Coup in Guinea - Rethinking American influence in Africa
By John Cassidy
On September 5th, Guinean army special forces besieged the presidential palace, detaining president Alpha Conde amid a fierce gun battle and declaring the nation’s constitution suspended. The group has since revealed a “transitional charter” that they say will lead to eventual civilian rule over the country again. Despite calls from the global community for his release, Conde remains in custody of the army, who say that he abused his power and was no longer fit to rule. Conde was the nation's first democratically elected president, taking office in 2010. After two terms in office, he attempted to remain in power for a third in 2020 by altering the constitution, a controversial move that sparked large-scale protests, condemnation from the political opposition, and ultimately led to his removal from power. As Guinea's new junta nears its second month of control over the nation, the situation has highlighted the growing instability of governments in Sub-Saharan Africa, fueled by ineffective aid policies and a rise in non-democratic regimes supported by China and other foreign actors. The United States cannot afford to repeat its policy of ‘sporadic interest’ in the continent. A change needs to be made in how it addresses African challenges, and the threat China poses to democratic interests on the continent.
The coup represents the third instance of violence being used recently to interfere in the democratic process in the region. The crisis in Guinea is a symptom of the growing divide in Africa between democratic governments backed by the United States, and totalitarian or authoritarian governments receiving support from other actors, primarily China. Critics argue the U.S. needs to invest more resources in the region to help stabilize governments and oppose Chinese influence. On the contrary, higher levels of direct involvement are not the answer. Decades of development aid and other governmental assistance have failed to produce more than a handful of fully-functioning, independent democracies in the region. In Guinea, United States involvement bears a degree of responsibility for the coup, as the soldiers of the current ruling junta were trained and equipped by U.S. special forces before they took power. While many Americans view this as an unfortunate coincidence, it is also reminiscent of past American interventions across the globe, many of which were not popular among the global community. In the interest of maintaining relations in the region, The United States needs to be careful in how it involves itself in African domestic affairs, a heavy-handed approach could alienate current and potential strategic partners that represent a crucial element of countering growing Chinese influence.
This is not to say that America should completely withdraw itself from Africa.
Instead of relying on development aid to combat Chinese influence, the Biden administration needs to rethink its foreign policy in Africa if it wants to have a meaningful impact on the continent and mitigate China. It cannot afford to follow in the path of its predecessors, giving fragmented attention to the region only when national security or popular attention from the media demand it. African nations should not be treated as bystanders to the global competition between China and America. Instead they should be viewed as partners capable of advancing democratic interests and ripe for private sector investment into their industries and markets. Instead of lavishing aid upon Guinea and other African countries, the Biden administration should encourage private-sector investment in these nations to spur development and commercial ties between the United States and Africa. At the same time it should look to decrease American military presence in the region. Chinese efforts to expand influence on the continent have been tremendously successful, mostly because they offer African governments more than the U.S. has been willing to when it comes to loans and other financial assistance in developing infrastructure. Much of the American focus on the region is in the context of anti-terrorism and establishing stable democratic governments, a view that could be considered ineffective, given recent backsliding of democratic governments in the region in addition to the continues growth of Chinese influence.
Private investment from foreign businesses, also known as foreign direct investments (FDI), could prove to be an effective measure to not only stabilize government in the region, but also improve the quality of life for Africans. Investments by foreign companies provide services, goods, jobs, and circulate money through the economy as money is invested into existing businesses or new ventures are created from the ground up. Effective FDI can play a major role in providing infrastructure and opportunities for gainful employment to the wider population. Higher levels of employment help to improve quality of life for more citizens, stimulate the economy and increase government revenues through taxation. The key to stabilization in any country is the improvement of quality of life, which hinges on the development of infrastructure and job opportunities. Chinese efforts to increase their influence have been so successful in part due to their use of FDI in large-scale infrastructure projects, which provide jobs and training to the public, and revenue to the state. Another facet of their strategy is the carefully cultivated relationship between African heads of state and Chinese politicians and bureaucrats. The Chinese understand that they need to approach African governments as equal partners, not as a superior nation rendering aid to a weaker country. Their understanding has helped them to wield greater influence in Africa, strengthening ties between these nations and Beijing.
If the United States can learn from China’s strategy, it could go a long way towards combating Chinese influence in Africa. Promoting meaningful bilateral relations between African nations and the United States is crucial to maintaining democratic values and stability not just in West Africa, but the continent as a whole. These meaningful relations begin with partnership, not patronage. This should be the basis for relations with not just African nations, but all U.S. partners across the globe. Coupled with economic ties through FDI, the Biden administration has a unique opportunity to strengthen ties with global partners. The United States doesn’t need to spend more money on aid or other development, it simply needs to change the way it contributes.