Skip to main content

Kennedy School Review

Topic / International Relations and Security

The Disjointed State of US–Africa Affairs

Africa in the 21st century is young, urban, and digitally connected. More than half of all Africans are younger than 20. By mid-century, more Africans will migrate to cities than on any other continent in the world, seeking opportunity across both physical and digital spaces. Sub-Saharan Africa has experienced the highest growth in internet usage compared to other regions,[1] bringing over 400 million people online since 2000.[2],[3],[4] The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that at least 13 of the 25 fastest-growing economies within the next five years will be African.[5]

The Trump administration is keen to capture Africa’s value to bolster US economic growth and political influence. The Better Utilization of Investments Leading to Development (BUILD) Act of 2018 allocated $60 billion to create the new International Development Finance Corporation.[6],[7] Two months later, US National Security Advisor John Bolton launched the Prosper Africa strategy, which aims to support African businesses across the continent. [8] Yet, since advisor Bolton’s December 2018 speech on Prosper Africa, there has arguably been “no funding proposals or requests, no executive orders . . . and—thus far—no published strategy,” to support it.[9] The administration has recognized the wealth of political and economic opportunity for US actors across the African continent. However, these policies to capitalize on African growth have not materialized. In the midst of this policy inertia, the United States’ tumultuous history with the African continent may offer solutions that can activate these multibillion-dollar initiatives. Washington needs to recognize and learn from the work of Southern city leaders to activate the opportunities put forth by Prosper Africa and the BUILD Act.

Without substantive policy change, political dogma framing Africa as a “commercial battlefield of the developing world”[10] likely will continue without funding proposals, direction from the administration, strategy, and most importantly, credibility.

The year 2019 marks 400 years since the initial arrival of enslaved Africans to the US South, and in the months since Trump and Bolton were evangelizing their own African strategies, a series of leaders from cities like Prichard, Alabama; Richmond, Virginia; and Atlanta, Georgia, have traveled to the African continent to forge new corridors of growth by leveraging their cities’ global histories and cultural memory. Municipal leaders from the South are cultivating a sense of leadership that not only empowers their cities to transcend these racist sentiments but also embeds their local communities within global systems of economic and political power.

By no means does this article suggest that the South does not still face the legacy of centuries of this history. In 2017, the United States witnessed a tenfold increase in the number of recorded terror attacks over the past decade, most of them “tied to racist, anti-Muslim, homophobic, anti-Semitic, fascist, anti-government, or xenophobic motivations.”[11] These trends reveal the resilience of the sentiments that drove an oppositional US South to secede from the United States and preserve its slave-based social systems over 150 years ago.[12] Today, the majority of the top 15 most unequal counties and states in the United States are located in the South, per US Census data, and much of this inequity underscores racial divides.[13]

Nevertheless, municipal leaders from the South are cultivating a sense of leadership that not only empowers their cities to transcend these racist sentiments but also embeds their local communities within global systems of economic and political power.  The cases of these cities offer lessons for US–Africa relations writ large, which the Trump administration ought to pay attention to.


Prichard, Alabama

In August 2018, President Patrice Talon of Benin hosted Mayor Jimmy Gardner of Prichard, Alabama, during a tour of coastal Benin.[14] Prichard is a sister city with the port city of Ouidah, Benin.[15] Leveraging history and memory, president Talon and mayor Gardner discussed expanding the scope of their communities’ relationship to highlight economic, educational, and political cooperation. In practice, they build from the momentum laid forth by former Prichard Mayor John H. Smith.

