Around the Halls: Vice President Biden Visits Africa

Vice President Biden travels to Africa this week with several stops, including Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa. Experts from around the halls of Brookings weigh in on the significance of a visit that highlights a new U.S. strategic interest in region. Issues to be discussed include economic growth, peace and stability and a range of other bilateral and regional issues.


In this edition:

Is Vice President Biden Coming to Help Carry the African Burden?
Ezra Suruma, Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Global Economy and Development, Africa Growth Initiative

Both Americans and Africans should take pride in the fact that America’s victory in World War II was quickly followed by decolonization in Asia and Africa. American ascendency to world leadership promised and delivered freedom from colonial rule inspired by America’s own exemplary struggle against colonialism and aspirations for human equality and democracy. Despite those early hopes for freedom and development, it is now almost 50 years since most African nations attained political independence, yet poverty and instability continue to bite hard.

As Vice President Joe Biden visits Africa, he cannot help but take stock of the continuing upheavals and threats of upheavals in the Great Lakes Region notably Congo, Somalia and Sudan. With al Qaeda’s long arm reaching out to Somalia, Darfur and elsewhere, America’s professed lack of interest in Africa has now faded, making Africa’s burden also America’s burden. Peace and security is Africa’s number one problem since without it economic development cannot proceed. No foreign or domestic investor can contemplate a serious investment in Somalia, Darfur, or eastern Congo. With the UN Security Council meeting in Kampala this month to consider among others, the instabilities in Congo, Sudan and Somalia, it is clear that Biden needs little reminder of the severe implications of yet another military front for the U.S. The vice president will therefore be expected to assure Africa’s leaders in Nairobi and Pretoria of America’s full commitment to peace and security in the continent.

It is good that Vice President Biden will join other world leaders to kick off the world’s greatest sports event, the World Cup. While the U.S. may not be a front runner in the matches, it is important that it is participating and Biden’s presence will go a long way in boosting the U.S. team’s morale. The African teams are in a similar position as the American team in that they are not favored to win. Nevertheless, they are most enthusiastic that this great event is taking place in Africa.

Biden’s visit will be seen by African nations as a show of U.S. support for Africa. The symbolism is excellent. What it says to Africa is: “We are with you in this one and we shall be with you in other matters as well.” This should help to lighten the burden of the vice president’s visit. Sharing in the joy of participating in the World Cup in Africa should bring much needed relief to the entire world community, America included. From the stresses of war, economic recovery and environmental disasters, Americans should hopefully be able to have a ball if only for a few weeks. The United States and Vice President Biden are certainly most welcome in Africa.

From Cairo to the Cape – The Wrong Conversation
John Page, Senior Fellow, Global Economy and Development

Vice President Biden’s Africa trip is a welcome demonstration of interest in Africa by the U.S. administration, but his talking points in Egypt, Kenya and South Africa represent a missed opportunity to focus on a crucial missing link for creating jobs and growth in Africa—regional integration. In Egypt, Vice President Biden will meet with President Hosni Mubarak to discuss “a full range of bilateral and regional issues,” begging the question of which region will be discussed given the current international climate. In Kenya, he will address matters of “peace and stability;” and in South Africa, Biden will “meet with South African and world leaders attending the 2010 FIFA World Cup.”

From Cairo to the Cape, Biden will visit the three largest economic powers in COMESA—the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa—a regional economic grouping, encompassing 19 member states with a population of 430 million. This regional market of significant size and diversity has failed to deliver on its potential. When I spoke at the COMESA investment forum held in Egypt in April, both the potential and the frustrations of COMESA were evident. Business leaders from across the continent meeting with senior trade and development officials from member states were bullish on COMESA—pointing to its robust recent economic growth, improved investment climate and recovering global export markets as sources of dynamism. Simultaneously, they were deeply frustrated with lack of progress by member states in achieving meaningful progress toward true regional integration.

