The African Union-United States Partnership: How America is Helping Africa Develop

Harshana Ghoorhoo
Staff Writer

In March 2019, Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations held its fourth spring break African Union study seminar to Ethiopia. On the trip, a group of students had the opportunity to attend lectures and engage in conversations with high-ranking officials in the capital city of Addis Ababa.

These events included a talk with the U.S. Ambassador to the African Union, Mary Beth Leonard, and other officials at the U.S. Embassy. Students also visited the headquarters of the African Union (AU), the only continent-wide organization in Africa, and met with representatives from several of its departments.

Because of their experiences on the trip, the students gained a better understanding of how the U.S.-AU partnership operates, what makes this collaboration so vital, and how it advances the AU’s agenda of peace and security as Africa develops and conducts international outreach.

As Africa’s only continental union to include all 55 African countries, the AU has become a vital point of contact for those attempting to create partnerships on the continent. The motives of those attempting to create these partnerships can range from providing humanitarian assistance to forging trade relations with African nations.

During the different lectures, students were taken through the history of the AU and how it transitioned from creating these partnerships to expanding on them a global scale.

The African Union has origins in its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which was established in 1963. Launched by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie with 32 founding member states, the OAU’s principal goals were promoting of unity and solidarity among African states, safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states, and obliterating colonization and apartheid from the continent.

As the continent evolved throughout the 1990s, African leaders debated the need to amend the OAU’s structures to combat the challenges of a changing world. Consequently, OAU Heads of States called for the establishment of a new African Union in the 1999 Sirte Declaration, and following multiple amendments, the organization was finally launched in 2002. While some of the goals of the AU were the same as the OAU, the new organization promised to be significantly different in its mission.

According to BBC News, the Executive Council of the AU substituted the old OAU principle of non-interference, which prevented the OAU from intervening in any manner in member states, with one of “non-indifference,” which authorizes the AU to deploy its military forces to member states where genocide and crimes against humanity are being committed.

It also allows the establishment of peacekeeping missions across the continent, such as the ongoing African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). This change in doctrine gives the AU access across national borders in order to deter terrorist activities and prevent genocide crimes.

With most African states having achieved independence and South Africa ending its apartheid regime in 1994, the mandate to rid the continent of colonization and apartheid has expanded to include the protection of human rights.

Today, the AU addresses issues of promoting African economic development, integration, and democratic principles and institutions. According to the African Union website, the AU is navigated by its vision of “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena.”

Recently, the AU has created strategic partnerships with a number of partners on a continent-to-continent basis and continent-to-country basis. The African Union says that regional organization (continent-to-country) partnerships include accords with the European Union and South America Cooperation Forum, while continent-to-country based partnerships include the African Union Commission, United States of America High-Level Dialogue, and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.

These partnerships have evolved from donor-recipient relationships to mutually beneficial ones wherein the interests of both parties concerned are promoted.

Among these various partnerships, the AU-U.S. relationship remains highly influential, as the U.S. plays a significant role in helping the AU advance its agenda. During a lecture at the U.S. Embassy, Ambassador Leonard spoke about the AU vision and how the United States aims to help Africa take control of its economic and political future.

Ambassador Leonard said that this can be achieved through the dissemination and amalgamation of best practices across the four pillars of U.S. focus in the AU; peace and security, democracy and governance, economic development, and economic opportunity.

The U.S. has been an important partner to the AU since the organization’s beginning. It was the first non-African country to establish a separate diplomatic mission to the AU, the U.S. Mission to the African Union (USAU), which opened in December 2006. According to the USAU website, the primary purpose of the mission is to collaborate with the AU to advance the four pillars of focus, which the U.S. believes to be vital to the development of Africa.

The AU and U.S. held an inaugural high-level meeting in 2010 as a platform to bring together ministerial-level officials. To further strengthen their working relationship, the African Union Commission (AUC) and United States Department of State signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2013. This document formalized cooperation on issues pertaining to the four pillars.

In recent years, the USAU has been working steadily to promote the pillar dealing with peace and security. Ambassador Leonard explained that American support for peace and security includes assistance programs wherein the U.S. helps stabilize regions of conflict and prevents the spread of terrorism.

Ethiopia, the largest force contributor in Africa, is a major partner in the U.S.’s mission to help to stabilize East Africa. The U.S. also provides training in technical, military, health, human rights, and organizational management fields. The Ambassador also described the status of security cooperation with Ethiopia as “wonderful,” and said that “the amount of security cooperation has doubled since last year.”

The PSC, which is the main pillar of the African Peace and Security Architecture, decides on matters relating to peace and security in Africa and works in partnership with international associates, of which the U.S. is the most important.

Given the increased complexity of conflict drivers and the transnational impact of armed conflicts in Africa, cooperation between U.S. military forces and the PSC is essential in effectively halting the spread of terrorism and ethnic conflict.

According to the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), the U.S. Army Africa’s main objectives are to strengthen the land force capabilities of African states, execute missions, and perform well-structured actions to establish a safe environment and protect the national security interests of the United States.

In providing military support, the U.S. helps the AU advance its agenda of creating a protection sphere around African citizens and ridding the continent of ethnic violence and terrorism.

Undoubtedly, an important component of the partnership is bringing mutual benefits for both partners. Where the AU benefits from funds and the diffusion of knowledge to its various departments, the U.S., alongside completing humanitarian work, also preserves its national security interests and trading capacity with Africa.

Within the field of peace and security, the U.S. and AU collaborate on four main missions along with other support mechanisms. These include the AU-mandated AMISOM, the Multinational Joint Task Force in Nigeria, the 2016-2030 Maputo Plan of Action, and the G-5 Sahel Joint Force Missions.

