The Issue

A‌frica is a continent of great opportunity, as well as a region with serious challenges that affect U.S. national interests. U.S. policy toward the continent has been slowly evolving to account for the new realities, but the U.S. needs a more committed and focused approach if it is to better manage the threats, and benefit more from the continent’s economic dynamism.

A number of the world’s fastest-growing economies are in Africa. The continent has immense natural resource wealth, including the world’s largest supply of undeveloped arable land. Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is rapidly expanding and, if properly harnessed, could be a huge market for American exports at a time when most countries’ populations are aging. Many African countries are also generally friendly to the U.S., and favor stronger ties with the U.S.

In today’s increasingly interconnected world, the security challenges, particularly Islamic terrorism, on the continent have greater potential to affect the U.S. than ever before. ISIS has several significant African affiliates. In Libya, a coalition of armed groups pushed ISIS from most of its strongholds, but its fighters are probing for toeholds in other parts of the country. The increased military pressure on ISIS in the Middle East, and the slim chance of stability returning to Libya anytime soon, means that Libya will likely remain among ISIS’s options.

Boko Haram in Nigeria lost ground over the past several years, but the regional militaries arrayed against it have been unable to fully secure the northeastern part of the country from Boko Haram attacks. The Nigerian government has also failed to ameliorate the environment in the northeast that empowers Boko Haram.

Al-Qaeda in West Africa, meanwhile, is strengthening. In March 2017, four al-Qaeda-affiliated groups—al-Murabitoun, the Macina Liberation Front, Ansar Dine, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM’s) Sahara arm—merged to form Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims). These groups already cooperated to varying degrees to launch high-profile attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso, and the Ivory Coast in 2015 and 2016, and are partly the reason the U.N. peacekeeping operation (PKO) in northern Mali has lost more peacekeepers than any other PKO. The merger is likely to increase the groups’ proficiency.

Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Somalia, al-Shabaab, has stabilized after losing significant territory to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a multinational military coalition. The group sharply increased its attacks in Mogadishu in the run-up to Somalia’s electoral process that ended in early 2017. The group’s long-term prospects are solid as AMISOM, the only effective anti-al-Shabaab military force, is due to start drawing down in 2018. The Somali government and the Somali National Army must dramatically improve their ability to provide competent governance and security if they wish to hold al-Shabaab at bay, much less degrade it further.

Other forms of African instability, such as a civil war in South Sudan, election-related violence in Burundi, and weak or contested governance in many states, affect U.S. interests less directly. They do, however, destabilize regional American allies and create such urgent humanitarian crises that U.S. policymakers may feel compelled to engage the U.S. more deeply in the crises.

The instability, along with the population boom, is also fueling uncontrolled migration. Most African migrants move within the continent, but many are also undertaking dangerous journeys to Europe. This contributes to the strain that Western European countries are already under from massive migration from the Middle East. Criminal gangs and terrorist groups also profit in a number of ways from the migrants, and human smugglers frequently abuse their charges.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has not increased its engagement with Africa to a level commensurate with the continent’s growing importance. Nor has the U.S. properly oriented its current engagement to best manage Africa’s threats and derive the most benefit from its opportunities.

The U.S. still focuses much of its engagement with Africa on traditional humanitarian development projects. Some forms of humanitarian aid are worthwhile, such as emergency aid that saves lives in the midst of crises, and development aid that gives the U.S. influence with countries important to its interests. Public health interventions, such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) have also saved millions of lives in Africa.

Yet traditional humanitarian development aid has done little to ease African poverty. In worst-case scenarios, it fuels corruption and conflict, breeds dependence and entitlement, and distorts local economies. The U.S. has created some programs that promote free enterprise systems and have stronger standards for accountability and effectiveness, but it needs to focus more of its development aid on such initiatives.

U.S. military efforts on the continent focus on building the capacity of indigenous forces to battle threats, though the U.S. will occasionally launch direct strikes against terror targets. Security threats, including terrorism, are symptoms of deeper problems that the U.S. military cannot solve, such as toxic ideologies and negative governance. Its role is to help countries push those threats back to provide the time and space for local actors to implement the solutions: discrediting the violent ideologies and building competent governance institutions.

The U.S. has been ramping up its training of African militaries, which is positive. While continuing to pursue such opportunities, the U.S. also needs to ensure that it is helping African partners develop the security institutions necessary to manage and sustain their forces.

While the U.S. has been slow to recalibrate its engagement with Africa to better account for the continent’s growing importance, other countries have not. Many of the world’s powers are ramping up their activities in Africa and pursuing their national interests there in a strategic and committed way.

For two decades, China’s foreign ministers have visited Africa during their first overseas trips. China also convenes regular China–Africa summits, at the most recent of which, in 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping tripled China’s financing commitments to the continent. Chinese trade with the continent in 2016 was more than twice the volume of Africa–U.S. trade, and Chinese investment in Africa quadrupled between 2014 and 2016. According to Ernst & Young, China in 2016 was by far the biggest foreign investor in Africa in terms of total dollars spent, investing about 10 times the amount that the U.S. did.