COMESA is a “common market” in name only. It has not achieved free trade among its members, cross-border movement of people remains problematic, and it is far from integrating its financial markets. Its member states belong to other regional economic groupings—most importantly the East African Common Market and the Southern African Development Community—and it is unclear how these multiple and overlapping regional groups relate. Without leadership from its most important members—precisely those countries Vice President Biden will visit—COMESA is likely to continue to frustrate investors and trading partners alike.

Why is regional integration so important for Africa? Its economies are small both in population and economic size. Transport and power links between countries are limited, and poorly performing institutions such as regulation of commerce and customs raise the cost of trade logistics. Without effective regional integration, Africa simply cannot compete in the global market for manufactures, traded services such as tourism and IT-based services, and high value-added agriculture. Yet the region’s long-term ability to create high-paying jobs and sustain growth depends fundamentally on its success in competing globally in these industries. Integrating locally to compete globally is fundamental to Africa’s economic success.

Biden’s trip is a missed opportunity to raise the issue of how Egypt, Kenya and South Africa can push the pace of creating an effective COMESA; and for the administration to think about how it can support regional integration in Africa through aid and trade. Africa and Biden deserve a better set of talking points.

Focusing on ‘the Positives’ in Africa
Emmanuel Asmah, Africa Research Fellow, Global Economy and Development, Africa Growth Initiative

Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Africa is coinciding with a historic World Cup soccer competition that is being held in Africa for the very first time. This means the entire world will be watching Africa, giving the continent more international media coverage than ever before. This is a great opportunity for Vice President Biden to communicate the diversity and wealth of Africa and the contribution it can make to resolving global problems, like low-carbon growth and food security.

The last thing Africa needs is intense global media attention on negative African stereotypes and challenges, such as humanitarian tragedies, famines, disease, piracy, violence and state capacity deficits. People should be made to realize that Africa is a diverse and vast continent. Therefore, headline-grabbing challenges in a few areas in the continent should have little bearing on conditions elsewhere. By highlighting Africa’s successes during his visit, Biden can change the way Africans are perceived by the international community.

Africa needs more investments and fair trade to accelerate the pace of economic growth and development. Moreover, Africa needs a renewed sense of respect, real partnerships and positive engagement with the rest of the world. Foreign investors and the international community should focus their attention on:

  • Africa’s rich human and natural resource potentials;
  • profitable trade and investment opportunities
  • some remarkable achievements in human development, political accountability, peace and security; and
  • improved investment climate change related areas.

The last decade has seen remarkable examples of recovery from conflict and democratic consolidation. Angola, Liberia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Kenya are a few examples. Improvements in governance performance in 31 out of 48 countries, as assessed by the Mo Ibrahim Index are also worth mentioning. As an expression of political commitment to good governance and openness to criticism, the African Peer Review Mechanism has been a positive sign for those countries that have submitted themselves to assessment.

Though progress is still insufficient, public expenditure management in several countries has improved, regulatory and supervisory bodies have been strengthened, and tax systems have been reformed to internationally recognized standards of good fiscal practice. Some measures to improve the business environment, such as alleviating supply-side bottlenecks, have created a more attractive environment for foreign investment. As a result, Africa is performing much better today than a decade ago and African economies look motivated to sustain the momentum that has been building up in recent years. Africa is hoping to add to ‘these positives’ with a World Cup win by an African country. The future looks bright for Africa and nothing less than a campaign for political goodwill, positive encouragement and practical support for Africa’s economic and social development is needed during Biden’s visit to the continent.

Zero Tolerance for Bad Governance and Corruption in Africa
John Mutenyo, Africa Research Fellow, Global Economy and Development, Africa Growth Initiative

When Vice President Biden visits with African leaders this week, he should stress the importance of good governance and tackling corruption. Botswana and Mauritius clearly demonstrate the “yes, Africa can” develop if it builds strong institutions; while the situation in Zimbabwe proves that bad governance and corruption lead to economic downfall. If Africa is to develop it needs strong institutions to support good governance, strong and independent judiciary, transparency, zero tolerance of corruption, and independent police and the military among others.

