How much clout does the U.S. wield over African leaders? Over the past month, the Obama administration has turned up the heat on South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, pressuring him to commit to a deal to end his country’s 20-month-old civil war.
Kiir did all he could to avoid signing the agreement, which involves a power-sharing arrangement with rebel leader and former Vice President Riek Machar. He backed out of a ceremony to sign it in the middle of last month and only gave in last week after the U.S. threatened him with United Nations sanctions. Last week, the Security Council released a statement warning that it remains ready to impose an arms embargo and further penalties if the deal fails.
Yet the chances of failure remain high. Fighting has restarted today. Some rebel commanders have said that they will not respect the agreement. Kiir continues to insist that the bargain is flawed. American diplomats, who initially celebrated South Sudan’s independence in 2011, are profoundly disillusioned with the fledgling country’s elites. As one anonymous U.S. official told reporters in July, the civil war that began in December 2013 is “a classic case of venal leaders squandering a huge opportunity.”
If hardly a political burden for President Barack Obama on the scale of the crises in Syria and Iraq, South Sudan’s collapse has been a running sore for his administration. Many of the president’s advisers—including National Security Adviser Susan Rice, rumored to be the source of the “venal leaders” quote—were longtime advocates of the country’s struggle to break free from Sudan. Its implosion raised questions about their judgment. The fact that the U.S. could not bring the civil war under control sooner has also contributed to a broader narrative of waning U.S. influence in Africa.
During Obama’s time in office, China has surpassed the U.S. as the leading investor on the continent. While Beijing backed the drive to discipline Kiir, it has stymied U.S. policy elsewhere. The most sensitive current case is Burundi, where America and its European allies have vocally opposed President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to ignore the country’s constitution and run for a third term, instigating serious violence and risking full-fledged civil war.
China and Russia have blocked any serious action at the U.N. over the crisis, while Beijing has offered Nkurunziza financial aid. As Cara Jones and Orion Donovan-Smith argue, this sends a broader message to other African leaders about the limits of U.S. influence: “By buttressing the Burundian regime against Western sanctions, Russia and China could strike both a symbolic and a practical blow to the West.”
When Obama visited Ethiopia and Kenya this July, some political commentators argued that the U.S. had already ceded Africa to China. This sort of analysis, which tends to major on geopolitical pontification and skimp on regional analysis, can get overwrought. America and its allies still have huge influence on the continent. A case in point is the central role they played in ensuring a peaceful transfer of power following this year’s presidential election in Nigeria, in which Muhammadu Buhari defeated incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. Buhari, who visited Washington this summer, also appears to have put Nigeria’s ugly and haphazard battle against Boko Haram on a steadier footing, assuaging U.S. concerns that the country could entirely fragment.
A further test of U.S. influence lies ahead in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where President Joseph Kabila is constitutionally required to stand down at the end of his second term next year. Kabila has looked for ways to follow Nkurunziza’s example and secure a third term, but the Obama administration has made it clear it expects him to respect the constitutional term limit. Obama has personally urged Kabila to step aside and thereby secure his “legacy as a leader.” Last week, the U.S. special envoy for the Great Lakes region, Tom Periello, visited Kinshasa to urge the president to keep election planning on track.
Persuading Kabila to go quietly would be a signal success for Obama in Africa. Like Nkurunziza, the Congolese president has courted China in the past. Like Kiir, he is widely mistrusted by Western diplomats. In both South Sudan and DRC, the U.S. has relied on U.N. peacekeepers to provide some security amid ongoing violence: There are currently 35,000 blue helmets in the two countries combined, costing $2 billion annually.
As I recently noted in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, this has left the U.N. “entangled in fractious and arguably unethical relationships with national leaders who, driven by greed or fear, have little real interest in stable, open and inclusive political systems.” This is partially justified by the need to protect vulnerable civilians: There are over 125,000 internally displaced persons sheltering on U.N. bases in South Sudan. But the peacekeepers could end up helping to prop up Kiir and Kabila indefinitely.
In taking a tough line on Kiir over this month’s peace deal and keeping up pressure on Kabila over the 2016 elections, the Obama administration aims to avoid such self-defeating outcomes. It is also out to show that, despite China’s influence, the U.S. remains a force to be reckoned with in Africa. Yet even if Washington can bring these recalcitrant leaders into line, it will only be a temporary success: The task of consolidating long-term stability in a country like the DRC, let alone postwar South Sudan, will take decades more. Washington and Beijing may jockey for influence in Africa, but the scale and complexity of the political problems in the continent’s weakest states may ultimately frustrate them both.
Richard Gowan is an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and nonresident fellow at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, where he was previously research director. He also teaches at Columbia University.
From Monday, Aug. 31, 2015