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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

December 2003

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Ambassador Palmer, a faithful contributor to our journal, is mildly optimistic about Africa’s prospects. He believes that undeniable, though spotty, progress has been made. He writes that Africa will continue to need outside help , but it is the Africans themselves who must develop the capacity to solve their own problems and there are signs that is happening.—Assoc. Ed.

Trafalgar and the Balance of Power

There are obviously many issues relating to contemporary Africa worth studying,but I shall limit myself to only a few, namely: 1) prospects for peace; 2) prospects for African solutions of African problems; 3) opportunities for help by outside forces including the United Nations; 4) the United States and Africa and the Globalized Economy; and, 5) and the promise and perils of oil and gas development for Africa. I won't deal with these issues consecutively, but I will try to weave them together into a tapestry in which the last threads will be the perils and promise of African hydrocarbons. By 2015 Africa is expected to provide twenty-five per cent of U.S. oil imports. New deposits are being developed offshore in deepwater all along the African west coast as far north as Togo and Ghana. Exxon-Mobil and Chevron-Texaco and their affiliates will spend some $60 billion in the next few years on exploration and development. Natural gas is also being developed in Nigeria, Mozambique and South Africa.

The African east coast appears to have little or no offshore oil. However, oil has been discovered in southern Ethiopia. Sudan of course has abundant oil deposits.

Major problems of governance, transparency and equitable access to financial and other resources lie ahead for presently poor governments. The United States must prepare to play an important role to help the transitions that will be necessary. TheU.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000 (AGOA) may provide some useful guidelines in this process. One imponderable element in Africa’s fast-approaching future will be how the United States seeks to spread its security blanket over an area of increasing strategic importance. There is already consideration being given to U.S. basing in Eritrea in the east and perhaps Fernando Po off the west coast.

In beginning this analysis, it is useful to study contemporary Africa in a framework of some basic facts and figures that will influence the challenges the Continent will face in the 21st century. I have drawn my data from the 2003 report of the Global Coalition for Africa.

Americans tend to think of Africa as about the size of the United States. It is in fact three times as large as the United States, but its road structure is very underdeveloped. There are no east-west or north-south highways connecting the various regions.

Africa has about 800 million people, eighty per cent of whom live in rural areas which are grievously under-served by public services.

The African population has doubled since 1970. It will reach one billion people before 2010. Yet the African life expectancy at birth is only 47 years. Infant mortality is 106 per 1000 births as compared with China (32), India (69) or Indonesia (41).

The rate of population growth was 2.3 percent in 2001. It was down from 2.7 percent in 1965 but lags well behind those of India (0.9) or China (0.7).

The fertility rate in Africa or average number of children per family in 2000 was 5.2 children compared with 1.9 in China or 3.1 in India.

The use of contraceptives by Africans was estimated to be thirteen per cent of the population in 2000 compared to eighty-three per cent of Chinese or sixty-four percent of the Indian population.

The lack of contraceptive use is directly related to the African HIV/AIDS pandemic. Twenty-eight and a half million persons were living with HIV/AIDS in 2001. There were 2.2 million deaths in 2001 from this cause and 3.5 million new infections. Twelve countries have infection rates of ten per cent or more among fifteen to forty-nine-year olds. There were eleven million AIDS orphans in 2001. Estimates are that the number of AIDS orphans will rise to twenty million by 2010.

The impact of HIV/AIDS on economic growth has been severe. Africa achieved an average per capita income rate of 0.4 percent in the 1990-1997 period. It is estimated that this rate would have been 1.1 without the pandemic. Where infection rates are higher, the impact has been more dire. South Africa will lose eleven per cent of its work force by 2005 and Botswana, twenty percent.

To illustrate Africa's potential, however, even though its trade is less than one percent of world trade, the United States exported more to Africa in 2001 than to all of Eastern Europe. U.S. exports to South Africa alone were more than those to Russia.

U.S. investment has lagged in Africa in view of governance, transparency, and institutional and capacity constraints.

