The past tragedy of slavery connects the United States and Africa. But does the United States have any important interests in Africa today? As African nations try to progress, what should our role in that continent be?
Africa is a vast continent containing more countries than any other continent in the world. It’s the homeland of hundreds of ethnic groups with different cultural traditions, languages, and religions. European nations such as Great Britain and France colonized much of Africa, starting in the 1700s. In the 1880s, as economic and political rivalry increased in Europe, nations like Great Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and Italy raced each other to lay claim to huge African territories rich in minerals, petroleum, rubber, coffee, and other resources. Most African rulers yielded to the ambitions and military power of the Europeans. Others fought wars of resistance, but by 1914, Europeans ruled more than 90 percent of Africa’s territories and more than 80 percent of its people.
The Europeans drew arbitrary boundary lines separating their colonial possessions to suit their own purposes while ignoring the cultural differences among Africa’s many distinct ethnic groups. As a result, some groups found themselves split up into two or more colonies while others were forced to live in the same colony with people they disliked. These boundary lines would create a great deal of trouble in the future for the people of new African nations like Rwanda, Burundi, and Somalia.
European domination of Africa continued until after World War II, when many of the European colonial powers had been weakened by the ravages of global warfare. The demand for independence became a mass African movement. At this point, the European powers in Africa had to choose between granting independence to their colonies or fighting expensive colonial wars. Most chose to relinquish control of their former colonies. By the 1980s, all of Africa was independent except for South African-controlled Namibia. South Africa, although under minority white rule until 1994, had been politically independent since it had withdrawn from the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1961.
Many modern African nations gained independence during the late 1950s and 1960s, a period of intense Cold War hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union. In an attempt to extend their spheres of influence, the two Cold War adversaries offered large grants of economic and military aid to more than 40 African nations who were emerging from European colonial rule.
Drawing heavily on the foreign aid offered by the Soviet Union and the United States and their allies, many of the new African nations tried to educate their people and to establish self-sufficient economies. However, most failed to effectively develop their economies or political systems. Instead, they often turned to a government-run economic system that was frequently based on the old European colonial models and that permitted an elite few to get rich while the majority of people sank deeper into poverty. More often than not, the new African governments fell into the hands of military strongmen, who overthrew one another to gain power for themselves.
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Cold War ended, the economic and military aid that many African nations had come to depend upon started to disappear. Africans soon realized that they would have to adjust to a global economy that was becoming increasingly competitive.
During the last few years, some 35 African countries have loosened government control of their economies and moved toward free-market, capitalist economies. At the same time, about 20 of these nations have held multi-party elections. New leaders have emerged in countries like Uganda, challenging the old pattern of military rule. Africans call these attempts to establish democracy and economic reform their "second independence." In order to achieve this second independence, they must erase the legacy of European colonialism, the influences of the Cold War, and the more recent misrule by Africans themselves.
Africa south of the Sahara Desert is the poorest region on Earth. Unemployment is high and workers with jobs earn an average wage of only $450 a year. Governments are burdened with foreign debt. Ancient hatreds pit ethnic groups against one another, sometimes resulting in mass bloodshed bordering on genocide. In Rwanda, 500,000 people were slaughtered in 1994. Moreover, most African countries still do not have democratically elected governments that respect human rights.
Despite their problems, the nations of Africa hold great promise for the future. Resources such as oil, water power, and minerals have never been fully developed for the benefit of the people. With irrigation, millions of acres of land could be cultivated for both food and export crops like coffee and cocoa. Under new reforms and better leadership, the economic growth rate in Africa has doubled since 1990. Also, Africa’s total population of 750 million people is an inviting market for producing and trading nations like the United States.
Uganda: Making Progress
Located in central Africa and bordering part of Lake Victoria, Uganda is one of the growing number of African countries trying to achieve a "second independence."
Uganda briefly became a republic after securing independence from Great Britain in 1962. But in 1971, General Idi Amin seized power and established one of Africa’s most brutal regimes. After systematically murdering 300,000 of his opponents, Amin was named "president for life" in 1976. Ugandan rebels and forces from neighboring Tanzania finally overthrew Idi Amin in 1979. The country continued to suffer, however, under a series of incompetent military rulers. Fighting among Uganda’s different ethnic groups also plunged the country deeper into violence and poverty.
In 1986, a resistance movement seized control of the national capital and installed Yoweri Museveni as president. Unlike previous military strongmen, Museveni acted to defuse ethnic hostility in Uganda. He successfully integrated soldiers from Uganda’s diverse ethnic groups into one army. Museveni reinstated political parties but banned any party that represented just one ethnic group. In addition, candidates for political office were required to run on their personal qualifications rather than as the representatives of a political party. A new constitution was approved by Ugandan voters in 1995. Musveni won a 1996 election that international observers judged to be free and fair. Multi-party elections are scheduled to start in the year 2000.
Uganda still has a long way to go before achieving a real democracy. Despite efforts to build Uganda into a showcase of political and economic reform, Museveni’s government is still battling two rebel factions in Uganda’s remote northern regions. The rebels claim that their mission is to force Museveni to accept multi-party democracy. Museveni’s government refuses to negotiate with the rebels. "You cannot sit down with a highway robber to discuss the governance of the state," explained one of Museveni’s statesmen.
The 12-year civil war has taken its toll. More than 100,000 people have died, many of them women and children. The northern infrastructure has collapsed, agriculture has come to a standstill, and Uganda is still burdened by foreign debt amounting to more than $2 billion.
