At the end of the first ever US-Africa Leaders Summit on August 7, 2014, President Obama declared that it had been an “extraordinary event,” citing the accomplishments of the summit in terms of trade, investment, and security cooperation. Included in the latter category was a commitment to peacekeeping and the need to address corruption and bad governance in the continent.

Had the summit broken new ground in terms of US policy and priorities? If the answer was “no,” then what did the status quo mean? More of the same was more of what?

Prior to the summit and Obama’s August 2013 trip to Africa, US policy on Africa had been most succinctly outlined on June 14, 2012, when President Obama signed a Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) on Sub-Saharan Africa meant to clarify new directions under his administration. The PPD was a policy document that had four core components and strategic priorities: strengthening democratic institutions; spurring economic growth, trade, and investment; advancing peace and security; and promoting opportunity and development.

Most knowledgeable observers stifled a yawn. These were the same four pillars put forward in 2008 by the first Obama candidacy, and had been the ruling doctrine informing African policy since then. In fact, there was very little change in the broad outline of policy since the Clinton and Bush administrations. These were principles around which all Americans could agree on and around which a bipartisan coalition could be built between and within Congress and the Obama administration. It was a bit like the old adage where “mother and apple pie” are the policy, and who can say “no” to that? We all want democratic institutions, peace, security, opportunity, development, and economic growth for Africa.

While support in all of these “core components” is warranted and should continue to be given, the questions we need to ask ourselves are where are US strategic interests best served, what really matters to the United States, and where can we really have an impact, for us and for Africa? Are these ideals responding to Africa’s needs? Are they the “right” ones?

The focus on trade and investment at the summit and in earlier policy pronouncements is understandable; but there are security issues linked to international terrorism that need to be addressed as well, along with emerging democracies that need to be strengthened, infrastructure that needs to be built, and confl icts and humanitarian crises that need to be addressed.

Is the US policy community asking itself these questions? Can these policy streams be kept in balance and are these the directions that the United States seems to be taking?

Whither Democracy in Africa?

Africa has always had an economic potential that should have made it important to the United States no matter what angle was considered: economic, political, or security. The inhibiting factors for a vibrant economic relationship in past years were conflict and corrupt governance in Africa. While high profile conflicts still exist in the Central African Republic, Somalia, South Sudan, Mali, and the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the era of constant conflict and instability is gone. However, the growth of democracy in Africa has been a slow process. The first 30 years or so of “independence” in Africa, from roughly 1958 to 1990, showed few tendencies towards democracy as the West would define it. Sure, the West paid lip service to promoting democracy, but even Africans made few pretenses that they shared that goal. One needs to look no further than at the Organization of African Unity (OAU), founded in 1963, which carried in its charter a sacrosanct codicil that no African country could broach the sovereignty of another, for whatever reason, including oppression and massacre of their citizens. It was, therefore, not just that internal politics, the succession of leadership, and the sharing of the perks of power were not monitored, but the treatment of people, however brutal, was considered the sovereign responsibility of the country, and not that of its neighbors.

One can take little comfort in the history of democracy in Africa prior to 1990. There was no “culture” of democracy, as some scholars call it. But, dramatic things were about to happen. Long before Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya felt it, an “Africa Spring” swept the continent in the 1990s. When the Berlin Wall came down, the international support that existed for any leader who was willing to sell his loyalty for a price began to disappear. No longer did Cold War allegiances dictate the development and economic policies of the major powers. The stirrings of democratic trends began to be apparent early on. South Africa had already shown signs of the monolith breaking, as it helped broker the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe and allowed South-West Africa to become an independent Namibia. Both had been on the frontline of advancing communism prior to that. In 1990, South Africa was to lift the ban on the liberation parties, release political prisoners—Nelson Mandela included—and voluntarily take part in a Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), where all parties negotiated a settlement, agreed to rewrite the constitution, and set a date for the first ever all-inclusive elections. This came at about the same time as the other great bastion of non-democracy, the Soviet Union, was beginning to disappear, and the connection may not be coincidental.

