“The US was slow but is waking up to Africa’s potential”

News & Analysis

“The US was slow but is waking up to Africa’s potential”

The US Ambassador to the African Union, Reuben Brigety, says his country is now waking up to Africa’s serious economic potential which goes beyond just petrol. “It is fair to say that the United States was slow, and so was our private sector, to the opportunities in Africa. However, when we catch on, we tend to catch on,” he tells New African’s Darren Moore from the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.

New African: In the last decade, Africa’s economic relations have changed dramatically. Trade with China, and other emerging powers, is now strong and traditional partners have fallen behind. How successful are initiatives like the US-Africa Summit in enabling the US to catch up?

Reuben Brigety: The summit went a long way to reintroduce and rebrand Africa to the American business community, which answers the question you raised about the nature of US business ties with Africa vis-à-vis those of the East. The US has always been very heavily engaged in Africa but I think it is fair to say that from WWII, like most of our international allies around the world, Africa was seen mostly through the prism of the Cold War, and then after the end of the Cold War, it was mostly from a development and assistance perspective.

But you can never underestimate the amount of sheer effort that went into those things like PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief), which saved millions of lives, or the long-term engagement of our development assistance programmes, both formally through USAID and with our longstanding Peace Corps commitment. My father was actually one of the first volunteers in Operation Crossroads Africa in what is now Zambia in 1964, when he was a student at Moorehouse College.

The US-Africa leadership summit was an epic success, and that is not only from the perspective of the United States, we have also heard it from all of our African partners, both at the highest levels of the African Union Commission and from other African foreign ministers and heads of states. To be frank, going into the summit, there was a fair amount of scepticism from our African colleagues about what exactly it was all about and what was really going to happen.

I know from our side there was a great deal of nervousness about pulling off something meaningful. But I think all doubts were answered on all sides and not simply from the perspective of the political signal that it sent – that the president of the United States is serious about our future engagements with Africa – but also because half the conference was dedicated to economic matters. I was the president of the summit, so I can tell you that I have never seen our government pull off anything like that before

Q: Your country has sustained these links for a long time. What is new?

A: What is new is that the US is really waking up to Africa’s serious economic potential going beyond simply petrochemicals. In fact it started with AGOA in 2001 and crucially also with the Millenium Challenge Corporation, and there is an opening up of our thinking about development assistance and the importance of making investments that will lead to a more conducive business environment, which in turn will lead to a private sector-led economic growth. This is the page I think we are currently on.

Concerning our Far Eastern colleagues, I would say that the fundamental difference between China and the United States is that because our private sector is truly private, we have to do a much better job at convincing American companies to come to Africa. We tell them you can do business in Africa, you can make money, your investment will be safe, and by doing so it is not only in your economic interest as a private company but also in the sustained political interest of the United States.

Such engagements are also in the interests of Africa. And I can tell you frankly, just from where I sit, that we are constantly getting more and more queries from American companies that want to do business in Africa. They would say, “We hear there is something happening in Africa, how do we get engaged?” I think that is a very positive sign.

Q: Is the US encouraging more American companies operating outside the traditional extractive industries to invest into Africa? Will we see more of this over the coming decade?

A: Absolutely. I think it is fair to say that the United States was slow, our private sector was slow, to the opportunities in Africa. But the thing about the United States is that we might be slow but when we catch on, we tend to catch on. That is true across the board in every single sector.

So I personally envisioned a fundamentally different economic landscape in Africa, in the nature of the economic relationship between Africa and the United States in the course of the next decade. And I am not just saying this from my own personal experience.

Back in November, I gave a keynote speech at a conference that the US Department of Commerce organised in Atlanta about doing business in Africa. We had 400 different companies present, and I spoke to about 500 executives from every single sector across the United States, from textiles to wine- making to healthcare products and manufacturing – they had a lot of interest in Africa.

As an example of the shape of things to come, the Corporate Council for Africa will be hosting a major conference here in Addis in October for the African-American companies that are interested in Africa’s infrastructural sector. So American participation in Africa is really building a head of steam, and I predict that in the next year or two you will see a big difference.

However, what I say to our African colleagues all the time is that the story of Africa rising is not inevitable, that there are steps that they have to take in order to maintain a conducive environment for private sector-led growth. Because, as one former American private equity banker said to me once, “capital is cowardly and when you have a global market where people have all sorts of opportunities to place their money and make money, they will place their money where they will make money safely.”

Their interest for doing business in Africa is not for the sake of African development. Their interest is business, and if Africa creates an environment where businesses can come and get a return in beneficiated goods, not extractives, business people will come and engage. American oil companies have been engaged in Africa for decades, so that is obvious. The real question is, can we have more developed markets? I think the African Union is playing a very important role in that.

Q: Has AGOA accomplished its key fundamentals and what is your take on the extension of the Act?

A: We know that AGOA has helped to increase trading between the United States and Africa. Particularly in non-petroleum sectors, the numbers have doubled in the course of the last 15 years. The problem is that they have doubled from a very low number, from a very low base, and what the debate around AGOA tells us, and we are looking at it, is that preferential access to the American market is not enough in itself to stimulate African industrial bases and light manufacturing.