These realities are a reflection of the decaying or inadequate African infrastructure. More generally, they reflect elite group scrambles for scarce resources.

Some analysts describe the post-colonial Africa situation as the result of state failure. However, the regimes that emerged from colonial Africa were inevitably fragile. The colonial powers, Portugal, France, Belgium, and Britain, were the survivors of eager participants in the slave trade from the fifteenth century to at least the 1880s, when Brazil finally abolished slavery. The colonial systems in Africa came late in the nineteenth century and their educational systems were designed only to produce clerks and minor functionaries to aid the police-state rule of the colonial powers.

Britain was to some extent an exception because it brought its indirect rule tradition to Africa from India and Malaya. It preferred to rule through local hierarchies, and therefore needed a relatively more educated class of localfunctionaries to assist colonial administrators in some of its holdings,including Gold Coast (present Ghana), Nigeria, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Uganda,Tanganyika (Tanzania), Rhodesia (Zimbabwe),  and South Africa before theNationalist Party revolution of 1948. However, Britain firmly intended to retain its imperial dominance wherever it ruled as long as it could.

France had no such inhibitions. It brought the tradition of highly centralized administration to its vast territories of French West Africa and FrenchEquatorial Africa. France also provided the example of Great Man militaryintervention in politics embodied by Charles De Gaulle and harking back to Napoleon.

Portugal and Belgium had no intention of freeing their vast colonies. There was one university graduate when the former Belgian Congo became independent in 1960. Portugal of course fought doggedly to continue ruling Angola and Mozambique until 1975.

The independent regimes that emerged from European colonization were weak, lacked state capacity, and attempted to exert leadership over almost totally illiterate and uneducated populations. They inherited colonial boundaries and led populations that cut across ethnic and natural boundaries. In short, the new African nations had few of the attributes of statehood, including the capacity to control the territories they inherited.

"Failed States" is monumentally the wrong way to describe the successor regimes to colonial regimes. In fact, the thirty or so years since most  African nations gained independence have been years of struggle  to gain legitimacy, to gain state capacity, to institutionalize order,  to extend the rule of law, to attain accountability, to perform needed public services, to create jobs and attract investor interest. These goals were aimed at the creation, with only limited success, of liberal capitalist democracies.

Those elites seeking such goals have had to contend with greedy and ambitious factions of all types particularly armed military and security groups whose interests were best served in an atmosphere of disorder and illegitimacy. Criminal networks have grown using their connections to illegitimate sources of power.

So-called one-party states based on military power flourished for most of the past thirty years. However, civil society has grown in influence. The 1980s trend to multi-partyism was accompanied by an explosion of non-government organizations, which increasingly have sought to restrain abuse of power.

Relatively few of the multiparty experiments were successful in dislodging entrenched military-backed elites. Yet the concept of democracy has thrived and is an important value in political discourse. Changes of government have occurred in a few cases bringing former opposition groups to power.

Nevertheless, the disturbing recent incidence of anarchic criminal attempts to seize power Leone has marred the African political scene. Liberia, Somalia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DROC, formerly Zaire, Chad and others come to mind.

Still, after bloody years of conflict a sort of peace has been achieved in most of these situations. One of the most heartening developments seems to be happening in the DROC. South Africa appears to have played a major role in convincing the local factions supported by the six nations that have intervened in the DROC to suapend military action in favor of participation in the political process. A peace accord was signed in South Africa in 2001. A transitional DROC Government has been formed which is based on sharing power among the various factions. While the capital Kinshasa has settled into relative calm, there is little calm in most of the rest of the country where hostilities and massacres have continued, particularly in the East where UN peacekeepers are deployed.

The death toll of the 1998-2003 conflict exceeds three million persons to date but as the "New York Times" reported on October 21, there is at least a glimmer of hope that peace and order may be established. DROC multiparty elections are scheduled in two or three years and political contestants for power appear to be thinking in longer time frames than hectic day-to-day combat. The "Times" commented that this is a long step forward and "is a testament to the duration of peace agreements reached by African nations with minimal outside help or interference."

