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Lawmakers: US Urgently Needs More Engagement in Africa


The U.S. must remain active in Africa, which is in the midst of three famines and ongoing political instability, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said during a recent hearing in Washington.

“Our engagement in Africa is in the strategic interest of the U.S. not only to address urgent humanitarian aid, but also to advance economic, political and security interests," Congressman Ed Royce, a Republican from California, said. "Now is not the time to pull back."

Africa, with some of the fastest-growing economies in the world and nearly a billion consumers, offers huge potential as a U.S. trading partner, Royce said. The California congressman, a Republican, added: "With three famines looming on the African continent and ongoing political instability in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere, the U.S. must remain active and engaged."

The top Democrat on Royce's committee, Congressman Eliot Engel of New York, said he is worried that after "robust engagement" for 16 years, during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, "U.S. policy toward Africa is suddenly gone adrift.”

Engel cited several diplomatic missteps, including an incident in April when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson invited African Union Commission Chairman Moussa Faki to Washington, but then canceled the meeting at the last minute.

He also noted the African Global Economic and Development Summit, held in California in March: of nearly 60 guests from Africa invited to attend, none appeared, because "not a single citizen of an African country was granted a visa by the State Department."

Royce said he is pleased that Mark Green, the former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, was named to lead the U.S. Agency for International Development, but that the delay in appointing an assistant secretary of state for African affairs, is a concern.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman also has asked the State Department to explain how deep budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration won't impede programs aimed at fostering good governance and economic growth and bolstering counterterrorism efforts in Africa. "Too many African countries are off the democratic track" already, Royce noted.

Seven of Africa’s fastest-growing economies have averaged between 5.5 and 8.5 percent GDP growth in recent years, according to World Bank data. Royce said that makes engagement in Africa more critical than ever. In his opening statement at the May 18 hearing, Royce cited a news report that China's activity in Africa "may be the largest global trade and investment spree in history.”

On Wednesday, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta launched a new passenger train service funded by China - a $3.3 billion project connecting Mombasa, East Africa's biggest port, and Nairobi, 480 kilometers away.

For its part, the U.S. Congress passed several laws last year that provide aid or support throughout the continent. Among them were a program to bolster power and electricity projects, another to combat illegal poaching and trafficking of animals that funds extremist groups, and programs to respond to food emergencies and to promote trade and investment opportunities.

"Within Africa, the AGOA (Africa Growth and Opportunity Act) ... has definitely offered African countries an opportunity, and countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Mauritius, Lesotho and Swaziland, they have all embraced that and have quite strong export markets to America at the moment,” Mark Goliath of the Industrial Development Corporation in South Africa said at a recent trade show in Cape Town.

For sub-Saharan Africa in particular, however, AGOA's own figures show a 30.4-percent decline in trade with the United States since 2014 - from $52.3 billion down to $36.4 billion.

Professor Mohamed Saliou Camara of Howard University in Washington, a native of Guinea, told VOA that African governments seek international partnerships that will benefit them, but at the same time they rely too much on foreign aid and easy loans from foreign creditors.

"They are out to look for partners and allies to protect and advance their interests," the chair of Howard's graduate department of African studies told VOA. "...We tried to play the East versus the West" during the Cold War. And after the Cold War, we are trying again to play a new West versus a new East - 'China-India,' as they call it - versus America, and so on. The reality is Africa and its dependency on foreign aid [and] on foreign debt has to change."

Those who seek backing from the new U.S. administration must calibrate their language, Camara said: "Donald Trump is a businessman and the U.S. president. Let’s talk business to Donald Trump and let’s see what’s going to happen. Let’s talk business to China.”

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    Mariama Diallo

    Mariama Diallo is a senior reporter covering national and world affairs for Voice of America in multiple languages. She was recently the VOA acting bureau chief for the agency's West Africa office. 

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