The Hegemon and the Forgotten Continent: East Africa


In May of 2014, I spent three weeks in Kenya. Anyone who has been to East Africa will tell you that it is both beautiful and terrible, a paradoxical synthesis of kindness and ruthlessness, progress and traditionalism, capitalism and political control. It contains some of the fastest-growing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa, but also a surprising amount of stagnation and violence. Interestingly, it also contains some of the United States’ strongest African partners as well as some of its most committed opponents. As a result, East Africa will play a large role in U.S. diplomatic relations with Africa in the coming decades.

The major countries of East Africa, minus one: Sudan was split in 2011, with the new country of South Sudan encompassing about 1/3 of Sudan’s southernmost territory. East Africa contains the headwaters of the Nile and encompasses steaming jungles as well as barren deserts.

The major countries of East Africa, minus one: Sudan was split in 2011, with the new country of South Sudan encompassing about 1/3 of Sudan’s southernmost territory. East Africa contains the headwaters of the Nile and encompasses steaming jungles as well as barren deserts.

The region of East Africa is the collection of countries surrounding the “Horn of Africa” (the farthest east point in mainland Africa—see map). The region roughly comprises seven countries: Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, and Tanzania. These countries are bound by shared historical ties and modern trade agreements, as well as some tribal links, but much divides them as well. The northern nations—Ethiopia and Somalia—are home to primarily “Semitic-Hamitic” peoples, relatives of the Arabs and Jews, while the southern nations—Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi—are dominated by Bantu ethnic groups, who originated in West Africa. Kenya and Uganda in the middle include ethnic groups from all these backgrounds and more, which sometimes contributes to severe tribal conflict. In fact, in 2007-08 Kenya was rocked by massive ethnic warfare which killed more than 1,000 people after a universally criticized national election. However, for the most part, these parties have learned to coexist peacefully, if uneasily.

Because of this and other conflicts, one of the major U.S. priorities in the area is combating violence. Genocide in Burundi in 1972 and Rwanda in 1994 brought U.S. aid to Africa in a time when that was a rare event. Continuing this trend, the United States helped fund UN peacekeeping troops during the Kenyan crisis in 2008, provided a small military force to help Uganda combat international war criminal Joseph Kony in 2012, and sent military advisors to Somalia to help the government fight a 22-year-old civil war in 2013. These efforts to combat violence will most likely continue, as they help meet two U.S. goals: (1) decrease the likelihood of terrorist violence against U.S. citizens by fighting terrorist groups at their genesis and (2) promote international development by minimalizing violence.

On a similar note, the United States has committed significant resources to promote economic development in East Africa. A wide variety of U.S.-affiliated groups have operations there, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the State Department, the Peace Corps, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the US military, and other non-profit groups. The focus on East Africa is not without reason—it is the suspected birthplace of Ebola and home to the biggest slum in the world, Kibera. Projects include emergency relief for famine, health centers to combat HIV/AIDS, military training, poverty-reducing campaigns, and much more. Partly as a result of this, East Africans tend to view the United States positively—up to 70% in Kenya and almost 80% in Uganda, for example.

Along with economic development aid, the United States has a growing trade investment in East Africa. In August 2014, President Obama met with heads of state from across Africa to promote U.S.-African trade, demonstrating a renewed commitment to the forgotten continent. But despite recent efforts, trade with East Africa still totals less than 1% of all U.S. foreign trade. Several U.S. trade policies have helped increase this number in the past two decades, including a pan-Africa trade policy and a specific agreement with East African countries. This may not increase trade drastically in the near future because of infrastructure and security challenges; but coupled with new innovations in mobile banking commerce with the area, it will probably continue its steady increase.

Ideological battles also occupy an unusually significant place in U.S.-East Africa relations. The Islamic terrorist group Al-Shabab has been fighting for control of Somalia for over a decade, claiming that Western countries are corrupting African nations and that Somalia needs to be free of any entanglement with the United States. While the group has not yet targeted left East Africa, they have struck Western-affiliated locations such as the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya. In another ideological battle, that of human rights, the United States and Uganda have argued bitterly over Uganda’s recent legislation increasing punishment for same-sex relations. It was struck down by the nation’s highest court, but most of the region’s countries still have similar laws against homosexuality and resent the United States’ heavy hand pushing for change.

Kenya EducationGiven this relationship with the region, the United States can do three major things to improve the role it plays in East Africa. First, it can divert some development money—like USAID—from short-term programs like food provision or well building to long-term education-focused programs. Educating both adults and children will help reduce violence and stimulate economies much more over the long-term. Second, the United States should focus some State Department resources on East Africa-specific problems, such as helping the region unite to resolve the civil war in Somalia; this will help reduce violence and terrorism, which no country in the region wants. Third, U.S. policy should leverage the region’s reputation for innovation—especially in the financial sector—to encourage U.S. investment in small businesses in the region; this should include frameworks to ensure that borrowers are treated responsibly.  These strategies will help accomplish long-term U.S. goals with the region.

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