Towards a More Perfect Africa Policy

The next three years could be an exceptional period for U.S.-Africa relations.

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Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, foreground, and state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, background center, squeeze past cameras as they go to the Governor's office in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, July 20, 2009..

In a perfect world regarding U.S. policy towards Africa, one imagines a well-coordinated approach to the continent, but to badly use Hamlet, "Ay, there's the rub." We do not live in a perfect world and we do not have a well-coordinated approach to Africa. To expect such is probably unrealistic and devoid of understanding of Africa, where we seem to keep hoping for a one-policy fits all solution, and then, as in North Africa, find ourselves trapped by our own rhetoric.

Africa, with its more than 50 nations, hundreds of tribes and languages and layers of religions within religions, isn't going to fit into a one-size box of ideas evolved from the thoughts of John Locke or John Stuart Mill. The executive branch realizes this, and in the Senate there also seems to be more accommodation for reality.

The executive branch appears to be moving with all deliberate speed to a more coherent policy towards Africa. Michael Froman, our U.S. Trade Representative, led the U.S. side in the recent annual (as required by the original legislation) Africa Growth and Opportunity Act Ministerial meetings, and President Obama laid down some benchmarks for the future with Africa during his recent trip to three countries. Froman also wants to use AGOA to actually help U.S. workers and exports as much as he wants to see AGOA work for Africa.

The idea that AGOA should work for the United States as much as Africa is a novel approach for USTR and welcomed by many, especially American companies attempting to compete in the African marketplace. Certainly the European Policy Agreements being pushed upon Africa by the European Union are seeking advantages for Europe at the expense of America, not to mention at the continuing expense of Africa, and unless we begin to also look out for our own interests we can easily find ourselves far behind in our trade and political relationships with African nations, shut out not only by the Chinese, but especially by our allies, the Europeans. The Chinese are simply outcompeting us. The Europeans, if the EPAs are successfully foisted upon the Africans, will make it far more difficult for Americans to trade with Africa.

The Senate, despite partisan deadlock, does seem to work reasonably well together on Africa. In fact, within the Senate, Africa has never had greater advocates or more interest than now, ranging from Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., chair of the Africa Sub-Committee, to fellow Democrats Durbin and Cardin and others, with strong Republican interest from Sens. McCain, Isakson, Flake and Corker. All are deep in international experience and genuinely engaged in African matters. In fact, top to bottom, on both sides of the aisle, the interest in Africa has never been deeper or more sincere in the Senate.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

The House is a very different matter. In the eight-member Sub-Committee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, there may be only one true advocate for U.S.-Africa relations, Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif. It can easily be argued that the chairman of the committee, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., is interested in Africa. He is, by all accounts, a most decent person, often seen as a maverick in his own party. However, his primary interests as they regard Africa are those of the Christian Right: Sudan and stopping funding of any international programs funding abortion. He has been a force to reckon with on global health and human rights issues, but has been less an advocate on Africa. Both Bass and Smith have committed staffers who are knowledgeable on Africa, and through staff work there is the potential for greater cooperation between the two.

The primary problem with the Sub-Committee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights is there seems to be little real interest on Africa beyond Bass and Smith. On the majority Republican side are Rep.s Tom Marino, Pa., Randy Weber, Texas, Steve Stockman, Texas, and Mark Meadows, N.C. None have shown any significant interest in Africa and Africa is not mentioned in any of their own internet pages.

The Democrat side of the sub-committee, however, is not much more encouraging. The two other Democrat members of the committee, Reps. David Cicilline, R.I., and Ami Bera, Calif, have also displayed minimal interest in Africa. Cicilline, like some of his Republican counterparts, has taken a strong interest in human rights, albeit from a very different perspective than those to his right. Bera is a licensed physician and one assumes his primary interest on the sub-committee is global health. As with many of his counterparts, Africa is mentioned little in his biography and press pages.

One gets the feeling that many serving on this committee are doing so as a form of punishment by those making committee assignments. (One may also ask why the  committee on Africa was combined with global health and human rights, but that is for another discussion.)

However, if anyone exemplifies the power of the individual to make a difference it is Karen Bass, who seems determined and driven to build support for Africa in Congress. She has reached out to Smith to discuss ways to work more effectively together, and perhaps her biggest ally in Congress is also one of the most important, Republican Rep. Ed Royce, Calif., the powerful chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Royce has a genuine passion for Africa, and was one of the leading advocates for the passage of AGOA in 2000. He has served as chairman of the Africa sub-committee and knows the issues well. Although Bass is only in her second term and a Democrat, Royce has found ways to support her efforts. For instance, during the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the African Union, Bass was the only congressperson or senator to travel to Ethiopia and attend the celebrations. This did not go unnoticed by African leaders or their emissaries in Washington.

Royce supported her travel, despite some initial discouragement from State Department. She and Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., were also the only two legislators to attend the annual U.S.-Africa AGOA meetings later as well, again with the backing of Royce. (AGOA is the primary legislation between the US and Africa and it would have been unimaginable not to have had some congressional representation there.)

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Bass has also begun to convene regular breakfast briefings and discussions on Africa, drawing in not only the non-governmental community interested in Africa, but other  congresspersons and senators. Certainly, she has drawn fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus, but Bass has realized that if Africa is to gain support in the U.S., she needs to reach across a variety of sectors of occupations and races in America. Her meetings focus on building relationships across party, racial and occupational lines, and she is doing so as few congresspersons have in many years. She is refusing to be type-cast, and is a voice of reason in a most unreasonable and fractious Congress.

That she is the ranking member of the sub-committee in only her second term is noteworthy, as this was a position she sought out. It was no accident that she is there. Neither is she a blind advocate for Africa, but seeks out others for private meetings to learn other perspectives and to better understand the issues. She is highly principled and fiercely independent.

One hopes that two very different persons, often with diametrically opposed principled beliefs, such as Chris Smith and Karen Bass, can find effective means to work together and that both can reach out to others to better understand the importance of Africa to America. If they can, the next three years could be an exceptional period for U.S.-Africa relations. The Senate is poised to work with Africa as it never has before, and the executive branch is also showing form and function in its policies towards Africa. However, few things move forward without support from both the House and the Senate. Bass cannot do this alone, and in her efforts to reach out she seems determined not to do it alone.

Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.

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