of Africa

Africa’s resources, security challenges, and economic opportunities ensure that its global importance will increase in the coming decades. Now is the time for the U.S. to enhance its activities on the continent to ensure its long-term interests are protected and promoted.

Joshua Meservey is Policy Analyst for Africa and the Middle East in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Gerard Kambou, “Sub-Saharan Africa,” Global Economics Prospects, The World Bank, January 2016, (accessed January 8, 2016).

[2] Terry Miller and Anthony B. Kim, 2015 Index of Economic Freedom (Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation and Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 2015),

[3] The World Bank, Doing Business 2016, October 27, 2015, (accessed January 7, 2016).

[4] “Peacekeeping Fact Sheet,” United Nations, August 31, 2015, (accessed January 14, 2016).

[5] Rene Vollgraaff et al., “Xi Unveils $60 Billion Funding Pledge at South Africa Summit,” Bloomberg Business, December 4, 2015, (accessed January 13, 2016), and Patrick McGroarty, “China’s Xi Pledges $60 Billion for Africa Development Over Three Years,” The Wall Street Journal, December 4, 2015, (accessed January 13, 2016).

[6] Dave Forest, “Russia Is Making a Big Play in Africa,” Business Insider, October 20, 2015, (accessed January 13, 2016); Godfrey Marawanyika, “Zimbabwe Sees $1.6 Billion Platinum Pact with Russia,” Bloomberg Business, August 5, 2014, (accessed January 13, 2016).

[7] Mohammed Ademo, “US Official Praises Ethiopian ‘Democracy,’ Rest of World Begs to Differ,” Al Jazeera America, April 18, 2015, (accessed January 14, 2016).

[8] “What Do Burundi, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Algeria, Tunisia, Cameroon, Uganda, Chad, Congo, Rwanda, Have in Common?” Mail and Guardian Africa, October 27, 2015, (accessed January 13, 2016).


Joshua Meservey
Joshua Meservey

Former Research Fellow, Africa