Mayor Smith’s work forging these transatlantic ties has elevated both the City of Prichard and the State of Alabama into global diplomatic leadership roles. During his tenure as mayor from 1980 to 1989, Smith became the first secretary general of the World Conference of Mayors (WCM),[16] which seeks to empower mayors worldwide to work together and address global governance challenges. Smith worked closely with WCM founder Johnny Ford, then mayor of nearby Tuskegee, Alabama.[17] Their work engaging international counterparts likely prompted the State of Alabama to become “the only [US] state to be represented at the United Nations Special Session on Africa” in 1986, where delegates discussed implementing the $128-billion United Nations Programme of Action for African Economic Recovery and Development (1986–1990).[18],[19] By 2012, Alabama shipped nearly $400 million worth of exports, primarily agricultural products and machinery, to the African continent,[20] rendering it among the top five largest state-level exporters to the African continent from the United States.[21]

Prichard’s diplomatic leadership could fill a critical gap in the Trump administration’s marquee Africa policies: political networks and relationships. A dozen African states have no US ambassador, and Trump has yet to travel to the continent during his presidency. When Trump has engaged directly with African officials in diplomatic settings like the UN, he has lauded the accomplishments of fictional countries like “Nambia,”[22] and outright rejected globalism. During his September 2018 address to the UN General Assembly, Trump proclaimed, “America is governed by Americans. We reject the idea of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”[23] This diplomatic gaffe is correlated with declining global confidence in Trump’s leadership and declining US influence in global politics.[24]

Federal policy makers cannot continue to champion the potential of Africa’s growth when political leadership withdraws from engaging with today’s African leadership. Cities like Prichard have demonstrated the capacity to create hundreds of millions of dollars in trading relationships by linking history with growth. Federal policy makers should strongly consider supporting these networks as key commercial, cultural, and historical gateways between the United States and Africa.


Atlanta, Georgia

Major Southern cities like Atlanta are already branding themselves as gateways of innovation between the United States and Africa. Atlanta already also hosts the headquarters for one of the most popular digital media brands on the African continent: CNN. CNN has become among Africa’s top international news source among an expanding class of elite urban professionals.[25] In 2016, CNN launched a new digital-platform operation in Africa’s largest megacity, Lagos, Nigeria, in 2016.[26] To facilitate networking across both digital and physical spaces, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines remains the only airline to service direct flights to the United States from Lagos.[27],[28] The route has transported over 1 million passengers between the two cities over the flight’s first decade of operation,[29] to move beyond digital encounters and build interpersonal networks across continents.

Lagos, Nigeria, has emerged as one of Africa’s fastest-growing ecosystem cities for African internet startups. The number of active tech hubs across Africa has grown by almost 50 percent since 2016: from 314 to 442 hubs, which is not necessarily surprising when considering that since the turn of the millennium, Africa has seen 100-fold growth in internet users, faster than any other continent.[30] Beyond Lagos, Nairobi, Kenya, and Cape Town, South Africa, are also rising as key tech industry hubs.[31]

In July 2018, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed met with his counterpart in Cape Town, Mayor Patricia de Lille. Both leaders recognized efforts to pursue racial justice in their respective countries and sought to leverage this leadership and media-, business-, and science-related partnerships to combat threats to urban resilience. Urgent priorities cited by the mayor’s office include climate change, gender equity, and creative entrepreneurship, in light of rapid urbanization taking place in both Georgia and South Africa.[32]

In this manner, the roles of political and business leaders complement one another in strengthening Atlanta’s transatlantic engagement. Figures like mayor Reid illuminate historical linkages, while private-sector actors provide the capacity to scale up cross-border investments across increasingly digital industries. As a result, history and memory serve as mechanisms to empower diverse coalitions of stakeholders to ground transatlantic affairs in the interests of local communities. The commercial engagements that emerge from these collaborations have greater capacity to move beyond abstract rhetoric to generating tangible value for stakeholders on both sides of the Atlantic.

Leaders call attention to expanding opportunities in Africa’s digital tech sector, particularly through mechanisms like the IDFC in the BUILD Act, but there is no analysis on how to gain value from these opportunities. Federal policy makers should leverage the expertise of Atlanta’s commercial and political sectors to gain insight on partnership growth to activate these opportunities.


Richmond, Virginia

Beyond mayoral offices, community-led initiatives from the South leverage technology platforms to illuminate the enduring historic ties between the US South and places across the Atlantic.