AFRICOM also revealed that the U.S. provides more than $1.2 billion in support of AMISOM as well as providing troop equipment, advisory support to tackle terrorist groups, and guidance on how to handle political processes. Another mechanism that the U.S. supports is the Continental Early Warning System (CEWS), which regularly scans and assesses vulnerabilities across the continent to predict potential conflicts.

Along with these measures, the U.S. and Ethiopia conducted a military exercise called the “Justified Accord” (JA) in July 2019 to promote cooperation and partnership between the two countries.

APO Group-Africa Newsroom reports that the U.S. Military, in partnership with the Ethiopia National Defense Force, militaries from 13 countries including France and the United Kingdom, and international organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and the AU, participated in the JA in 2019.

The exercise was specifically designed to improve the potential of staff members and the capacity of African forces in peacekeeping operations to better support the AU Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). Around 1,100 military and government personnel participated in the exercise, and the U.S. government added nearly $6 million to the Ethiopian economy because of the exercises.

U.S. support for the AU’s peacekeeping efforts has helped develop the organization’s efforts. However, a review of the PSC reveals restrictions pertaining to its capabilities.

According to Ambassador Leonard, the African Standby Force (ASF), a mechanism set in place for responding to crises, is not yet fully operational. Because of high levels of corruption and a lack of accountability, the PSC lacks transparency and the capacity to implement flexible solutions. In other words, the AU peacekeeping architecture is incompatible with Africa’s current security climate.

The Ambassador further explained that the levels of risk and casualties are elevated and money assurances remain unguaranteed. As such, some proposed themes of reform are to get the world to finance more of the cost regularly, provided the AU is able to show that it is financially responsible.

Additionally, to agree on predictable financing, African states should show more interest in issues relating to peacekeeping and military assistance, and be held accountable for how the money is used through monitoring and anti-corruption boards.

Another pillar of the AU that the U.S. supports is economic growth, trade, and investment. Pren-Tsilya Boa, an economic officer at the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia, gave a briefing on the economic aspect of the U.S. and AU partnership.

Another American aim is to create an environment in Africa that will bolster trade incentives and promote business overseas. Boa further mentioned that the continent will have the largest youth democracy by 2030, and that there should be an unwavering focus on areas of opportunity for the youth.

American engagement also aims to promote innovation and technology, as it seeks to attract high-tech companies to Africa and increase investment in the continent. These initiatives are meant to build African capacity to export to America, and create an ecosystem where there are viable businesses in Africa to carry out trade with the United States, which will in turn allow for the expansion of the African market and increased productivity.

Trade opportunities between the U.S. and Africa are highly influenced by the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), an American law. According to the International Trade Administration, the AGOA was signed into law in May 2000 by U.S. President George H.W. Bush to offer tangible incentives for African countries to pursue economic expansion and the creation of free markets.

The trade program also enables eligible African countries to export a series of goods, duty-free, to the U.S. This creates an ecosystem where there are viable businesses in Africa to do trade abroad. According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, AGOA imports for 2017 were estimated around $13.8 billion.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) says that the U.S. Administration works in close collaboration with sub-Saharan African countries, overseen by the USTR’s Office of African Affairs, to promote economic development and provide U.S. businesses with incentives to do trade. Research conducted by the Office of African Affairs reveals that the U.S. and sub-Saharan countries traded $39 billion worth of goods in 2017.

Today, within the sphere of economic development, it is unavoidable to talk about trade and market development in Africa without mentioning the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCTFA).

The New York Times reports that in July 2019, African heads of state gathered together to launch a new continent-wide free trade area. It aims to create a single market in an attempt to revolutionize the African market and create opportunities for Africa’s 1.3 billion citizens.

U.S. economic officer Boa spoke of the AfCTFA as the AU’s top trade initiative, which will undoubtedly attract foreign markets and promote intra-African trade. This will also call for more complex goods to be produced in order to increase the money inflow, as there is a need to introduce more advanced goods in the supply chain for the foreign market to expand.

Under the framework of the AfCTFA, USAU held the U.S.-Africa Trade and Investment Forum to facilitate engagement between the U.S. government, the American private sector, and African counterparts. Economic growth, trade, and investment are a priority of USAU, with the pillar focus accounting for 34 percent of the overall initiatives put forth by the Mission.

While the importance of a U.S. presence in Africa cannot be overlooked, other countries have deepened their interest in Africa and have allocated considerable resources to the continent’s development.

According to the European Commission, the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have partnered to invest 10 million euros to provide technical assistance and capacity building to Africa. BBC News says that China paid for a new African Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia at a cost of $200 million.

However, certain critics believe that China is attempting to extend its economic influence in the continent in order to gain access to the continent’s resources. A report by Al Jazeera states that Western governments like the U.S. and UK view China’s involvement in Africa as a cause for concern.

According to them, China is exploiting oil-rich countries like Sudan by gaining the favor of incompetent and corrupt governments while consequently being labeled as a trade opportunist. Nonetheless, African countries seem to trust China because it does not have a prior record of colonial interests in Africa.

According to Ambassador Leonard, while each partnership has its own funding agendas and mechanisms, USAU uses an approach based mostly on interactions, as can be seen through the training and know-how assistance it provides to the continent in collaboration with African counterparts.

The resource and training assistance that the U.S. provides helps strengthen the four pillars of focus around which its partnership with the African Union revolves. Ultimately, U.S. partnerships in Africa are an essential component in helping the continent gain stature on the world stage, pushing internal economic development, and achieving a better quality of life.

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