Africa Union building. Nick Fox/Shutterstock.

Fall 2023

Introduction: Africa Matters, Period

– Oge Onubogu

The Director of the Wilson Center’s Africa Program on this critical moment.

There can no longer be any doubt that Africa matters. As the world’s second-largest and second-most-populous continent, Africa is growing so fast that it is predicted that one in four people on the planet will be African by 2050. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which has been ratified by at least 46 countries and began trading in January 2021, is on the precipice of being the world’s largest free-trade area. It connects 55 countries and eight regional trading blocs with a combined GDP of $3.4 trillion, which is proximate to Europe and the Middle East. And the African Union recently became the second regional bloc—after the European Union—to be ushered into the Group of 20, linking the world’s biggest economies.

And those are just a few data points.

Yes, Africa matters. Now the continent’s leaders and the world must act on these realities for their mutual benefit. The AU’s success in pushing for entry into the G20, and the unprecedentedly large African contingent at the 2023 BRICS Summit of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, are but two of the many signs that African leaders are more prepared to unify towards common goals. Even as they seek ways to leverage—and respect—the diversity of their people.

With each passing day, Africa grows more critical for the United States and the world—and vice versa—not only in terms of national security or economics, but in terms of thriving as humans in an inevitably interconnected world.

At the same time, the United States is demonstrating that it recognizes Africa’s criticality to the world’s future far beyond the security, governance, and health collaborations that have dominated the relationship in the past. With multiple visits from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as well as Vice President Kamala Harris, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the continent is attracting increased high-level attention from the United States. President Joe Biden also pledged a visit to the continent in 2023.

This activity is promising, but for the partnerships to expand and benefit both sides, it will need to be based on common values, shared priorities, and mutual respect.

Vice President Kamala Harris smiles as she arrives in Accra, Ghana, Sunday, March 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Misper Apawu).

In terms of values, it’s notable that despite the hit of the COVID-19 pandemic and the backsliding that too many African countries have experienced in recent years on democracy, effective governance, corruption, and security, polls show Africans still value democracy. Public protests across the continent repeatedly insist on accountable government. Young Africans also share an entrepreneurial spirit: the Ichikowitz Foundation’s survey showed 78% intend to start a business in the next five years. The tech sector, in particular, has boundless room to grow, with mobile penetration at more than 90% and internet connectivity reaching 88%, and “many” of the best ideas in tech emerging from Africa. 

Another shared value with the United States is diversity. Africa is global, not only because of its strategic importance, but because the pulse of the world can be felt across the continent. Far from the conventional image of a land of emigration, it has long been a land of immigrants, with all the influences and flavors that follow. I was born in the United States and raised in Nigeria, and I grew up watching Bollywood movies and Mexican telenovelas. Today, entertainment television in Africa is flooded with Korean dramas—popularly called K-dramas both there and in the US—and Indian soap operas. A young woman I met in Nigeria on a recent visit was such a fan of K-dramas that she used the shows to learn Korean. Indeed, it’s not unusual to meet Africans who speak more than one language.

Africa exports its own mega entertainment too, not only the great literature that has long emanated from authors like Chinua Achebe and his landmark novel Things Fall Apart. US streaming services offer entire collections of films from Africa, and musical genres such as Afrobeat, Afropop, and Amapiano have taken the world by their clef notes.

American sports are catching the wave: In the last couple of years, the National Basketball Association created NBA Africa to oversee its business there, including  plans to expand the Basketball Africa League and add more academies. The NBA has at least 55 players who either were born in Africa or have a parent from there. The National Football League has more than 100 such players and in 2022, hosted its first official events in Africa, running its first NFL Africa camp with 40 players from across the continent.

Yes, Africa matters. Now the continent’s leaders and the world must act on these realities for their mutual benefit.

The common values are strong between Africa and the United States. So are the shared interests. In addition to the mutual need to shore up democracy, there’s the issue of unemployment, which is cited as the chief concern in the United States by every administration; it also rises to the top in public polls in Africa. In just a few years, Africa is expected to be the only region where the working population is still increasing. In the United States, there is already concern that artificial intelligence may end up taking jobs. That makes job creation and innovation shared priorities—and opportunities—for both sides in trade and investment. There are a few ways to address that. The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the core of the US-Africa commercial relationship for nearly a quarter century, is set to expire in 2025. It must be renewed and updated to account for today’s realities and changes such as the AfCFTA. The US government’s “Prosper Africa” initiative to increase two-way trade and investment also could be more focused on comparative advantages, and enhanced to address coordination challenges.

The United States and Africa also will need to work more closely on climate change issues. While Africa contributes the least to the emissions that cause climate change (and the United States the most), it has 60% of the world’s renewable energy assets (like water, wind, solar, and geothermal sources), and in excess of 30% of the minerals that are vital for renewable and low-carbon technologies. Africa is trying to unify around this, holding its first continental climate summit in 2023, and pressing for the world’s polluting countries to pay their share toward a global climate fund that would finance mitigation and adaptation.

That brings us back to the issue of respect. Both Africa and the United States, with their respective power and authority, will benefit most from this relationship by viewing it as a partnership. This means acknowledging what each brings to the table—and making sure that Africa is at that table and is heard. Africa is not homogenous, it is as diverse as any continent—with its complexities and its strengths—so it will be important to balance representation, understand the gaps, and draw on the strengths. Patronizing narratives that depict Africa wholly in negative terms or as a “hopeless continent,” as The Economist notoriously noted in 2000, are defeating for everyone. By the same token, we shouldn’t romanticize Africa either—it’s important to confront those gaps forthrightly and fill them.

With each passing day, Africa grows more critical for the United States and the world—and vice versa—not only in terms of national security or economics, but in terms of thriving as humans in an inevitably interconnected world.

Oge Onubogu is director of the Wilson Center’s Africa Program. She is a governance and democracy professional with nearly two decades of experience working on Africa and US-Africa relations, including with African governments, international partners, civil society, academia, and the private sector.

Cover photo: The Africa Union headquarters building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Nick Fox/Shutterstock.