An introduction to American policy toward Africa


In the past American foreign policy largely ignored Africa as a place to be contained and more of a liability. Western powers in general were more focused on the Cold War and containing Soviet Union this of course is the official story. It ought to be noted that European governments sponsored colonialism and imperialism in Africa initially which presented a conflict of interest when Africans demanded their emancipation. China and Russia seized on the opportunity and assisted Africans to gain independence. It is shallow and one-dimensional then to assume that Africans were communists in their philosophy. The reality is that they wanted freedom to govern their own affairs and China and Russia were the only ones willing to aid in this goal. Whether Africans believed in communism or not it was their freedom they prized above all.

Western powers labelled Africa as the enemy because of their association with communist countries. They employed the Western philosophy of “you are either with us or against us”; even when “being for us” meant remaining a colonial subject in one’s own country.

After the fight for independence France remained active in Africa as Africa’s largest trading partner. In the 1990s Bill Clinton wanted to make a name for himself and charter new markets for America by establishing new partnerships in Africa. The world had become a different place since the 1950s, the Soviet Union had disbanded and in the East China was a rising economic powerhouse. Across the pond Europeans were organizing themselves to take advantage of economies of scale and tear down trade barriers to become more economically viable with the formation of the European Union (EU). All these factors were putting pressure on the United States which was going to have its position of hegemony challenged by the EU.

It is hard to imagine now but there was a time when the EU was a threat to American dominance and Clinton found the answer in a little unknown and unikely source; Sub-Saharan Africa. Under the Clinton Administration for the first time in American history there was actually well thought out policy toward Africa that would empower Africans rather than just exploit their resources. Earlier administrations like that of President Reagan where marked by statement like these “Mandela should not be free until South Africa’s resources can be used to benefit us.”  Reagan supported apartheid and vetoed sanctions against South Africa by describing Botha and apartheid as an ally.

When Clinton came in with a policy to engage Africa in a more meaningful manner of partnership rather than exploitation he was received with open arms. He found out what many had known and few American had realized that African were not communists who despised America but wanted meaningful engagement with Washington and America in general. After all Africans drank Coca-Cola, enjoyed American staples such as WWF now WWE, popular shows such as Dallas, Friends and all those popular American tv shows and were eager to consume American brands.

No other place on the world does former president George Walker (GW) Bush go to other than Waco Texas where he is treated like a rock star but Africa. George and Laura Bush just spent some time in Zambia at a clinic doing some painting. GW Bush has been working on his image since he left office and of course has adopted the Obama model of community service photo- ops. GW Bush of course watched how Africa embraced Clinton and took a page from that and used them for his own advantage. If there was any place in the world that George W Bush got it right when it came to foreign policy it was Africa. Of course this is not counting Iraq or weapons of mass destruction or yellow cake in Niger. When it came to Africa he ignored the advice of foreign policy Dick Cheney and the decision continues to pay dividends in huge social capital.

It was not a surprise of course that when GW Bush came to power he has a successful model on Africa to follow.When Clinton set off on a tour of Africa the longest tour ever embarked by any sitting US President to a foreign land it was evident that Africa was essential in his foreign policy agenda. Perhaps it was also because Clinton felt guilty about Rwanda and the genocide that had taken place. The United States; guardian of human rights was capable of and should have acted  to spare so many Hutus and Tusti.

Perhaps an unintended consequence has been American companies setting up base in Africa to bring in their products duty free. It creates employment or the local Africans but still leaves them in the position of employees rather than business owners who can trade with American and own their own means of production. There is no sustainable long term economic growth of any nation where the locals do not own the means of creating wealth. We already have a failed model called colonialism and we know that it does not work.


  1. Vision is always 20/20 as we say in Zimbabwe so now that we look in 2012 we now know more which we did not know in the 80s. Reagan was just afraid, fear is what influenced his decision making and his support for Botha.

  2. In the words of British Lord Palmerston
    “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”

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