The United States historically has devoted only sparing attention to African affairs, and that is not likely to change much under the Obama administration. Popular hopes abound in Africa that U.S. President Barack Obama — whose paternal ancestry is Kenyan — will prioritize Africa in his foreign policy. However, whatever Obama’s personal interest in the continent might be, his government will have little time to devote to Africa because it must focus on a number of more pressing concerns — including Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Russia and the global economic crisis — that impinge more directly on core U.S. interests.

African countries, rather, will be determining how their relationships to the United States will be defined under the Obama administration. Three Sub-Saharan African countries in particular — Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa — were regional anchors for Washington’s Africa policy under the Bush administration, but must now re-evaluate Washington’s intentions. Meanwhile, a fourth country, Angola — while not an ally of the United States by any stretch of the imagination — is aiming to become a power broker in Africa on par with Nigeria and South Africa. Each of these four will play a key role in shaping the Obama administration’s options in the region.

South Africa

South Africa has two advantages not shared by most other states on the continent. First, it is at the tip of a peninsula and so only has security concerns to its north; this frees up resources to address other needs. Second, it boasts a climate largely free of the risk of tropical maladies, and a topography that allows for easy agricultural and industrial development, which combine to support long-term economic calculations. These two advantages make South Africa the Sub-Saharan state with the best chances of successfully pursuing development. The country’s robust reserves of various precious metals and diamonds only improve its economic outlook.

South Africa wants to return to its “natural” position as the dominant influence in the southern African region, and it sees an opportunity to do so with the new U.S. administration. The Obama government is looking to South Africa to resolve the power-sharing crisis in neighboring Zimbabwe. While South Africa was also supported by the Bush administration in this role, Obama’s approach differs from that of his predecessor in that the new administration is not calling for regime change in Harare — an approach that failed in 2008. South Africa now has the opportunity to secure its political and commercial interests in Zimbabwe by directly shaping the country’s transition to a post-Mugabe regime. South Africa will then use its gains in Zimbabwe as a springboard not only to secure Washington’s support but also to reassert its influence throughout southern Africa.

Nigeria

Nigeria is a country with artificial boundaries, drawn by British colonial authorities; its territory comprises everything from desert in the North to tropical swamp in the South. In such an unnatural political entity, maintaining central control over 140 million people and 250 tribes has required Nigerian governments to rule with a heavy hand.

Moreover, Nigerian rulers have shown little hesitation to use deadly force or coercion in order to safeguard control over Nigeria’s one critical resource: oil. Nigeria’s key natural asset — found in swampy, difficult-to-occupy terrain in the southern reaches of the country — finances not only the country’s regional influence but also its very survival. Abuja is trying to manage tensions in the volatile and oil-rich Niger Delta region, balancing the country’s interests with those of the region’s dominant Ijaw tribe in order to protect production facilities from militant attacks.

Abuja is also seeking to maintain its influence as a dominant power in West Africa. Its deployment of troops for peacekeeping forces, its banking and commercial interests and its ability to provide oil to neighboring countries are tools Nigeria uses to maintain its sphere of influence.

U.S. and Nigerian interests in the Gulf of Guinea and West Africa largely overlap. Above all, Washington wants two things from Nigeria: oil and a partner in guaranteeing regional security.

Nigeria is the fifth-largest foreign supplier of crude to the United States, and both countries want a stake in nascent energy-producing states Equatorial Guinea and Sao Tome & Principe. Both also want to prevent a return to regionalized conflict in West African states including Sierra Leone and Liberia. Abuja does not, however, want Washington poking its head too far into internal Nigerian politics, calling for improved governance or pushing to reduce corruption.

Given the confluence of interests, the Obama administration will likely support Abuja’s backroom moves to maintain a sphere of influence through West Africa, as well as an initiative to, in effect, buy the temporary loyalty of the Niger Delta region’s Ijaw tribe with a power-sharing agreement.

