It’s easy to forget the world is still connected. But we ignore it at our own peril
The last US president called the countries of Africa (and elsewhere) “shitholes” and questioned their contribution to American society-despite having never visited the continent.
This year the US will face a number of domestic issues—rising long-term unemployment, an economic recession, rising debt, a polarized and dysfunctional political system, right-wing extremists, and of course stopping the COVID-19 pandemic—all of which threaten to overwhelm the attention of the Biden administration.
The countries of Africa meanwhile are far away geographically and (to most Americans) culturally. So it’s not surprising that the latest poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found only 1% of Americans think Africa is important to US national security.
That way of thinking is not just a mistake, it’s “dangerous,” according to the Atlantic Council. Africa matters not only to US security but to the economy, and even to the finances of most US Americans. The reality is African countries have more in common with their Western counterparts than people realize. But there are some outdated misconceptions still associated with the continent.
Myth 1: Africa doesn’t affect US security
Africa is home to an enormous variety of natural resources. Those most important to US security are the strategic metals, which are 35 minerals considered critical to the economic and national security of the United States. The African continent is one of the few places on Earth from which to source them.
The University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems observed, “The US is 100% reliant on imports for 14 critical minerals and more than 75% reliant on imports for another [ten].” Currently, China is “the world’s largest producer or processor of rare earths, lithium, titanium and other niche but important minerals,” according to mining.com.
The continent connects to three strategic transportation choke points: the Strait of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait—these three straits account for one-third of allglobal shipping.
The US Energy Information Administration offers this regarding the Bab el-Mandeb Strait:
In 2018, an estimated 6.2 million barrels per day (b/d) of crude oil, condensate, and refined petroleum products flowed through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait toward Europe, the United States, and Asia… . Total petroleum flows through the [strait] accounted for about 9% of total seaborne-traded petroleum (crude oil and refined petroleum products) in 2017. About 3.6 million b/d moved north toward Europe; another 2.6 million b/d flowed in the opposite direction mainly to Asian markets such as Singapore, China, and India.
The Suez canal sees another 5 million barrels of petroleum products and over 3.1 billion cubic feet of liquefied natural gas per day (as of 2018). The Strait of Gibraltar is the world’s second busiest shipping lane behind the English Channel with over 60,000 ships passing through the strait each year. This is a great visual to illustrate the volume.
Africa’s proximity to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia make the North and East regions important locations for military projection into the adjacent areas. This is underscored by the number of countries with military bases in the regions (North and East Africa). The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Alice Hunt Friend wrote;
Chinese, Middle Eastern, and even Russian interests have begun to vie for space alongside American and European forces [in the Horn of Africa]. Djibouti is home to fully half of the U.S. military personnel forward deployed on the continent, and China opened its first overseas military base there this past summer. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is building bases on neighboring soil in Eritrea and Somaliland, and rumors of a planned Russian presence nearby abound.
The Sahel, the next Afghanistan?
Areas of the Sahel have become outposts for violent extremist organizations (VEOs) like the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (an Islamic State affiliate), Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM, an al-Qaeda affiliate), and Boko Haram (an al-Qaeda affiliate that is based in Nigeria but is getting stronger). If left unchecked, these groups will only grow in influence and continue to disrupt trade and industry on the continent (extraction industries are particularly at risk). If not prioritized, the Sahel is at risk of becoming the next Afghanistan.
Influence in the UN
If 2021 and beyond are to be the time of “Great Power Competition,” then the Great Powers are already lined up in Africa. China, Russia, and Turkey are actively engaged on the continent. For good reason, African countries hold 25% of UN General Assembly seats and 20% of the Security Council seats. That means influence in Africa is influence internationally. As the Biden administration reengages with the international community, the US will need allies. Given that right now China is the largest creditor on the African continent, the US risks losing influence.
Myth 2: Africa is corrupt and dangerous
While Africa is not without its problems, the news often highlights the worst events on the continent. But they are not representative of every country or even every area within a country. Botswana is number 34 on the Corruption Perception Index, where a lower number is better, just behind Spain (30) and ahead of Israel (35). Not only that, in 2019, Botswana ranked 84/100 in the World Bank’s World Governance Indicators for the “Political Stability & Absence of Violence or Terrorism” index. The US ranked only 58/100 and that was before the 6th of January. The Global Peace Index listed “Sub-Saharan Africa [as] home to four of the five [countries with the] largest improvements in peacefulness, the Gambia, Liberia, Burundi, and Senegal.”