A possible trend toward local resolution of disputes is shown also in the still tentative negotiations in Sudan. After twenty years of fighting between the Muslim, Arab north and the black Christian and animist south, a breakthrough agreement was signed in September 2002 on the possible post-war structure of military and security forces based on the coexistence of Government and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Contentious and difficult issues remain including power and wealth sharing of southern oil resources and relations between the three regions of the vast country. The United States has sought to facilitate the negotiations by offering to remove sanctions on the Government and outlining goals to help integrate the south into the postwar polity. The parties have agreed the south will have a six-year period of self-rule before holding a referendum on whether to remain part of the country or become independent. Both sides are eager to develop the oil potential of the south.

On an October 21 visit to the Kenyan site of the negotiations, Secretary of State Colin Powell noted several of the remaining issues to be resolved. He said they include the future role of SPLA leader John Garang, the future make-up of Parliament, the creation of a non-Muslim enclave in the capital, and wealth sharing to give the south and other regions appropriate portions of oil revenue. Achieving these goals will be difficult, but an honest effort is being made to do so.

Peace came to Angola in April 22, 2002 following the February 2002 death of UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi. Among Angola's many postwar problems are the reintegration of almost 100,000 former UNITA fighters into the society and the resettlement of four million displaced refugees and preparing for 2004 elections. The UN is playing an important postwar role in the resettlement and feeding effort, but the two formerly warring sides are talking face- to- face without outside involvement.

Peace came to Sierra Leone in 2002 after a barbaric war. Elections were held on May 14, 2002 in what the May 18, 2002 Economist magazine called “an atmosphere of near-miraculous calm."  Reintegration into the society of some 65,000 fighters on all sides of the conflict, including child soldiers, is proceeding. Refugees are returning. The UN has some 17,500 peacekeepers in the country, but Sierra Leone appears to have had enough of war.

Liberia is a more complex case. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) forces in ECOMIL have largely restored order in Monrovia but roving anarchic bands remain in control of rural areas.

The brutal 1999-2003 rule of Charles Taylor followed the equally brutal 1980-1996 rule of Samuel Doe. Beyond terrorizing the Liberian people, Taylor interfered in Sierra Leone. Liberian rebel factions rose against his rule but the West African governments of ECOWAS led by Nigeria took the initiative to attempt to remove Taylor from power. US logistical help was crucial in the formation of the ECOWAS military intervention force, ECOMIL. ECOMIL began operations on October 1, 2003, and is expected eventually to number 3600 men. In addition to deploying some of its troops in Monrovia, Nigeria has provided a place of exile for Taylor where he will doubtless be closely watched.

A two-year transitional government was formed in Liberia on October 14. It faces humanitarian issues of many types plus the problems of extending central government authority into rebel-controlled rural areas. However, there is relative peace.

There is temporary peace in Cote d'Ivoire but the country remains combustible. Conflict continues in Chad, the Central African Republic, Uganda, and Burundi. Zimbabwe continues its downward spiral.

However, conflict has been averted or diminished in an increasing number of nations such as Madagascar, Mozambique, Zambia and Kenya.

It can be hoped the ambitious and hopeful New Partnership for Africa (NEPAD) launched in 2001 and backed by South African President Mbeki among other sponsors and endorsed by the 2002 African Union Summit may be a portent of things to come. NEPAD has many large even grandiose goals but its core purpose is to promote long-term political change. It proposes entrenching the rule of law and the promotion of good governance and effective business codes including attacking corruption. NEPAD includes a system of peer-review whereby governments will voluntarily submit to criticism by fellow Africans according to commonly accepted standards. A small group of eminent personages has been proposed to undertake studies that would report on the political and economic policies of NEPAD signatories. The hope is that good performers would be favored in the aid, trade and investment policies of foreign interests.