Ethiopia

Ethiopia is highly mountainous in the center, giving way to stretches of savannah or inhospitable desert in the northern, southern and eastern regions. The seat of government, Addis Ababa, is surrounded by these mountains. While this creates a substantial defensive barrier against foreign (or domestic) attackers, it also makes it difficult for the government to deploy troops to defend against threats on the periphery. As a result, successive Ethiopian governments — including the minority ethnic Tigray regime of current Prime Minister Meles Zenawi — have maintained large standing armies and have tended to rule with strong-arm tactics, in order to occupy peripheral regions and prevent internal and foreign threats from mobilizing and threatening the center. The deployment of large masses of troops to peripheral border regions has also led countries neighboring Ethiopia to feel threatened, in case Addis Ababa should decide extraterritorial intervention is needed to defend the center. Such fears have led countries, including Eritrea and Somalia, to mobilize their own fighters to disrupt Ethiopia’s forward deployments.

For internal security reasons, Ethiopia needs to maintain a forward military posture. This includes positioning troops along and across the border with Somalia to defend against threats that could mobilize from that country. By the same logic, Ethiopia’s threshold for invading a neighboring country is low. Ethiopian and U.S. interests aligned closely during the Bush administration, with Washington giving Addis Ababa a blank check to intervene in Somalia to battle an Islamist insurgency. Continued Ethiopian operations in Somalia could, however, disrupt an ongoing political process aimed at isolating and containing radical Somalian Islamists.

The worry from Addis Ababa is getting caught on the wrong side of the Obama administration in Somalia. While Ethiopia will be measuring closely its relationship with Washington as well as the Obama government’s support of diplomacy in Somalia, Addis Ababa has pulled its troops in Somalia back from frontline positions to garrison towns along the border. The pullback allows Addis Ababa to maintain what are essentially rapid-reaction forces inside Somalia. At the same time, it supports the Somalian political process by blunting the Islamists’ argument that the presence of Ethiopian troops inside Somalia was the motivation for their insurgency.

Angola

Angola is Africa’s seventh-largest country, located in the southwestern part of the continent. It is a lightly populated country, with about 12 million people living in almost 500,000 square miles; this has meant that the reach of the central government, based in the northwestern coastal region, has been limited. Resources — oil and diamonds — found in parts of the country distant from the center have attracted foreign mining interests; sparse central government control in those areas has enabled local leaders to act according to their own interests, which frequently have been in opposition to those of Luanda.

This combination — an expansive geography, lacking in natural barriers against foreign invaders, but holding resources that inspire opposition to central control — has forced Angolan governments to rely heavily on an extensive security apparatus to safeguard their control. When its own capabilities have been threatened by an overwhelming combination of domestic and foreign forces, Luanda has turned to foreign interests (such as Cuba and Russia) to augment its security. Relations between Angola and the United States have never developed particularly strongly, however.

During the Cold War, Washington (as well as South Africa) provided military and economic support to the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebel group, which was fighting for control of the country against the ruling Soviet-allied Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) regime. After the end of the Cold War, however, U.S. support for UNITA waned, and the group collapsed as a fighting force in 2002 after its leader, Jonas Savimbi, was killed on the battlefield.

Since then, the MPLA has been able to consolidate its grip over the country, and has acted as a free agent selling its mineral wealth on the global market to the highest bidder. Angola has become a (relatively) rich state, certainly by African standards, and has only recently dropped its pariah status. Now, Luanda wants to assume a leadership position in Africa commensurate with its wealth and its recent internal consolidation of power.

Although the United States does have interests in developing Angola’s natural resources, Luanda is unlikely to have a significant direct relationship with Washington. Rather, it will be watching very closely the Obama administration’s developing relationship with South Africa. This cooperation — beginning with resolving the crisis in Zimbabwe — could lead to a resurgence in South Africa’s power throughout the region. Luanda’s fear is that this could lead Pretoria to resume the support it provided UNITA (in return for diamond concessions) during the Cold War — and that UNITA could reacquire an insurgent capability and threaten the MPLA regime again.


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