Save for President Donald Trump’s outbursts about “shithole” countries, telling African leaders at a United Nations luncheon that he has many friends going to the continent to “get rich” or when the deaths of two US soldiers in Niger blows the lid somewhat on the extent of US military missions on the continent—we don’t know much about Trump’s “Africa” policy.
Donald Yamamoto, Acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs (the most senior African official in the US State Department) provided us with a peak behind the curtain when he went on NPR on January 2, 2018, to talk about the Trump administration’s position on a range of perceived challenges on the African continent. These seem to be Yamamoto’s first public comments outside of congressional hearings, and they are eye-opening. In the context of Trump’s continuing comments about African immigration, they’re worth listening to. Yamamoto’s comments suggest that there is more than ignorance or racism behind the inflammatory public statements.
In labeling Africa “the final frontier for opportunities,” Yamamoto began the interview articulating what seemed to be a clear theme in the Trump administration’s Africa policies. YALI—the Young African Leaders Initiative—has trained 300,000 young people who are working in communities throughout the continent to mobilize and develop the capacities of the continent’s overwhelming youth population. These same millennials are looking for jobs—jobs that US companies can and should be providing through investment. Those investments, Yamamoto argued, have been profitable for companies like Proctor & Gamble, which found West African markets primed to consume their products. They made huge profits (“millions and billions”, according to Yamamoto) because family members living in the US and Europe had created a demand for these products back home. The undersecretary encourages small US businesses to follow the lead of large companies like Proctor & Gamble and Boeing to seek out opportunities in these untapped African markets—opportunities that would create jobs in the US and in Africa. If we don’t do it, of course, others will—North Korea, Iran, Russia, and China are seeking out minerals in Congo to produce missiles and high-grade drill bits. Those are not only opportunities that we are missing out on, they are opportunities that are benefitting our geopolitical competitors and undermining American interests on the global stage, argued Yamamoto.
It all sounds eerily similar to colonial propaganda programs in the early 20th century. It appears that we’re in the midst of a 21st century “Scramble for Africa.”
There are many issues of concern here—the US State Department providing military training and building military capacity in African countries, over-confident negotiations over leadership and human rights in Ethiopia, homogenizing discourses about the continent, and proxy conflicts over African resources with new “enemies” like North Korea and Iran, among others. But the blatant misrepresentations and seemingly willful historical amnesia should raise huge red flags. In Congo, “we’re not extracting; we’re developing wealth,” Yamamoto argued. Pushing back on questions about the motivations behind US economic investment, Yamamoto insists that “we work with Africa as partners and in that partnership is what we can help them achieve on their own accord [sic]. It’s not something that we are dictating. We’re not. It’s something that they want, that they desire, and that we’re going to help them [achieve].”
Researchers and people living on the continent know this is not true – or at least it’s not as straightforward as Yamamoto makes it seem. The vast mineral wealth of the Congo has not led to “development” or democracy, but rather to extraordinary, privatized regimes of violence, marginalization, exploitation, and environmental degradation. While the US government may not have a direct hand in the violence of places like the Congo today, US-backed trade deals and financial interventions meant to support the interests of US corporations in Silicon Valley and elsewhere have certainly created the conditions for it to thrive. Yamamoto likewise blamed the persistent poverty of oil-producing countries like Nigeria on corruption while ignoring the exploitative contracts and unfair trade conditions imposed by corporations and the long history of resource extraction for the benefit of western industrial development and wealth generation. And then, with a strong mix of hypocrisy and hubris, Yamamoto warns China not to re-indebt African countries because the US just fixed that problem with Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC). Such claims seem particularly galling after even IMF economists publicly acknowledged that the austerity policies pushed through international financial institutions based on US policy models since the 1980s not only failed to produce promised development but also further exacerbated income inequalities.
I don’t know if Yamamoto actually believes the line he’s selling, but as its highest ranking official in charge of African affairs, he is articulating the policies of the Trump/Tillerson State Department. The State Department’s Africa policy rhetoric, which claims to want to empower the continent’s people to address persistent challenges, seems to be disconnected from the reality of craven neoliberal self-interest. The good news? The veil between the two is so thin now that criticisms from scholars and activists on and off the continent no longer seem exaggerated or politically motivated but mere good sense and solid research. The bad news? That doesn’t seem to be deterring anyone.