Russia, too, is looking to the continent. Its trade with Africa increased more than tenfold between 2000 and 2012. It is positioning itself as the go-to partner for nuclear power generation—media reports show that Russia signed deals or has talked with Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt, Uganda, Tunisia, Tanzania, South Africa, and Zambia about helping these countries develop nuclear power capabilities.

As its population ages, Japan is seeking new markets among Africa’s booming populations, as are European states, such as Germany and France. Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar, are pumping money into the continent as well.

In many African countries, the norms and regulatory environments governing economic activity are still forming. Part of the danger of the U.S. not making a more conscious and coordinated effort in Africa is that other countries that are not committed to equitable and transparent economic competition may build enough influence to shape those norms. That would put U.S. companies—and the companies of other countries that also believe in a level playing field—at a disadvantage.

Many countries increasingly see Africa as an opportunity for building diplomatic might. In 2016, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli Prime Minister in three decades to visit Africa as he seeks to whittle away at the support that African countries—the largest voting bloc in the United Nations General Assembly with 54 votes—often give to anti-Israel resolutions. India and Japan are also courting African votes as they wish to be permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Turkey’s largest embassy in the world is in Mogadishu, and is part of a diplomatic push that saw the number of its embassies in Africa increase from 12 in 2009 to 39 in 2017. The Turkish government recently announced that it wants to have embassies in every African country.

Military initiatives accompany the economic and diplomatic initiatives. China is building its first permanent overseas base, which will have the capacity to house 10,000 troops, in strategically located Djibouti. The base will be just across a bay from the U.S.’s only permanent military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, with its approximately 4,000 personnel. Between 2010 and 2015, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China almost doubled the amount of arms it supplied to sub-Saharan Africa.

Saudi Arabia announced in 2016 that it would also build a base in Djibouti, while France, Italy, Germany, and Japan already have presences of varying strength there. In 2017, the UAE signed an agreement with Somaliland, an autonomous region of Somalia, to build a military base in its Berbera port, which would supplement a base it recently built in neighboring Eritrea. There are rumors that Egypt plans to build a base in Eritrea as well, though Egypt denied the story. India is building dozens of radar and listening stations in Mauritius, the Seychelles, and Madagascar to go along with a naval and air base on Assumption Island.


U.S. efforts are not proportionate to the scale of the opportunities and challenges in Africa. Nor does the U.S. target its efforts as well as it should. To better manage the problems and benefit from the opportunities of Africa, the U.S. should:

Focus Aid Efforts on Enhancing Free-Enterprise Systems and Accountable and Competent Governance. The most effective, sustainable, and dignified way out of poverty is the free enterprise system. Accountable and competent governance enables such systems, and ameliorates some security challenges. The U.S. should continue to allocate funds for emergency relief and for development initiatives that build influence with countries important to U.S. interests. Its focus, however, should be on funding programs with a record of improving governance and that help countries create the regulatory environments and systems of accountability that free their citizens’ skills and energies to build a healthy economy. Such measures could include:

  • Assisting the Regional Economic Communities in Africa to deepen and quicken their integration, which would enhance intra-African trade and provide a more rewarding market for foreign investors.
  • Helping African countries improve their economic freedom. Rule of law, appropriately sized government, regulatory efficiency, and open markets are critical to building economies that reduce poverty and ameliorate many of the associated social challenges.
  • Aiding governments to better track and report consumer data, which would, among other things, allay some of the uncertainty many foreign companies face when trying to invest in the continent.

Require More Accountability from African Partners. As the U.S. deepens its engagement with African partners, it should seek more accountability in exchange. The U.S. should reconsider providing significant aid to governments that fail to measurably progress in areas of governance and development, or that are not helping the U.S. achieve its goals in ways commensurate with the amount of money and aid the U.S. provides. It should also expect more support at international fora, such as the U.N. General Assembly.

Align All the Tools of U.S. influence for Maximum Impact. The U.S. often struggles to coordinate its military, diplomatic, and aid efforts in Africa. However, it must do so if it wishes to manage the complex array of problems and opportunities on the continent.

Reform How the U.S. Delivers Aid. “Buy American” provisions and subsidies to shipping companies that deliver aid make the U.S. food aid program unnecessarily expensive and inefficient. The U.S. adopted very modest reforms in this area in 2013, but eliminating all such subsidies and provisions would enable quicker and more effective aid to reach more people.

Deepen Cooperation with Like-Minded Allies Operating on the Continent. A number of American allies, such as France, Germany, the U.K., and Japan, are active on the continent, and their interests frequently align with those of the U.S. The U.S. should deepen its cooperation with them to enhance the influence they could have on issues of governance, security, and economic reforms.

Boost Trade with Africa Beyond the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). AGOA is a trade program that currently grants 37 African countries duty-free access to the U.S. market for a broad range of products. AGOA contributed to the combined two-way trade between beneficiary countries and the U.S. doubling between 2001 and 2014, and Congress recently and rightly extended the act until 2025. In addition to AGOA, the U.S. should seek other ways to build more and freer trade with African countries. Striking more bilateral free trade agreements is one such measure the U.S. could take.