For instance, the Zamani Project, an initiative of Emory University in Atlanta and the University of Cape Town, seeks to catalog the African continent’s key historical sites. This project has produced the largest Transatlantic Slave Trade Database of its kind, a digital rendering of the most frequent shipping routes along the transatlantic trade in enslaved African peoples, as well as visualizations of cultural heritage sites across the African continent, all available in open source.[33]

The power of this data is evident in how it has catalyzed US–Africa engagement in other parts of the South, including community leaders and graduate students from Richmond, Virginia. They used the database to build partnership frameworks between the city of Richmond and municipalities across Benin,[34] where the first peoples brought directly to Richmond from the African continent originated.[35] Together, they were able to chart paths of economic growth that reflect both Richmond’s global history and the ambitions of high-level policy makers in Benin.[36]

This analysis has culminated in delegations from the Richmond Mayor’s Office traveling to Benin to meet with state and traditional authorities and partake in Benin’s annual Global Vodoun Festival.[37] The team is planning a follow-up delegation of African leaders to Richmond in August 2019 to operationalize several possible arts exchanges, investment fora, and mechanisms to support the next generation of digital innovators in both Richmond and Benin.[38]

For US federal policy makers, the ways in which Richmonders leverage data to activate potential partnerships should underscore the importance of investing in research and educational initiatives to expand cross-Atlantic ties. It may be valuable for Trump administration officials to align the work of programs such as the US Department of Education’s Fulbright-Hays Program and the Boren Award with the ongoing work of researchers in Richmond and other places across the South.

Atlanta is an evident choice, as are smaller cities like Raleigh, North Carolina, which hosts the Center for the Study of the American South under the leadership of anthropologist Dr. James Peacock. Peacock has coined the term “grounded globalism,” which honors the ways Southerners center local history and culture in pursuit of global economic opportunity.[39] Federal policy makers have the means to mainstream these more nuanced analyses into national program priorities. As a result, US actors in the policy, business, and education spaces may more readily engage with African counterparts.


Ways Forward

Washington clearly recognizes the range of commercial opportunities emerging across the African continent, especially after allocating $60 billion for a brand-new federal agency. Yet, from investments to research to diplomacy, Washington’s work across Africa is absent. Fortunately, leadership from the US South is filling in the gaps left by Washington’s empty Africa strategy.

Despite eschewing global diplomacy, Trump administration officials may benefit from the decades-long political ties between Prichard, Alabama, and West African leaders, particularly those in Benin. Mayor Kassim Reid of Atlanta and several Atlanta-based multinational corporations may provide strategic insight to federal entities like the president’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa. Finally, Washington can expand federal education programs, like the Fulbright and Boren programs, to mirror the dynamic, bilateral efforts between Richmond, Virginia, and cities across the Republic of Benin, which are leveraging historical data to unearth corridors for transatlantic growth.

Edited by: Jim Pershing

Photo by: GovernmentZA

[1] “Internet Users in the World by Regions – June 30, 2018,” Internet World Stats, accessed 1 February 2019.

[2] Omar Mohammed, “How e-commerce is booming in Africa,” World Economic Forum, 18 August 2015, accessed 2 January 2019,

[3] Staff Writer, “51.2% of the global population now using the Internet, Africa records fastest growth – ITU Report,” pcTech Magazine, 10 December 2018,

[4] UNCTAD B2C E-Commerce Index 2018 Focus on Africa: UNCTAD Technical Notes on ICT for Development (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2018) [PDF file].

[5] “World Economic Outlook Database,” International Monetary Fund, October 2018,

[6] BUILD Act of 2018, S.2463, 115th Cong. (2018).

[7] “MCC Applauds President Donald J. Trump for Signing the BUILD Act into Law,” press release, Millenium Challege Corporation, 5 October 2018, accessed 30 December 2019,

[8] “Remarks by National Security Advisor Ambassador John R. Bolton on The Trump Administration’s New Africa Strategy,” National Security Council, 13 December 2018, accessed 20 December 2019,

[9] Chris Wyatt, “A Closer Look at the ‘New’ U.S. Strategy for Africa,” War Room (blog), United States Army War College, 30 January 2019, accessed 1 February 2019,

[10] Business Writer, “An Analysis of Trump’s New Strategy for Africa,” Business Times, 28 December 2018, accessed 30 January 2019,