Africa noticed the unraveling of the Soviet Union, and the call for national conventions, new constitutions, responsible governance, and empowerment of people began to reverberate throughout the continent. Under great public pressures, facing the unprecedented growth of civil society organizations, and suddenly facing international donors no longer willing to fund them, autocratic governments in Africa began to respond, scheduling elections, and showing the institutional face of democracy by writing constitutions and setting up supposedly independent judiciaries. The 1990s saw a rash of multiparty elections and new constitutions, a trend that has continued to this day. But at the same time, the “big men” were not ready to give up easily, and they manipulated the elections, put off constitutional conventions, bought off or intimidated opposition, sometimes just ignored the results of elections, and hoped the West would be a bit more interested in stability than in true democracy. For instance, Kenya declared multiparty elections in 1992, and every election since has had violence, intimidation, and predictable results. However, because the country was important to the West in security and economic terms and things held together relatively well after the elections, the results were accepted each time by the international community, including the 2007 elections which caused an International Criminal Court intervention over the levels of violence they spurred. The same happened in Nigeria over its past two elections, as in Gabon, Madagascar, Benin, Ghana, Uganda, Ethiopia, and almost every African country that has had elections since 1990. These elections did little to change anything in terms of the empowerment of people, of real and legitimate oppositions emerging, and of Western democracy taking root. Manipulation was the operative word for ruling parties, and settling was the operative word for the watching world, as in settling “for a substantially free and fair election that was procedurally correct.”

Another element began to come into play in pressuring governments to move to democratic processes: Official Development Assistance (ODA) had to be tied to performance. The term used by the US government was “conditionality,” meaning aid was conditioned on a country’s progress in raising living standards for its population, having open, free, and fair elections, and opening opportunities for all in education, employment, and development. The principle of conditionality was a basis of World Bank and IMF policy in the 1980s and is now commonplace. It is enshrined in the United States’ approach to giving countries billions of dollars from its Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), started in 2004. To do so, countries have to commit to “good policies,” which the corporation defines as “ruling justly, encouraging economic freedom, and investing in people.” The MCC website emphasizes that those countries must enact market-oriented measures designed to open economies to competition, fight corruption, and encourage transparent business dealings. In addition, governments must invest in their citizens’ health care and education. There has been much criticism of the MCC approach, as there was of the World Bank’s structural adjustment, but this criticism revolves more around implementation rather than the principle of conditionality.

With all this pressure, domestically and internationally, for the establishment of democracy in Africa and the demise of the Cold War, Africa has begun to change. Since 1990, despite all the resistance from entrenched political elites, there have been repeated multi-party elections where sitting presidents lost and stepped down peacefully. This has happened in Mauritius, Ghana, Somalia, Zambia, Cape Verde, Benin, São Tomé and Principe, Botswana, Senegal, Namibia, and elsewhere. Sometimes, the elections have even seen a change of the ruling political party. Even where old leaders try to hang on through extra-constitutional means, it does not happen without a challenge anymore. As has been seen in Kenya, Senegal, Ethiopia, and more recently Burkina Faso, this challenge comes from the people as well as the international community. Even the African Union (AU), the body that replaced the OAU in 1999, has changed the non-interference codicil, created the Peer Review Mechanism to monitor democratic progress, and refused to recognize governments that come to power by a coup.

This begins to mount up as evidence that democracy is taking root, and that multi-party rule and stability are becoming the norm. Freedom House, in its 2012 Freedom Index, lists 27 out of 49 sub-Saharan African countries as “free” or “partly free.” The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which uses a different set of criteria, had 21 African countries listed as “full” or “flawed” democracies, or hybrid regimes. 23 are listed as autocratic. The EIU states in the narrative of its Democracy Index that “the number of elections held annually in recent years has increased; since 2000 between 15 and 20 elections have been held each year. African democracy appears to have flourished and the holding of elections has become commonplace, but not all ballots pass the test of being ‘free and fair’ and many have been charades held by regimes clinging on to power. Similarly, coups d’état have become more infrequent, although conflict, failed governments, and human rights abuses remain too widespread. For every two steps forward over the past 20 years there has been at least one step back, but the overall trend appears to be in the right direction.” Not a ringing endorsement, of course, but it certainly recognizes that the movement is forward and points out that the coups which flourished from independence through the 1990s at about 20 per decade, have diminished so there have been only seven since 2000, and one of those, in Guinea Bissau, has resulted in the coup makers holding democratic elections. Hopefully, that will be the case in Burkina Faso in the near future.

The trends certainly seem to be pointing towards an Africa with a “culture” of democracy beginning to take root. Certainly democracy remains fragile, as coming elections in Burundi, the Central African Republic, and Mali show us. Single parties still dominate the landscape and militaries are still liable to intervene. However, citizen demands for immediate elections after the forcing out of President Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso a few months ago or the ongoing popular pressures for the end of long term presidencies in Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon show that civil society has changed and democracy is demanded by the new, young, educated, information technology savvy, and activist Africans who now make up the majority of the population of the continent of one billion people. That is about as safe for democracy as it can be.

