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America’s Hollow Africa Policy

Washington’s focus on stability over human rights is alienating Africa’s youth.

By , a reporter based in Lagos, Nigeria.
A protester gestures while holding a placard as another holds up a scarf with the colors of the Nigerian national flag during a demonstration against police brutality.
Protesters participate in a demonstration against police brutality in Magboro, Nigeria, on Oct. 20, 2020. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

In recent months, the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria has embarked on a spree of opening “Windows on America,” U.S. cultural hubs in local communities across the country. The centers, similar to the United Kingdom’s British Council and France’s Alliance Française, offer educational and cultural programs designed to “promote U.S. higher education and highlight aspects of American culture” and “welcome youth and people from underserved communities to learn more about the United States.”

The unstated but no less important aim of the centers is to create cultural inroads with Nigerian youth to counter China’s influence—especially the influence it exerts through its Confucius Institutes.

The first Nigerian Windows on America center opened in March in Lekki, Lagos; since then, the U.S. Consulate General has established four other centers, mostly in universities. Meanwhile, China’s Confucius Institutes, created to promote Chinese language and culture, have been established at Nigerian universities for more than a decade. Chinese firms in Nigeria have recruited alumni from the institutes, further enhancing China’s socioeconomic standing. The institutes have also created a pathway for young Nigerians to go to China for studies on scholarships and to get jobs.

In recent months, the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria has embarked on a spree of opening “Windows on America,” U.S. cultural hubs in local communities across the country. The centers, similar to the United Kingdom’s British Council and France’s Alliance Française, offer educational and cultural programs designed to “promote U.S. higher education and highlight aspects of American culture” and “welcome youth and people from underserved communities to learn more about the United States.”

The unstated but no less important aim of the centers is to create cultural inroads with Nigerian youth to counter China’s influence—especially the influence it exerts through its Confucius Institutes.

The first Nigerian Windows on America center opened in March in Lekki, Lagos; since then, the U.S. Consulate General has established four other centers, mostly in universities. Meanwhile, China’s Confucius Institutes, created to promote Chinese language and culture, have been established at Nigerian universities for more than a decade. Chinese firms in Nigeria have recruited alumni from the institutes, further enhancing China’s socioeconomic standing. The institutes have also created a pathway for young Nigerians to go to China for studies on scholarships and to get jobs.

Already, many young Nigerians travel to China for trade purposes, and a grassroots trade relationship has been established by which cheap goods from China are brought into the country. The “Made in China” tag has become a marker of cheap goods compared to more expensive U.S.-made items that most Nigerians can’t afford. Chinese retailers as well as other workers who can be found in many parts of Nigeria constructing railway lines and airports have been referred to by some observers as “China’s silent army.” This army has penetrated Nigeria’s hinterland outside of Lagos and Abuja, further unofficially cementing China’s influence across Nigeria.

This is precisely what the United States wants to counter. But its policy has been reactive rather than proactive. Rather than break ground on its own initiatives, the United States has tried to reduce China’s influence on the continent by raising the specter of “debt traps”—in which China provides developing countries with loans they can’t afford to “trap” them into becoming beholden to Beijing.

Now, with its Windows on America initiative, Washington is taking a more active approach to trying to counter Chinese influence. Yet a recent misstep reveals the hollowness of this strategy.

On Aug. 21, the U.S. mission in Nigeria tweeted out a photo of U.S. officials from the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs standing alongside Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed—the architect of the country’s recent Twitter ban and a prominent mouthpiece of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s repressive government.

That the United States was proudly touting cultural and educational cooperation with Mohammed on Twitter—the very platform he’d been instrumental in blocking in an effort to silence dissent—was not lost on people. The photo circulated widely on social media among Nigerians who were able to get around the Twitter ban using virtual private networks. In one fell swoop, the United States managed to undermine its efforts to make inroads with Nigeria’s youth.

The incident was indicative of a deeper problem with U.S. policy toward Nigeria and Africa more broadly. The United States has a long history of preaching the importance of human rights and freedom while simultaneously working with—and, in many cases, bolstering—brutal authoritarian regimes, including in Africa. Values, Washington has shown repeatedly, can be sacrificed for interests.

But this game could only last if there was no equivalent opposing power that could provide an alternative for African governments. With China’s increased influence on the continent, the tables have turned. Beijing presented African leaders with a different set of values: a win-win cooperation based on what China described in a 2006 paper on Africa policy as “equal and mutual-beneficial cooperation.”

