The killing of an unarmed African-American by a Minneapolis police officer and resulting civil upheaval have set back U.S. efforts to strengthen its tenuous relationship with Africa and counter China’s growing influence.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairman of the African Union Commission, joined senior officials from Nigeria, South Africa and Ghana in condemning the death of George Floyd. They berated the U.S. for failing to deal with racial discrimination — remarks that contrast sharply with the guarded diplomatic tones typically used in interactions with the world’s biggest economy.
“U.S.-Africa relations were already at a low ebb,” Kissy Agyeman-Togobo, the managing partner of Songhai Advisory Group Ltd., said by phone from Accra, Ghana’s capital. “Now with the unjustifiable killing of George Floyd, the hurt, disgust and outrage are palpable.”
Africa has always been low on the U.S. foreign-relations priority list — the world’s poorest continent accounts for less than 2% of its total two-way trade. Its clout has steadily been eroded by China, which has almost four times as much trade with the region and has nurtured ties by offering loans and investment with few strings attached.
The Trump administration’s Africa strategy, unveiled in late 2018, proposed bilateral trade deals, a foreign aid overhaul and new anti-terrorism initiatives to claw back lost influence.
The coronavirus pandemic afforded it the opportunity to do just that, with State Department officials highlighting America’s contribution of more than $400 million to help Africa tackle the fallout from disease, more than any other nation. But the damage done to America’s reputation by Floyd’s killing and its handling of the ensuing protests indicates the moment may have been squandered.
“The U.S. has traditionally been seen as that beacon of democracy that says you need to treat protesters with decency and stand up for rights,” said Adewunmi Emoruwa, the lead strategist at Gatefield, an advisory firm based in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. “Now we see the looting, the arson, the near anarchy going on in the U.S., and the brutal police response. Africa is saying that maybe the U.S. isn’t all we thought they were.”
The State Department said Floyd’s death was a “grave tragedy.” Those responsible will be held accountable and Americans are entitled to protest peacefully to express their outrage, it said in an emailed response to questions.
African animosity toward America has been fueled by President Donald Trump’s derogatory reference in 2018 to African countries and his plans to quit the World Health Organization — headed by a former Ethiopian health minister — over its handling of the coronavirus crisis. And the Nigerian government has locked horns with the U.S. over its call for an independent probe into allegations that African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina, the West African nation’s former agriculture minister, awarded contracts to friends and relatives.