Despite its problems, Uganda is making progress. During his 1998 visit, President Clinton stressed that Uganda has come a long way and deserves to be considered as a legitimate trading power. Starting in 1991, Uganda slowly began to shift some government businesses over to privately-owned enterprises. Uganda shows promise as a trading partner with resources in cotton, coffee, and tea, copper mining, a textile industry, and one of the largest fresh water fisheries in the world. Moreover, the per capita income of Ugandan workers has grown to $900 per year, twice that of African workers overall. Further improvement of Uganda’s worker income could increase the market for trade goods from countries like the United States.
Somalia: Frustrated Intervention
Somalia faces Saudi Arabia across the narrow waters of the Gulf of Aden, the gateway to the Red Sea. Ancestors of present-day Somalis were converted to Islam by Arabs who settled along the coastline before the 1300s. Like many African nations, Somalia underwent a period of European colonization during the 19th century. France, Great Britain, and Italy all occupied Somalia and struggled for dominance in the region from the 1860s through World War II. In 1960, Somalia declared itself a democratic republic.
In 1969, Somalia’s president was assassinated in a military coup. The army and police suspended the constitution, the cabinet, and the national assembly. It abolished all political parties while army officers replaced civilian district officials. By the early 1990s, Somalis had ousted Mohamed Siad Barre, a dictator who had coaxed arms and money from Cold War superpowers. Immediately after Barre was deposed, the rebels who ousted him broke into hostile factions.
These factions reflected ancient rivalries between nomadic herders and farmers. Organized along clan lines, the conflict between herders and farmers was sharpened by blood ties. The clans tolerated no interaction that might break down the barriers between herder and farmer. Over the centuries these exclusive, family-based clans gradually defined every aspect of Somali life. Political power, occupations, the boundaries of neighborhoods were all determined along clan lines. In the early 1990s, fueled by a drought and clan rivalries, Somalia fell victim to famine and civil war.
In December 1992, American troops arrived in Somalia to strengthen a small contingent of United Nations forces. Their objective was to administer relief efforts and establish stability in a country torn apart by starvation, disease, and warring clans. American strength, always part of a United Nations contingent, built to 26,000 troops.
The U.S.–U.N. intervention in Somalia was considered by many to be a disaster. Thirty American troops and more than 100 U.N. personnel were killed in combat with heavily armed clans. The mission to provide health care and feed the victims of famine and war was frustrated by secrecy, hoarding, and sabotage. Critics accused the United States of using humanitarian motives to cover attempts at controlling Somali oil resources and smothering the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. In 1995, after more than two years of occupation, President Clinton ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from Somalia. The rest of the United Nations contingent followed suit soon after.
Currently, the country is still divided among rival warlords and remains without a central government. "Somalia is seen as a failed operation," said a U.N. commissioner for human rights. "I don’t know if the international community is willing to invest more."
Others insist that the Somalia missions should not be so coldly dismissed. United Nations and U.S. intervention saved hundreds of thousands from starvation and offered health care and assistance to thousands more displaced by years of civil war.
Trade Not Aid
During his tour of Africa in March 1998, President Clinton spoke of a new relationship with countries like Uganda and Somalia that are striving for their "second independence." Clinton called for legislation that would encourage increased investment and improve trade relations with those African nations making progress in free-market and democratic reforms.
The Clinton administration submitted a trade bill to Congress called the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act. Designed to spur economic development in Africa, the proposed legislation would lower U.S. tariffs and quotas on textiles and other trade products from African nations that can demonstrate that they are moving toward democracy and developing a free market economy.
The Africa trade bill also requires African nations to drop their restrictions on trade with the United States. Currently, the United States supplies only 7 percent of the goods and services that Africans purchase. African exports to the United States—mostly oil—account for just 2 percent of all U.S. imports. The Africa trade bill would attempt to increase these figures.
This trade bill contains other objectives. For example, it would replace the previous emphasis on direct financial aid and loans. This provision drew criticism from Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s president. Mandela told President Clinton on his recent trip to Africa that many African nations are not yet ready to stand alone in the world market. They still need economic aid and debt relief in order to reach a position where they can begin to develop their economies.
U.S. companies and unions also fear that the bill’s lowered tariffs would allow a flow of cheap textile imports into the United States. These low-priced imports might take away jobs and income from the American textile industry. Others claim that a bill that allowed increased U.S. exports to African countries would create jobs in the United States.
Speaking before a group of Ugandan school children, President Clinton declared that "perhaps the worst sin America ever committed about Africa was the sin of neglect and ignorance."
While Africa is struggling with its second independence, developed industrial nations like the United States are grappling with policies that might help reverse the trends caused by exploitation and neglect visited upon Africa during the previous centuries.
For Discussion and Writing
1. What is the difference between Africa’s independence from colonialism 40 years ago and the "second independence" many African nations are trying to achieve today?
2. How did the Cold War cause many African nations to become dependent on foreign aid and loans?
3. Do you think Congress should pass the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act? Why or why not?
For Further Reading
"Africa." Current History May 1998.
McGeary, Johanna and Marguerite Michaels. "Africa Rising." Time 30 Mar. 1998: 34-46.
ACTIVITY: What Should Our Role in Africa Be?
Form small groups, each of which will become a committee to advise the president on what the U.S. role in Africa should be. Below are listed four policies on Africa for the committees to consider. Each committee may choose one or any combination of these policies as well as other ideas to recommend to the president. After discussing the four policies and deciding on a recommendation, each committee will report its conclusions and reasoning.
1. The United States does not have sufficient interests to justify a major involvement or interference in the affairs of African nations.
2. The United States should adopt a "trade not aid" policy in which we reduce tariffs and quotas on African trade goods when African countries make progress in becoming more democratic and moving toward free-market economies.
3. The United States has a human rights obligation to join with other nations to suppress ethnic bloodshed and brutal dictators in Africa.
4. The United States should grant economic aid and forgive loan debts to help African countries overcome their poverty.