When China engaged with African countries, diplomatic talks revolved around partnership and how China did not play the role of an occupational force or colonial ruler in Africa. This was further cemented by China’s policy of noninterference in countries’ domestic affairs. By highlighting this, China was playing into a very important anti-colonial sentiment.

This approach did not carry the terms and conditions the United States’ relationship with many African countries came with, leading former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to declare at the end of the 2006 Sino-African summit that “China is a source of inspiration for all of us.”

Although the United States has the huge advantage of soft power on the continent, it has not tapped into it. Despite its many State Department programs, Washington’s actions are elitist and out of touch with the reality of situations on the ground. The focus is stability, not human rights, yet the protests that have rocked Nigeria and several other African countries have stemmed from human rights abuses and the lack of government accountability.

Matthew Page, an expert on Nigeria at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Washington is doing the right thing in the wrong way. “I think they’ve fallen short when it comes to human rights and promoting governance,” said Page, who previously worked at the U.S. State Department and Defense Intelligence Agency.

“Their long-term interests are for Nigeria to be stable and prosperous and secure, but they need to look beyond the elite in Nigeria,” Page added. “They need a people-centric foreign policy, a policy that recognizes the pitfalls of engaging with older people who are corrupt but in power and balancing it with engaging with younger people.”

Many African countries have seen a rise in protests over the last decade. On a continent where almost 60 percent of the population is below the age of 25, there is a disconnect with those in power. Nigeria’s government is not only clueless on how to harness its youthful population, but it also sees them as a group that should be tamed.

In October 2020, young Nigerians took to the streets to protest police brutality at the hands of the country’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in what became known as the #EndSARS movement. But it also showed the dynamism of Nigeria’s youth, from how the protests were funded using cryptocurrency to how they were organized with no central figure. The Nigerian government sent soldiers to crush the protest, leading to the Lekki massacre, in which as many as 12 people were estimated to have been killed, according to Amnesty International. (The Buhari government disputes this number.) It was a watershed moment for a young generation fighting for justice.

Mohammed later said no massacre had happened and quoted the U.S. State Department’s 2020 human rights report as having “vindicated” the Nigerian government’s version of the incident despite the report making no such claims.

The report stated, “accurate information on fatalities resulting from the shooting was not available at year’s end” and cited both Amnesty International’s accounting of the event and the government’s refutation of that account. It noted that “no other organization was able to verify the [Amnesty International] claim,” but the report did not make a definitive conclusion as to what occurred.

This, however, led to a huge Twitter debate on the United States’ position regarding the massacre. The young protesters expected Washington to speak out in defense of their human rights. Yet only Canada strongly condemned the actions of the Nigerian government. Meanwhile, the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Ireland, and Norway (as well as Canada) gave tepid responses in a joint press statement.

To create real cultural impact among Africa’s youth, the United States will have to do better than that. It must reexamine its positions in light of the continent’s changing demographics, where a younger population is increasingly challenging the authority of the old, authoritarian men who have long dominated politics.

These are the men the United States and other Western governments are used to working with. Nigeria’s close to four decades of military rule means Washington dealt with a crop of military officers, mostly in their 30s, who trained in U.S. and British military academies, came back to power as civilians, and have clung to power since the 1960s. But they are starting to die out and lose their influence, albeit gradually.

Those existing power structures have yet to be upended, of course, and the possibility of young people capturing political power in many of these countries in the near term is slim to none. But the #EndSARS protests showed a competence and organization among Nigerian youth that has never been seen in the country. Washington could position itself as an ally to Nigerian youth in the coming decades, but it is still preoccupied with the current crop of old leaders.

While China has used its economic strength to expand its influence in Africa, the United States and other Western countries are still the ones many youths turn to when they think of freedom and human rights, not China. If Washington wants to build ties—and trust—with Africa’s next generation, instead of highlighting the perils of China’s “debt trap,” Washington should focus on supporting the human rights of young people, not the authoritarian leaders those young people are protesting against.

Although the focus of the West is on Chinese debt, young Africans will not protest those debts. What they will protest is injustice as that is the immediate oppression they feel.

During the #EndSARS protests, a common line was repeated in pidgin English, “na who support EndSARS we go support”—basically meaning young Nigerians were keeping a scorecard of those who supported them during the protests.

Africa’s youth are paying attention to who supports them—and who doesn’t. Washington would do well to understand that.

Socrates Mbamalu is a reporter based in Lagos, Nigeria, and a graduate student of war and society at Chapman University. Twitter: @socratesmbamalu

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