How the US can engage with Africa’s semi-authoritarian states

The presidents of Angola and Mozambique both visited Washington in recent months, a testament to warming ties and growing US interest in the semi-autocratic African countries whose ruling parties were once America’s adversaries.

This trend marks a policy shift from the Cold War era, with national security adviser Jake Sullivan promising in a recent foreign affairs essay that the US “will avoid the temptation to see the world solely through the prism of geopolitical competition or treat these countries as places for proxy contests”. Instead, today’s US promises to “engage” with African nations “on their own terms … respecting their sovereignty and their right to make decisions that advance their own interests”.

While acknowledging the “pitfalls” of engaging and tacitly supporting authoritarian states, Sullivan rhetorically asks: “Where is your alternative?”

Recent trends in Angola and Mozambique present an interesting test case for this new US strategy of engagement with partially democratic — or hybrid — regimes, devised amid increased competition with foreign adversaries, particularly China.

Shunning these two resource-rich Southern African states would clearly undermine America’s ability to reap critical economic and security benefits, particularly in mineral supply chains. However, while engagement supersedes absence, it must not risk providing cover to semi-autocratic regimes.

Last month’s Oval Office meeting between President Joe Biden and Angolan President João Lourenço marked the pinnacle of years of warming relations between the two countries.

Power play

Atop the agenda were discussions regarding the development of a rail corridor connecting the mineral-rich regions of Zambia and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with Angola’s port of Lobito, a project for which the Biden administration has committed to invest about $1bn along with its European partners and the African Development Bank.

The project marks the most notable commitment of the recently devised Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGI), widely viewed as the Western response to China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The US considers the Lobito Corridor project as essential to securing supply chains for minerals critical to powering the green energy transition and producing items such as electric vehicles, a sector increasingly dominated by Chinese firms.

The economic and geopolitical weight of the project mirrors the increased importance the US has ascribed to Angola in recent years, especially as Chinese influence and investment has diminished from its early 2000s peak and Lourenço has sought new international partners, a fact Luanda’s lobbyists have been keen to describe as a “fundamental shift in Angola’s foreign policy”.

This budding bilateral relationship has flourished despite a tainted diplomatic history

In addition to geopolitical competition and its potential role in securing mineral-centric supply chains, Angola regularly attracts US interest due to its large-scale oil production and contribution to mediating conflict in Central Africa. This budding bilateral relationship has flourished despite a tainted diplomatic history, with the US providing material support to former rebel movement UNITA — currently the country’s main opposition party — during Angola’s civil war, which served as a Cold War proxy conflict between the US and the Soviet Union.

Examples of this diplomatic shift were evident well before the Oval Office visit.

Over the past few years, high-level engagements and investments in a variety of sectors have swelled. In September 2023, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin visited Luanda, Angola’s capital, and delivered a speech outlining the importance of Angola and Africa more broadly to American interests, the latest demonstration of growing defence ties between the two countries.

Last year, the United States and Angola reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening bilateral defence cooperation, demonstrated by a variety of talks, visits, and joint exercises, and by year’s end Angola announced that it was dumping its historical partner, Russia, as its primary arms supplier in favour of the United States.

Beyond defence and the Lobito Corridor project, the United States has also made recent investments in solar energy, transportation infrastructure, food security, digital transformation and better governance.

Massaging Mozambique

This trend of improving once tenuous relations is paralleled in Mozambique, whose political history has striking similarities with Angola.

Both countries became independent from Portugal in 1975 and experienced civil conflicts in which the United States unsuccessfully backed anti-communist rebels. Mozambique’s president, Filipe Nyusi, made a trip to Washington in September 2023, which included a meeting with the secretary of defence and the signing of a $537m Millenium Challenge Corporation compact centred on infrastructure development and climate resilience.

US interest in Mozambique is similar to its engagement with Angola.

The US approach is not without reputational risk

Washington views Mozambique as critical to securing energy and mineral supply chains and resolving conflicts that threaten them. US firms such as ExxonMobil are heavily invested in the development of Mozambique’s recently discovered liquid natural gas (LNG) deposits while another project, led by French firm TotalEnergies, has received a $4.7bn loan commitment from the US Export-Import Bank, which remains under review.

Security concerns from the insurgency in the country’s impoverished Cabo Delgado province however, have stalled these projects. The US has supported the Mozambican government in ending the conflict with some success and there are indications that the LNG projects may soon resume.

China has also carved out a role in Mozambique’s LNG sector in addition to regularly financing major construction projects and spreading its influence through media and the proliferation of Confucius Institutes.

Risky relations

The US approach is not without reputational risk.

Both Angola and Mozambique are considered hybrid regimes characterised by a semblance of electoral democracy that is nevertheless riddled with corruption and government abuse. Both countries’ ruling parties have been in power since independence nearly 50 years ago.

Despite recent elections in Angola that saw the strongest showing for the opposition to date, observers noted significant irregularities. Protests against the government’s economic mismanagement have been met with violence.

In Mozambique, protests were also violently suppressed after the ruling party claimed to have won contests in all but one municipality in recent local elections, stripping the largest opposition party of any municipal-level control. While the country’s Constitutional Council annulled results in some municipalities and called for reruns in others in a sign of mild judicial independence, the ruling party still gained seats and its actions to swing the election in its favour offer a foreboding outlook for national elections in October.

It is much harder for African nations to turn down engagement with the US and the EU when they work together rather than at cross-purposes

Ultimately, US interests are best served by democratic societies. Democratic practices improve the business environment, reduce factors of instability such as poverty and poor governance, and ultimately help the US compete with China.

However, unlike in the immediate post-Cold War period in which the United States’ unmatched geopolitical and economic might allowed it to choose its partners and conditions of engagement practically at will, today’s multipolar world and the rise of China mean that refusing to engage with non-democracies is no longer a viable option. African countries now have options and often prefer the lack of domestic political conditionality inherent in China’s engagement.

One way to increase the attractiveness of Western engagement, which requires a tacit commitment to democratic values, is to coordinate and combine efforts between the US and its partners in the European Union (EU) and the G7. Doing so offers African nations a bigger payoff and leverages the unique specialties of each country to promote sustainable development and democratic practices. In short, it is much harder for African nations to turn down engagement with the US and the EU when they work together rather than at cross-purposes.

This form of joint engagement is currently occurring with the Lobito Corridor project in Angola and is critical to securing and de-risking supply chains. However other efforts in Angola — not to mention in Mozambique — are a bit more disjointed, despite significant US and European involvement in LNG development, health support and the security sector.

By engaging jointly and maintaining support for democratic development in Angola and Mozambique, the US can better serve its interests and more effectively compete with China. US policymakers’ skill in threading the needle between engaging semi-autocratic countries and maintaining support for democratic values will determine the success of its engagement strategy in today’s increasingly competitive and multipolar world.

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