Regarding the extension of AGOA, President Obama and his administration are solidly behind that decision. The administration has raised the issue with Congress. We are hopeful that Congress will extend AGOA and will do so in a timely manner so that nothing is disrupted. But what I think everybody recognises on both sides of the equation is that it is not going to be easy. It is not likely to be an extension of AGOA as it previously existed. We have to collectively figure out how we can actually use preferential access to the American market better to further stimulate not simply trade but also indigenous industrial capacity for finished goods. Again that is something we can help with and are eager to do, but there are many things Africans need to figure out themselves.

Q: The new AU chairman, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, was inaugurated at the AU summit at the end of January. There were some claims that the appointment could have a negative impact and put off foreign investors. What is your take on this?

A: Look, the African Union, like any other organisation is free to choose its leaders and we will do our best to work constructively with whomever the AU members choose, including President Mugabe, notwithstanding the state of bilateral relations between Zimbabwe and the United States.

We watch closely what the AU member states do, and I think there was a clear consensus amongst the vast majority of them that private sector-led growth and investment is the way to go. I mean even Zimbabwe knows that they need it. They are constantly asking for it.

Rhetoric is important I have to say, because again, most business people do not spend the same amount of time engaging in the nuances of politics as professional diplomats or long-time observers of the continent do. So if all they hear on occasion is not positive things about Westerners, generally speaking, who knows how that factors into their calculus.

Q: What exactly does your mission at the AU do?

A: Everything we do at the United States mission at the African Union is to demonstrate that the United States is a natural partner of choice for Africa. We believe that strongly. Whether it be our common cultural or historical links, some painful, some positive, because we believe strongly in the private sector-led economic growth model that is increasingly being accepted by most African states; whether it be because of the nature of our partnership with African states in matters of peace and  security, we believe the large diaspora of not only African citizens but of people like myself, people of African descent in the United States, have a role to play.

We believe strongly in strengthening these linkages, but we also believe that when we talk about democracy and good governance, it is not a matter of ideology because in our experience democracy works not only for organisations and society but it also works for the development of economies. And we are here to work with our African partners in all this.

Q: Security concerns play a central role in Africa-US relations. How successful has the Obama administration been in addressing its security concerns in Africa while also building the security capacity for individual states? Have those principles been successfully merged?

A: Absolutely. In fact I think the important thing to recognise is, the principles you talk about have been developed and married not so much because they are US government policy, but because they are Africa’s policy. For example, 10 or 15 years ago, when we had security conversations with our African colleagues and raised the importance of terrorism, the argument that came back to us from most of them was “why are you Americans always obsessed with terrorism, why are you not concerned about things that we are concerned about, be it economic development or wildlife poaching?”

But now terrorism is at the top of the security agenda of African states themselves. I have just come back from the Seychelles where the AU hosted a summit on maritime security in Africa because the continent is serious about finding ways to secure its maritime domain in order to stop both piracy at sea and theft at sea. This will enable Africa to develop the so-called blue economy, which includes fishing and tourism. And we worked very closely with them on that.

Q: What other joint programmes have Africa and the US worked on?

A: We have long had a programme called DECODA to develop African peacekeeping capacity. That programme has been further developed by the African Partnership for Rapid Response. The goal is to further develop about 6 African militaries that have consistently been engaged in peacekeeping operations.

We do all this not only because of the security threats against the United States but also the threats against Africa and Africans themselves. I mean, Al Shabaab and Boko Haram are killing Africans more than they are killing Americans, and one of the things we are impressed with as a government is the declaration that came out of the AU summit a year ago to silence guns in Africa by 2020.

It is a bold statement and may be a difficult one to achieve. We may not get there by 2020 but by setting it as a political marker, it becomes an organising principle for the continent. It also gives partners and other Africans something to hang on. The AU recognises that the biggest detractor to economic growth anywhere in the world is warfare, and if you can’t find a way to secure your environment then you can’t have economic growth.

The AU also recognises the reverse, that is, you have to have economic growth in order to create incentives for young people who would otherwise engage in violent activities. So it is a long way of saying that we are continuing to engage our African partners in matters of peace and security. It is not simply an American agenda, it is increasingly an African agenda that is driving matters, as it should be, and we are going to be partners in that regard.

Q: Some of Africa’s most dynamic economies, like Ethiopia, aren’t based on extractives. What do you make of this development?

A: Whether a state has large numbers of natural resources that can be exploited or whether they don’t, can be either a very positive or negative issue. The real issue is governance and how they choose to deal with it. For example, countries like Ethiopia have faced the same developmental choices as South Korea did 40 years ago. So you have very little natural resources, so what are you going to do?

In fact, what others call a resource course can force you to actually invest in your people as opposed to natural resources. As I said earlier, the narrative of Africa rising is not inevitable. Conversely, in a country like Mozambique, which has just discovered massive gas fields off its coast, whether or not it joins the EITI and goes more the way of Ghana than the way of Nigeria in terms of how it manages these resources for the public good, is entirely a decision for the Mozambican people.

Our view as a government is to engage all of our colleagues in Africa. If you have natural resources for the extractive industry, then they have to be developed in a way that is transparent, whether it be oil or gas, or diamonds or mineral processing.

You have to find ways to broaden your economic base beyond the extractives, and we are eager to work with all of our African colleagues to help them do that. That is why things like AGOA or our trade hubs were actually designed to develop indigenous African manufacturing capacity to boost intra-African trade. I am bullish about the future of Africa. I think it is a rich continent and we have a burgeoning young population that wants a future different from their past.

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