Is It the Economy?

Due to Africa’s vast economic potential, relative stability, burgeoning democracies, along with an increasingly modern, sophisticated, urbanized market and professional and entrepreneurial class, investors from EU and OECD countries like India, Japan, Brazil, and Turkey, as well as China have increasingly begun to move into the continent. The US private sector is catching on, and the US government is helping to encourage this through instruments like the Private Capital Group for Africa, a group of high end capital investment firms with whom the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is partnering to foster “greater investment that supports key development objectives in Africa,” according to USAID. This is laudable, as are trade promotion activities by the Office of the US Trade Representative for Africa and private sector initiatives by the Corporate Council on Africa.

For the United States, its major instruments of economic outreach, the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) and the Millennium Development Goals come up for renewal or replacement in 2015, and a new administration and Congress will begin to look at opportunities for policy priorities. The seminal question is: “should the African economy through trade and investment be the priority for US policy?” There is little doubt that the United States needs to fashion a comprehensive, coordinated economic policy on Africa. Working with the AU, the UN Economic Commission on Africa, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank, as well as African and US government and private sector stakeholders, there could be no more positive or profitable nail to hang the US policy hat on, a true win-win situation for all stakeholders. And it would bring the United States in line with China, Europe, and other investing nations to help create a level playing field between the United States and other global emerging powers. The United States must not live in the past. Today, entrepreneurs from Brisbane to São Paulo, Seoul, and Beijing reap super profits from their African ventures, in fact the highest return on investment in the world.

From this standpoint, those advocating simple continuity of AGOA or pushing for reform independent of the bigger picture may actually be undermining a more progressive US policy toward Africa—even more dangerous to US progress than traditional protectionist and isolationist views. Now may be just the right time and right environment for the United States to craft a more expansive program and economic initiative for Africa—an enhanced AGOA. Instructively, as the United States’ most significant Africa program, AGOA does, indeed, present a baseline for a more equitably beneficial partnership. While we now have or are seeking comprehensive policies like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, there is no such animal for Africa. We need that animal. We need coordination and consultation across the spectrum of stakeholders—the White House, private sector, Congress, State Department, Department of Commerce, and all the specific agencies taxed with trade policy—and with African governments and private sector to fashion a meaningful economic policy.

But is the economy the centerpiece in US-African policy? If not, should it be?

Or Is It Terrorism and National Security?

There is little doubt that the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit was historic. There were about 40 heads of state, including royalty, and never before has a US administration engaged such a senior African leadership group at such a high level.

On the trade and investment side, the summit resulted in some serious and significant commitments although very little that was new money or policy from the US government side. The only new inputs came from the private side. By my count, there were new commitments in the neighborhood of US$50 billion from the business community and only US$15 billion from the US government. All of this is welcome, but does not represent a major change in policy direction or magnitude as far as government is concerned. The most positive trend here is the realization by the US business and risk capital investment communities of Africa’s potential. It is, after all, the private sector that will have to drive sustainable development. Government can only do so much.

On the security and peacekeeping side, while the United States was not excessive in its commitments at the summit, the ones it made show where its priority is now being placed, if it was not already there. Obama announced the Security Governance Initiative and committed US$65 million to support it. It will include six select countries: Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, and Tunisia. The initiative will focus on building institutions of good governance and the capacities of security sectors, including civilian ministries, police, and military, depending on the needs of each country. It mandates close consultation and cooperation with the host governments. On peacekeeping, President Obama announced the African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership and committed US$110 million per year for three to five years to build the capacity of African militaries to rapidly deploy peacekeepers in response to emerging conflict. This effort will be in partnership with the following countries: Senegal, Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. While this is only about a US$600 million in total—not much in the context—it is building on longer-term security commitments made in past years.

Security, it could be argued, was the focus of Cold War era policy of the United States and certainly has remained so, probably taking on a more prominent place in the last two decades, even before the introduction of AFRICOM in 2007. As ODA flows went only to countries the United States saw as “allies” during the Cold War, or in humanitarian or disaster relief situations, it was easy to subordinate other policy considerations. However, the rationale that prioritizes security as the leading consideration in US policy since the 1990s is less clear and leaves the observer to find his or her own conclusion that Africa in general is not a high priority except where it intersects with national global security concerns and the “war on terror.”