Help Countries Develop Their Security Institutions in Tandem with Training Their Militaries. The U.S. military is very good at training indigenous forces, but competent and civilian-directed military institutions are necessary to sustain and control those forces. Many African countries have dysfunctional military bureaucracies, and the U.S. needs to ensure it is helping them develop better bureaucracies in tandem with training their military forces.

Make the U.S.–Africa Leaders Summit a Routine Event. The first and only U.S.–Africa Leaders Summit in 2014 brought 44 African presidents and prime ministers to Washington, and brought scores of senior representatives from African and American companies together. Making it an annual or biannual event would deepen ties with African leaders and provide a useful forum for U.S. companies to develop business relationships with African partners.

Facts and Figures

FACT: Many African countries have enormous untapped natural resource wealth that could benefit them and the U.S.

  • Sixty percent of the world’s unused arable land is in Africa.
  • The continent has an estimated 30 percent of the world’s mineral reserves, including the largest reserves of diamond, gold, phosphate, aluminum, and manganese, among others.
  • PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated in 2013 that only about 30 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s gas blocks are licensed, meaning there is great potential for other large natural gas discoveries of the type recently found in Egypt, Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal, and Tanzania.

FACT: Some African countries enjoy dynamic growth from which American companies could benefit.

  • From 2013 to 2016, six of the 13 fastest-growing economies in the world were African.
  • Ernst and Young predicts that by 2030, 19 African economies will grow by 5 percent or more per year.
  • A recent McKinsey report predicted there will be $5.6 trillion in African business opportunities by 2025.
  • The African Development Bank predicts that household expenditures in Africa will grow to $3.5 trillion in the following eight years.

FACT: Africa’s population boom could produce one of the world’s largest consumer classes and pools of working-age labor.

  • Between 2010 and 2015, sub-Saharan Africa’s fertility rate was 5.1.
  • By 2034, Africa’s working-age population will be larger than that of China or India.
  • Demographers predict that by 2100, 39 percent of the world’s population will be African, which would entail the continent’s population growing from 1.2 billion today to 4.4 billion.

FACT: The terrorism problems in parts of Africa are among the worst in the world.

  • The 2016 Global Terrorism Index found that four of the 10 countries most affected by terrorism were in Africa.
  • Boko Haram was the world’s deadliest terror group in 2014, killing more people than ISIS, though its deadliness has since declined.
  • According to the Daily Maverick, the number of terror attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, and Niger increased almost 150 percent from 2015 to 2016.
  • The Sahan Research think tank found that al-Shabaab bomb attacks killed nearly four times as many people in 2016 as they did in 2015.

FACT: African countries frequently do not support the U.S. at the U.N. General Assembly, a behavior that the U.S. should seek to change.

  • In 2015, African countries on average voted with the U.S. only 31 percent of the time on non-procedural votes in the U.N. General Assembly, which was actually an improvement over the last decade.
  • No African country, including those to whom the U.S. has given billions of dollars, voted with the U.S. more than 50 percent of the time in 2015.

FACT: Djibouti, Eritrea, and Somaliland occupy one of the continent’s most strategic regions.

  • Djibouti, bookended by Somaliland and Eritrea, sits on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, a chokepoint for the route to the Suez Canal.
  • Nearly 4 million barrels of oil a day move through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait.
  • The U.S., China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have or are building a military presence in this region from which to launch counterterror strikes in Africa and the Middle East, monitor the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, launch counterpiracy patrols, or otherwise project military power.

Selected Additional Resources

Joshua Meservey, “A Destabilizing Libyan Conflict Requires U.S. Engagement,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4708, May 25, 2017.

Joshua Meservey, “An Approaching Transition in Zimbabwe Requires a U.S. Game Plan,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4606, September 1, 2016.

Joshua Meservey, “Four U.S. Policy Priorities for Africa in 2016,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4509, January 15, 2016.

Joshua Meservey, “Record-Setting Drought in Africa Requires U.S. Leadership on Disaster Relief,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4556, May 4, 2016.

Joshua Meservey, “Somalia’s Milestone Electoral Process Requires U.S. Scrutiny,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4602, August 19, 2016.

Joshua Meservey, “South Sudan: Time for the U.S. to Hold the Combatants Accountable,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 3202, April 28, 2017.

Joshua Meservey, “Uganda’s Upcoming Presidential Elections: Implications for the U.S.-Uganda Relationship,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4519, February 17, 2016.

Joshua Meservey and Abigail Hundley, “Violence in Burundi Highlights the Fragility of Democracy in Africa,” The Daily Signal, August 15, 2016.

Bryan Riley and Brett D. Schaefer, “U.S. Food Aid Should Focus on Combating Hunger and Malnutrition in Poor Nations,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 3910, April 12, 2013.

Tyler Yeatts and Joshua Meservey, “South Africa Is Losing the War Against Corruption,” The Daily Signal, April 19, 2016.