African nations typically fall at the bottom of every list of economic activity despite being abundant in natural resources. The bottom 25 spots of the U.N. Quality of Life Index are regularly occupied by African nations. In 2009, 33 of the 49 countries on the U.N. list of least-developed nations were from Sub-Saharan Africa. And in September 2009, out of 40 highly indebted poor countries, 29 were from SSA.

There are many causes for poor economic development and instability in Africa, but weak government institutions due to corruption and bad governance are at the center of the problem. For instance, rigged elections have become quite common and have recently transpired in Burundi, Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe to name a few.

Corruption in African countries is on the rise. According to World Bank data on governance, in 1996, 27 of the 50 most corrupt countries were from Africa; and by 2008, 37 of the 50 countries were from Africa. Corruption seems to be an African affair, even engulfing the mighty South Africa whose corruption index has been worsening since 1990.

Many African governments have instituted anti-corruption agencies and laws, which are basically used to hoodwink the donor community. In the slightest chance that these laws are ever enforced, the culprit is most likely to be a political opponent. During the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of State meeting in Uganda, it was suspected that some of Uganda’s ruling government officials, including the vice president and several ministers, embezzled serveral million dollars. Surprisingly all these suspects are still occupying government offices today. Shortly before this incidence, millions of U.S. dollar donor-funds meant for treating AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria were stolen. To date, the suspects are at large and some are members of Parliament.

If African countries are to develop economically and fight poverty, emphasis must first be placed on improving the quality of institutions. This will encourage both foreign and domestic investment and discourage capital flight. Vice President Biden needs to stress strong positions against corrupt and despotic regimes. Biden should reiterate the words of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during their separate visits to Africa that the continent needs to build strong institutions, increase transparency, reduce corruption and support democratic processes. Biden, like Obama should also challenge Africa to take charge of its destiny in the world.

Peace and Stability in the DRC
Olumide Taiwo, Africa Research Fellow, Global Economy and Development, Africa Growth Initiative

It is a welcome development that Vice President Joe Biden will visit Africa this week with stops in Egypt and Kenya, and then South Africa, in time for the 2010 World Cup opening ceremony. More assuring, Vice President Biden will spend some time addressing peace and stability issues in the Horn of Africa, specifically in Sudan and Somalia, before the competitions kick off in Johannesburg.

In most African countries, international football competitions usually eclipse ongoing conflicts. The conflicts only become more vigorous after the competitions are over. However, while focusing on peace and stability in the Horn of Africa is laudable, ignoring peace and stability in the heart of Africa or treating the sub-region as unimportant or a lost cause is not.

The focus on Sudan and Somalia is understandable considering the U.S. classifies Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism and Somalia as a safe haven for al-Qaeda fighters. There are presently no perceived links between al-Qaeda terrorism and the multinational conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where militias from Rwanda and Uganda are battling the DRC government over its resource-rich eastern Kivu region. Unfortunately, conditions in this conflict zone make it no less a potential recruiting ground for terrorist activities, especially if things continue to fester. The DRC government of Joseph Kabila remains incompetent in defending its territory and protecting its citizens against foreign militias. Worse still, President Kabila has ordered a “crush or neutralize” tactic to suppress political opponents in order to retain his power. The United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in the region seem unable to do anything significant to advance peace and stability. The DRC, particularly the Kivu region, is presently a safe haven for war criminals who have created a mini-state for themselves with accompanying threats of violence and land-grabbing. Hundreds of thousands of boy soldiers have been trained and engaged in the conflict. Poverty, unemployment and illiteracy rates continue to rise as conflict after conflict ravages the region. It is important to note that these conditions are not qualitatively different than those which existed in Sudan and Somalia before the incursion of al-Qaeda.

Peace and stability in Kivu region, and ultimately in DRC, is achievable under a credible and strong democratically-elected government that respects human rights. This is not likely to be different from the requirements that Vice President Biden will outline when addressing the situations in Sudan and Somalia. The odds of achieving this goal in the DRC would be significantly improved if Biden devoted some press time during his visit to discuss electoral reforms in the DRC so as to ensure free and fair elections next year.