The killing of an unarmed African-American by a Minneapolis police officer and resulting civil upheaval have set back U.S. efforts to strengthen its tenuous relationship with Africa and counter China’s growing influence.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairman of the African Union Commission, joined senior officials from Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana in condemning the death of George Floyd. They berated the U.S. for failing to deal with racial discrimination — remarks that contrast sharply with the guarded diplomatic tones typically used in interactions with the world’s biggest economy.
“U.S.-Africa relations were already at a low ebb,” Kissy Agyeman-Togobo, the managing partner of Songhai Advisory Group Ltd., said by phone from Accra, Ghana’s capital. “Now with the unjustifiable killing of George Floyd, the hurt, disgust and outrage are palpable.”
Africa has always been low on the U.S. foreign-relations priority list — the world’s poorest continent accounts for less than 2% of its total two-way trade. Its clout has steadily been eroded by China, which has almost four times as much trade with the region and has nurtured ties by offering loans and investment with few strings attached.
The Trump administration’s Africa strategy, unveiled in late 2018, proposed bilateral trade deals, a foreign aid overhaul and new anti-terrorism initiatives to claw back lost influence.
The coronavirus pandemic afforded it the opportunity to do just that, with State Department officials highlighting America’s contribution of more than $400 million to help Africa tackle the fallout from disease, more than any other nation. But the damage done to America’s reputation by Floyd’s killing and its handling of the ensuing protests indicates the moment may have been squandered.
“The U.S. has traditionally been seen as that beacon of democracy that says you need to treat protesters with decency and stand up for rights,” said Adewunmi Emoruwa, the lead strategist at Gatefield, an advisory firm based in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. “Now we see the looting, the arson, the near anarchy going on in the U.S., and the brutal police response. Africa is saying that maybe the U.S. isn’t all we thought they were.”
The State Department said Floyd’s death was a “grave tragedy.” Those responsible will be held accountable and Americans are entitled to protest peacefully to express their outrage, it said in an emailed response to questions.
“It has been said that this episode exposes some of the faults in the U.S. We must agree,” the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria said in a statement. “We should hope that this tragedy will mark a turning point.”
African animosity toward America has been fueled by President Donald Trump’s derogatory reference in 2018 to African countries and his plans to quit the World Health Organization — headed by a former Ethiopian health minister — over its handling of the coronavirus crisis. And the Nigerian government has locked horns with the U.S. over its call for an independent probe into allegations that African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina, the West African nation’s former agriculture minister, awarded contracts to friends and relatives.
“America’s brand in Africa has been tarnished by the U.S. threatening to pull out of the WHO, the letter requesting a new investigation into the allegations against the AfDB’s president, and now also by black people being murdered in the streets,” said Aubrey Hruby, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. “Even if African leaders have remained largely quiet, I believe the U.S. risks losing some of its ability to stand on any moral high ground, to take a lecturing standpoint, if you will, a position the U.S. has often taken toward Africa.”
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By contrast, China has largely steered clear of domestic politics in Africa, focusing instead on trade, building and funding bridges, railways and power plants and offering scholarships to students and academics.
China did draw the ire of African leaders in April after accusations surfaced that authorities in the southern city of Guangzhou evicted their citizens from hotels and subjected them to forced testing for the coronavirus in a drive to stem the spread of imported cases. The government pledged to address their concerns and said it wouldn’t tolerate differential treatment or discrimination.
Still, America remains the continent’s most important development partner — it contributed $10.7 billion of aid to sub-Saharan Africa in 2018, according to donortracker.org. That, combined with its funding of African health programs that have saved millions of lives, mean the upheaval in the U.S. is unlikely to have a large or long-term impact, said Gyude Moore, Liberia’s former public works minister and a senior policy fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Center for Global Development.
“China remains attractive as a partner when it comes to investing in telecommunications and infrastructure, but I don’t see there’s much space for China to increase its influence,” Moore said.
Ovigwe Eguegu, an Abuja-based analyst, isn’t convinced the U.S. is truly committed to closer ties with Africa given that it has cut funding for programs on the continent, or that criticism from its leaders will make any tangible difference.
“What the Trump administration has done in the last four years has been everything the U.S. shouldn’t do on the continent,” he said. “We are not talking about an administration that listens to the continent.”
— With assistance by Moses Mozart Dzawu, and Katarina Hoije
(Updates with comment by U.S. Embassy in Nigeria in the second paragraph after the ‘Grave Tragedy’ subheadline. An earlier version of this story corrected the spelling of the analyst’s name in the paragraph before the second set of story references.)