Mbeki has indicated uncertainty over what enforcement mechanisms NEPAD should have in order to deal with malefactors and it seems likely greater reliance will be put on carrots rather than sticks.

Sustaining and supporting apparently developing African interest in promoting good governance, transparency, clean banking and legal systems is consonant with the objectives of the US African Growth and Opportunity Act.

The United States will have daunting challenges in meeting its own objectives in the coming age of oil development. Such development will typically take pace in areas now often ruled by authoritarian and often rapacioUS regimes including Equatorial Africa, Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, Sao Tome and Principe, Namibia, The Central African Republic, Mozambique, Togo and  Chad. However, the World Bank has undertaken an interesting example of what it hopes might become a model of how oil firms might function in unstable areas of Africa. The World Bank has joined a consortium led by Exxon-Mobil to develop oil in Chad. Under the Bank's insistence, profits from oil will not go directly to the Chad Government. Instead, the money will go to an offshore account. To gain access to it the Chad Government  will need consent  from an independent committee which must co-sign all checks and will do so  only if the Government agrees to spends the money on health, education or basic infrastructure.

It is too soon to know how and whether this system will work in Chad or whether it is a viable model for oil development elsewhere. However, it can provide useful political cover for oil firms and it can provide an equally useeful mechanism for U.S. and World Bank cooperation to advance governance, transparency and legitimating goals.

To sum up, Africa has already gone through difficult times in the post-colonial era and difficult times lie ahead especially in confronting the HIV/AIDS pandemic. While undeniable though spotty progress has taken place, poverty, stunted political and economic development, limited educational opportunities, health issues other than HIV/AIDS, the threat of terrorism, growing Muslim assertiveness, continuing ethnic and regional issues, and a host of  other problems are twenty-first century challenges.

The possibility of new wealth arising from oil and gas exploitation is intriguing but oil wealth has been shown elsewhere to be a mixed blessing and the wealth is typically mal-distributed. Africa will continue to need the valuable help of the United Nations system. The United States can help but the solution of African problems will depend on the Africans themselves. There are signs of development of the capacity to do so.

I have ended on a mildly optimistic note in this analysis of Africa’s problems and prospects. Africa is typically viewed with more pessimism than I think it deserves. Reporting on Africa is episodic and bad news is what gets reported. There is certainly lots of that. Yet, looking back to the 1960s any objective assessment needs to take into account the fact that progress has been made.

Returning to the framework for analysis I outlined earlier:

1) Prospects for Peace? Tentatively improving.

2) Prospects for African Solutions of African Problems?  Growing.

3) Opportunities for Help by Outside Forces, Including the UN and the US
The UN is providing essential food, health, educational, peacekeeping and other support. The UN-sponsored Millennium Challenge Account has the potential for mobilizing significantly greater assistance and investment assets for Africa. The United States supports the Millennium Challenge Account and President Bush has stated a goal of providing a five-year $US 15 billion program for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria abatement. Additionally, the US African Growth and Opportunity Act has USeful guidelines for the promotion of better governance and transparency. European Union help for Africa can be improved.

4) The United States and Africa and the Globalized Economy? US-African trade is already significant despite the low level of overall African trade. Prospects for further trade improvement appear bright. US investment lags but should improve as African observance of WTO business, banking, and legal norms develop.

5) The Promise and Peril of African Hydrocarbon Development? This is an imponderable. To the extent that the development of African hydrocarbons is accompanied by better governance and transparency, prospects are bright. Lacking these elements, hydrocarbon development will present staggering politico-economic-social problems that may precipitate continuing instability and conflict.

Assessment?  African challenges in the coming century will be daunting, but an objective assessment indicates a tentative possibility that the challenges may be met.


Ambassador Palmer decided to become a diplomat as a teenager in 1948 when Dr. Ralph Bunche was appointed to negotiate an end to the first Arab-Israeli war. The author served as U. S. ambassador to Togo, Malaysia, and Mauritania, retiring from the career Foreign Service in 1989.

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