[11] Bill Morlin, “Study shows two-thirds of U.S. terrorism tied to right-wing extremists,” Southern Poverty Law Center, 12 September 2018, accessed 27 Dec 2018,

[12] James Horton, “Confronting Slavery and Revealing the ‘Lost Cause,’” National Park Service, n.d., accessed 30 January 2019,

[13] “Gini Index of Income Inequality: 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates,” US Census Bureau, n.d., accessed 1 February 2019,

[14] “Monsieur Jimmy GARDNER, Maire de la ville de Prichard au cabinet du Président Patrice TALON,” YouTube video, posted by Présidence Bénin, 11 September 2018, accessed 15 Jan 2019,

[15] “Sister Cities of Prichard, Alabama | United States | Countries,” Sister Cities International, n.d., accessed 5 January 2019,

[16] “Member Services,” The World Conference of Mayors, Inc., n.d., accessed 2 February 2019,

[17] “About Us,” The World Conference of Mayors, Inc., n.d., accessed 2 February 2019,

[18] Resolutions and Decisions adopted by the General Assembly during its Thirteenth Special Session, 27 May – 1 June 1986 (supplemental no. 2 [A/S-13/16], United Nations General Assembly) [PDF file].

[19] Sharon Ingram, “Alabama-Benin Trade Forum Sponsorship Presentation,” 28 May 2016,

[20] Office of the Governor, State of Alabama, Letter from Governor Robert Bentley to Dr. Sharon Ingram, 26 February 2013 (slide 9 in Sharon Ingram, “Sponsorshop Proposal and Information for the Alabama Benin Forum,” 31 May 2016,

[21] Top U.S. Imports/Exports by State, 2014–2017, US Census Bureau, accessed 1 February 2019. Respective data for imports and exports are available at “U.S. Trade in Goods by State, by NAICS-Based Product,” US Census Bureau, n.d.,

[22] Chris Cillizza, “Donald Trump’s comments on Africa at the UN were, um, odd,” CNN, 21 September 2017, accessed February 2019,

[23] Julian Borger, “Trump urges world to reject globalism in UN speech that draws mocking laughter,” The Guardian, 26 September 2018, accessed 4 February 2019,

[24] Kristen Bialik, “How the world views the U.S. and its president in 9 charts,” Pew Research Center, 9 October 2018, accessed 3 February 2019,

[25] “CNN is Africa’s #1 international media brand,” Turner Media, 4 August 2016, accessed 27 January 2019,

[26] “CNN to establish multi-platform bureau in Nigeria,” Turner Media, 13 July 2016, accessed 27 January 2019,

[27] “ACI World publishes annual World Airport Traffic Report,” Airports Council International, 20 September 2018, accessed 10 January 2019,

[28] “Recent Awards,” Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, n.d., accessed 18 Jan 2019.

[29] Abdullateef Aliyu, “Nigeria: Delta Airlines Flies 1.12 Million on Lagos-Atlanta Route in 10 Yrs,” 6 December 2017, accessed 1 February 2019,

[30] “Internet Users in the World by Regions – June 30, 2018.”

[31] Maxime Bayen, “Africa: a look at the 442 active tech hubs of the continent,” GSMA (blog), 22 March 2018,

[32] Trevor Williams, “Mayor Reed’s Objectives on His $90,000 Mission to South Africa,” Global Atlanta, 21 July 2017, accessed 31 December 2018,

[33] “The Transatlantic Slave Trade – Database,” Slave Voyages, Emory University, n.d., accessed 10 December 2018,

[34] “Richmond Revealed,” Richmond Revealed, n.d., accessed 4 December 2018,

[35] “The Transatlantic Slave Trade – Database.”

[36] “Richmond Revealed.”

[37] Adaobi Onyeakagbu, “January 10: What happens at Benin Republic’s annual Voodoo festival?” 14 January 2019, accessed 14 January 2019,

[38] “Richmond Revealed.”

[39] James L. Peacock, Grounded Globalism: How the US South Embraces the World (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2007).