President Obama’s recently announced $7 billion "Power Africa" investment follows a long tradition of presidential offerings to the continent, including Clinton’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Obama’s plan to create a desperately needed electrical grid infrastructure for Sub-Saharan African nations is a far more practical strategy that will significantly affect quality of life, flourishing industries, and future partnerships in the continent.
Some Americans would prefer to see the money spent domestically, on scientific research, education reform, health care, or even our own infrastructure. But investments in Africa don’t fall into an either/or with our domestic budget — it’s in our long-term interests to forge partnerships in the region that can lead to economic trade, resources, military stability, etc.
But what exactly are we investing in? Which countries are being cherry picked, and for what reason? Will the partnerships we forge last, or fall victim to opportunistic and corrupt governments? Will the gift of electricity outweigh the contributions China is making to gain its own foothold in the continent’s rich resources?
The varying tribes, cultures, topographies, languages and industries spread across Africa make it hard to predict the future and create long-term enterprises. It’s particularly telling that Northern Africa (which has the continent’s largest Muslim population) has been starkly ignored in this investment plan. But what are the political structures of our other numerous future partners?
Among the initial recipients of cash are Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania, and Kenya.
Nigeria is English speaking, and the most populated country in Africa with a population well over 160 million. It has an astonishing amount of oil wealth, but is also one of the most corrupt countries on the planet. Shell Oil and the Nigerian government have been repeatedly accused of devastating the environment with spills, contamination, and pollution. Moreover, very little of the money gained from extracting oil has made it back into the hands of Nigerian citizens, squandering an opportunity to make it an economic, educational, and infrastructural powerhouse.
Ethiopia is culturally unique in a lot of ways, including having never been colonized by a European nation. It has a large population, but suffers from devastating poverty due to a poorly developed agricultural economy. Despite this, it exerts political influence both internationally, and across the African continent, sitting at the head of several unions, partnerships, and development programs. The native Amharic language is also one of the only written dialects to originate on the African continent.
Ghana is another English speaking country, and though it’s not particularly populous or wealthy, it has an admirably successful and flourishing democracy. A combination of great governance, a burgeoning middle class, and a rapidly growing economy make Ghana among the best of partnership options.
Tanzania and Kenya have been listed as partners, but could be grouped with Uganda to form the “East Africa” region. All three share Swahili culture, the English language, a history of British colonialism, and strong economic partnerships. Kenya draws safari tourism due to its lush nature and abundant wildlife. The main city of Nairobi offers a strong cosmopolitan life, and though the country has a history of periodic violence, it is among the more stable of the region. Tanzania is geographically vast, offering various agricultural communities, but its main city of Dar Es Salaam also acts as a cultural hub and home to the wealthy.
(It’s worth noting that Uganda has had a bloody history under the dictator Idi Amin and shared borders with countries at war, but has been a stable nation lately. Though they have also recently discovered oil under their lakes, so the economy of the nation could rapidly change.)
Other countries with notable influence on the continent that haven’t been mentioned in this development plan include:
South Africa, which is by far the strongest economic goliath in the region, with a significantly higher standard of living than any other African nation – though run by a notoriously incompetent and rooted government. South Africa also informally controls Namibia and Botswana as practical satellite states, due to reflective white communities and interdependent industries, such as diamonds, minerals and metals.
Democratic Republic of Congo is a huge, unmanageable, resource-rich nation perpetually on the brink of war, offering several unexplored territories and an ever-increasing population.
Mali’s geography sits within the Saharan desert, but has substantial wealth in gold and mineral resources. Its culturally rich music and art scene has been attacked by nomadic Muslim tribesmen who have utilized Libyan arms to attack from the north.
Angola is a Portuguese-speaking nation with a history of bloody warfare. Its current economic stability and development in offshore oil, has been heavily backed by Brazil and China. There is a significant class divide between the wealthy economic elite, and the underdeveloped majority.
If we include the Middle East-oriented North of Africa, we can see that even without the influence of America, China, India, and Brazil, the continent has a considerable mix of its own political, tribal, linguistic and economic hurdles to overcome before stable development can be guaranteed. Investing in the electrical grid system, is a targeted and smart approach to create partnerships, as the nations in question will only be able to spend the money on American-produced technology. This essentially means, we will be loaning the African nations money to spend on our own products, and expecting them to pay back the loan in the long term as well.
This "Power Africa" partnership could truly put Africa on the road to progress, and in turn guarantee us a new list of grateful allied nations. Alternatively, it could feed the coffers of various corrupt political bodies, and cripple nations into a debt obligation that will ensure they don’t show too much affection toward the encroachments of Chinese, Brazilian, or Indian influence.