It then takes on a deeper concern and greater commitment of resources. Just a brief review of current Africa-based “terror” concerns paints a pretty frightening picture. Al Shabaab, while losing ground to Kenyan-reinforced AU troops, still operates in many parts of Somalia and has, in the last two years, exported terror attacks to Uganda and Kenya. Boko Haram runs rampant in northern Nigeria, kidnapping, raping, and killing on a daily basis in a rebellion originally prompted by legitimate grievances of neglect and exclusion by the central government but now fueled by regional and international linkages with radical Islamists. Northern Mali, Niger, and the Sahel region are still combating, with French assistance, rebel Islamist groups that include Ansar al-Dine, MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in Africa, and some other Tuareg nationalist movements which also had land and marginalization issues but have now come under outside Islamist influence. Recently, existing tensions around political contestations in the Central African Republic have blossomed into a conflict that has taken on a Christian-Islam split as Islamist influences from Chad and elsewhere forced terrified Central Africans to choose sides. Furthermore, there has been serious talk by Islamists like the Al-Minbar Jihadi Media Network, an Islamist website, of creating a “belt” across the Maghreb from West to East Africa.

The US policy response has been predictable. Early efforts have included the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI) of 2002 to 2004 in Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania, a counterterrorism effort; and the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI), (2005 to 2008), which replaced PSI and was an interagency plan for 11 countries. In that time frame, there were at least four other security and counterintelligence programs targeting Africa. More recently, there has been the special training of elite anti-terror forces in the Sahel region, the deployment of Special Forces in Uganda and the Central African Republic in support of the battle against the Lord’s Resistance Army, and the use of US drones for surveillance in Niger and in at least two cases, possibly more, for striking an Al Shabaab target in Somalia.

While funding for these programs is hidden amongst a myriad of Department of Defense (DoD) and State Department budget lines, making totals almost impossible to ascertain, we know the following: the TSCTI had an original authorization from Congress for US$500 million, and there are plans to fund the Security Partnership Initiative, referred to above, at US$5 billion. Add to that recent creations like the Partnership for Regional East African Counterterrorism (PREACT), which includes 12 countries. While PREACT is run through the State Department’s Africa Bureau since its establishment in 2008, the creation of AFRICOM has resulted in most of these programs being folded under its auspices, including the TSCTI. AFRICOM’s core budget is US$280 million this year, a relatively modest amount, but one must remember the six separate commands that fall under it, some in Europe and some in Africa, like the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa engagement of the Special Operations Forces in Djibouti. Adding up these command budgets, along with expenditures on International Military Education and Training funds and foreign military sales, the total could amount to US$7 billion or more. This estimate does not seem extreme in light of the 2013 study authorized by the Department of Defense for the International Security Advisory Board (ISAB), which says that up to US$9 billion may make it into Africa through the various budget lines from which funds are drawn. (The calculation that the ISAB used was that US$25 billion is set aside worldwide for security assistance, of which about US$16 billion goes to Israel, Egypt, other Middle East countries, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the remainder being split up around the rest of the world.)

If we follow the money “trail,” as law enforcement tends to do when tracking organized crime, we must conclude that the priority of US strategic interests is in security and not economic or infrastructure development, trade, or investment and that this has been US policy on Africa at least since 1992 and probably long before. Whether this is shortsighted on the US side or not, only time will provide the answer. We cannot know what the future will hold or what trends will continue and which ones will disappear, and whether the focus on security shall remain supreme.

There is one directive spelled out by the president at the August 2014 summit that gives hope that policy will match reality. The hope lies in the fact that President Obama, in his closing remarks at the summit, set the stage for continued consultations at the highest level on all these issues and policy considerations. He said: “Given the success that we’ve had this week, we agreed that summits like this can be a critical part of our work together going forward, a forcing mechanism for decisions and action. So we agreed that the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit will be a recurring event to hold ourselves accountable for our commitments and to sustain our momentum. And I’ll strongly encourage my successor to carry on this work, because Africa must know that they will always have a strong and reliable partner in the United States of America.”

This ongoing dialogue will allow for a reexamination of strategic priorities, including moving from a focus on security to one on a comprehensive, coordinated economic plan for US involvement in Africa. That would help create jobs and profits for Americans, assist Africa in its own economic progress across the board (essential for stability, peace, and development), and, in the end, might be the only issue around which international partnerships, or at least cooperation, can be formed. Better yet, this area of trade and investment is one of the few around which bipartisan coalitions can be formed in our current polarized political atmosphere.