As proof of those improvements, tourism is rising faster in Africa than any other area of the world. In fact, Reza Pakravan, Royal Geographical Society fellow and filmmaker, hiked across the entire Sahel in a three-month journey which he chronicles here. His journey highlighted the welcoming cultures and natural beauty of the region.
Myth 3: Africa is disconnected from the world
Sub-Saharan Africa has more unique mobile subscribers than North America. If you include North Africa into the equation, unique subscribers goes to just under 1 billion and penetration goes to 53% in unique mobile subscribers compared to almost 95% penetration in the US. Africa is a larger growth market than the US or even China (85% penetration).
Furthermore, according to a study by McKinsey, Africa leads the world in digital mobile payments.
Just over half of the 282 mobile money services operating worldwide are located in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the GSMA. In Africa today, there are 100 million active mobile money accounts (used by one in ten African adults). This far exceeds customer adoption in South Asia, the second-biggest region for mobile money in terms of market share, with 40 million active mobile money accounts.
Myth 4: Africa might be connected, but it’s not connected to me
Out of the $22 billion in total domestic US exports (those are goods produced in the US by Americans) to Africa last year, Houston alone accounted for 23% of them, New York was 12%, and Atlanta accounted for 7% of the total. But they aren’t the only cities with ties to Africa.
Last year, CSIS looked at 15 cities and their relationship with African countries. Cities like Providence, RI have a deep history with the continent that evolved from leading in slaver ships to leading in African policy engagement. The smallest state is home to over 18,000 Africans from more than 17 different countries.
Boise, Idaho is another relatively small city with a deep connection to African countries.
Boise’s African population has become integral to the city’s economy, as well as its response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many regard Boise’s refugee population as an antidote to the city’s aging workforce. The city’s African residents are opening their own retail shops, serving African cuisine, and contributing to the local tech scene. (CSIS, Judd Devermont)
It was common for states that became home to African refugees and immigrants to experience a boost in previously weakened economies. Nor was this anecdotal evidence.
A study last year by University of Kansas researchers, Abel Chikanda, assistant professor of African & African American studies and geography, and doctoral student, Julie Morris, found the generally younger African immigrants/refugees have higher rates of employment than native-born Americans (69% vs 60% respectively) and make a “net positive contribution” to American economies.
Not only are local economies connected to Africa but local jobs as well. Several US companies, large and small, depend on demand from Africa. Western Union, Cargill, John Deere, Johnson & Johnson, Microsoft, Amazon, Invesco, and GE all have operations across the continent.
- Boeing, the largest employer in Seattle (no, Amazon is number 2) has had a relationship with Africa since 1946. It now operates in 33 African countries and accounts for 70% of the in-service fleet on the continent.
- Atlanta based Coca-Cola counts on Africa for 20% of sales by volume from their EU, ME, and Africa division.
African companies also have offices in the US, employing US citizens directly. YouVerify of Nigeria has offices in San Francisco. Bourbon Coffee of Rwanda has cafes in Cambridge, MA, and Washington D.C. Mama-Fresh (a supplier of the grain teff) has retail outlets in Washington D.C., Virginia, and Maryland.
Even US retirees have a connection to the countries of Africa.
The economic effects of the pandemic pushed Western governments to print more money. This in turn pushed interest rates lower which sent investors farther afield for returns. “Debt sales [from African nations] offer exposure to growing economies, with a better return than [investors] would receive in more-developed markets, wrote Sara Halas for the WSJ. As a result, US retirement accounts are tied to the future of African countries through their bond portfolios.
At the U.S. Africa Summit in 2014, then Vice President Joe Biden misspoke and referred to Africa as a nation. “There’s no reason the nation of Africa cannot and should not join the ranks of the world’s most prosperous nations in the near term….” But his gaffe underscored a common misconception that is often reinforced in the media. Africa is not a country or even a mono-culture. It’s a continent made up of 54 different countries, and 4 territories that speak over 900 languages spread across several thousand different ethnic groups. That means that it’s difficult to generalize about Africa.
As an example, Africa as a whole has a fast-growing, and urbanizing population. But, not all countries will have the same experience. Niger and Angola are expected to average 3% growth annually, while Tunisia and Mauritius aren’t expanding at all (less than 1% growth). Similarly, urbanization happens across a spectrum with some areas like Niger and Burundi experiencing over 4% urbanization rates while Tunisia and Mauritius are less than 1% (UN Data).
So understanding Africa means moving beyond the stereotypes and getting to know the individual countries, the people, history, politics, and culture. Future articles will look at individual West African nations and what economic recovery will look like for them. The roles the EU, China, Russia and the US will play. And how politics and security will affect economic growth.