Priority Issues During Secretary Clinton’s Trip to Africa

On Tuesday, July 31, 2012, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embarked on an official visit to several African countries including Kenya, Malawi, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan and Uganda. The visit to South Sudan is particularly significant because Secretary Clinton will be the highest U.S. government official to make an official visit to this new country. This trip is likely to be Clinton’s last extended visit to Africa in her official capacity as secretary of state as she is expected to resign at the end of President Obama’s first term. The secretary’s visit comes at a time when the U.S. is increasingly seeking to deepen its engagement with Africa.

Given the extensive coverage of the secretary’s trip in terms of number of countries and regions visited, a wide range of issues of interest to U.S. and Africa will be part of the agenda. We highlight some of these issues that we consider a priority to both Africa and the U.S.

Commercial Engagement

This heightened interest in Africa by the U.S. is, in part, a result of recent dramatic changes on the continent, such as rapid economic growth and improved governance, which have made Africa a much better place to do business. In addition, since many African countries are sources of natural resources like oil and gas, the U.S. may likely turn to Africa for some of its energy needs in the future. This prediction may be especially true given the new discoveries of oil and gas in various African countries. Concern of being edged out of the African market by new partners like China and India is also triggering the U.S.’s heightened interest in the region: The secretary’s trip comes not long after the conclusion of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) where China committed to strengthen its engagement with Africa.

Both the U.S. and the African nations will look to strengthen commercial relations with one another during this trip. No doubt Secretary Clinton will seek to sell President Obama’s new U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa. This strategy is rather broad, however, and does not really propose any major innovations to strengthen the U.S.-Africa commercial relations. African governments should therefore seek firm commitment from Secretary Clinton on the extension and enhancement of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act that is set to expire in 2015. Currently, several shortcomings within the act limit Africa’s potential to export to the U.S., so an enhancement is crucial (For further information see: The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA): Looking Back, Looking Forward; Improving AGOA: Toward a New Framework for U.S.-Africa Commercial Engagement; and The Africa Growth and Opportunities Act: Toward 2015 and Beyond). In addition, the African leaders should impress upon the secretary the urgency for the U.S. renewal of the Third Country Fabric Provision that is set to expire in September. This provision allows African countries to import fabric from third countries and then export processed textile products into the U.S. duty free. Without this provision, most African countries would not be able to export textiles to the U.S. competitively.

While other countries have increased their commercial interests in Africa, investment by American businesses remains low and has not shown any significant increase. American foreign direct investment (FDI) to Africa represents only about 1 percent of total U.S. FDI. African leaders should therefore engage the secretary on strategies to increase investment flows from United States. The countries that Secretary Clinton will visit have formulated ambitious economic blueprints that seek to transform their economies. Economic transformation in these economies will necessarily require massive investments and provide great opportunities for American businesses. In particular, recent discoveries of important natural resources in Africa provide an opportunity for the U.S.to be a key source of FDI on the continent. In this way, Secretary Clinton and the African leaders should explore frameworks for U.S. firms to partner with African firms.

Security and National Interests

In addition to U.S. economic interests, U.S. national security issues also draw Secretary Clinton to Africa. The threat posed by terrorist groups such as Al Shabab in East Africa will be on top of her agenda when she meets with leaders in Kenya and Uganda. At the same time, the African nations will hope to get more support from the U.S. in dealing with the crisis in Somalia. Reconstruction of Somalia is a critical step to the eradication of security threats in the region. Similarly, these African nations would like more support from the U.S. in addressing the violence in and around the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has the potential to destabilize neighboring nations.  Overall, African leaders would like to see commitment by the U.S. to strengthen the capacity of their security agencies so that they can better identify and counter security threats when or hopefully before they occur. It is important that Secretary Clinton and the African leaders prioritize the issue of terrorism so that these groups are crippled before they become major threats to international security.

National Interests

Each of the African countries visited by Secretary Clinton will also put forth specific issues pertaining to its national relations with the United States. For example, Kenyan leaders will probably raise the issue of U.S. travel advisories that have had significant adverse effects on the country’s economy. Kenya may also seek to allow for direct flights to the U.S. in order to increase exports there as well as boost tourism. Senegalese leaders are interested in how the U.S. could facilitate access of Senegalese students to American universities and may request more American aid to assist in the development of agriculture, infrastructure and research. The visit to South Sudan will give the leaders of that country an opportunity to seek more support from the U.S., especially because of the current crisis with the Republic of Sudan.

Democracy, Human Rights and Transparency

Secretary Clinton will also seek to engage African leaders on strengthening democracy, protecting human rights and increasing transparency on the continent. Although the countries she will visit have made major advances in democratic reforms for which she will want to commend them, most remain fragile democracies. For example, Senegal has just recently undergone a peaceful transition of leadership after elections and the secretary’s visit will serve to show U.S. support for such a democratic transition. In Malawi, where relations with the U.S. soured during the last few years of the late President Mutharika’s rule, Secretary Clinton will no doubt be interested in advancing relations, specifically including the promise of more support to the ailing economy. Although Kenya has made significant progress in implementing the recently enacted constitution, the country struggles with many challenges associated with the 2007-08 post-election violence. The next Kenyan general elections scheduled for March 2013 will be a topic that the secretary will want to discuss especially regarding preparedness to conduct transparent elections as well as strategies to avert a repeat of violence. 

Like in Kenya, transparency and accountability will be common themes in Secretary Clinton’s meetings with African leaders. Many of these countries are characterized by high levels of corruption that continue to adversely impact their economies as well as human development. The U.S. should continue to pressure these governments to curtail corruption. For example, while the visit to South Sudan will affirm U.S.’s support for this new nation, it also gives Secretary Clinton an opportunity to speak on the need for the country to focus on improving governance. The secretary is likely to point out the dangers of corruption to progress in that country.

Regional Integration

Finally, African leaders should engage Secretary Clinton on how the U.S. can meaningfully support Africa’s regional integration project. African heads of states have now committed to accelerate regional integration on the continent by establishing free trade areas among various regional economic communities. This process is expected to culminate in the establishment of a continental free trade area. Regional integration is pivotal for the growth of African economies but also offers many opportunities to the U.S. businesses.