The U.S. government must step up with resources and investment dollars if it wants to challenge the growing influence of China across sub-Saharan Africa, the prime minister of the West African nation of Mali is warning.
Malian Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga said in an interview on a Washington visit this week that if the U.S. wants democracy to flourish in his country, then the Trump administration must encourage private investment from major American companies — particularly in the oil and gas sectors — while tolerating the presence of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects already there.
“The reason I’m here is to attract American investment and money in all fields, including petroleum,” Mr. Maiga told The Washington Times between meetings with U.S. officials amid rising concern about Beijing’s influence and infrastructure lending projects in Mali and numerous other countries across Africa.
China’s commitment, analysts say, amounts to tens of billions of dollars in investment, loans and grants annually. The Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, an annual gathering of Chinese and African leaders, attracted representatives from all but one of Africa’s 54 countries last year.
Mr. Maiga said the U.S. is neglecting a key strategic asset.
“The Sahel has very important geopolitical significance for the United States,” he argued, adding that the region, threatened by ethnic violence, poverty and Islamic State-style extremism, could and should be a place where U.S. and Chinese investments combine for positive 21st-century development rather than a grinding geopolitical standoff.
While the prime minister said there’s no question Mali prefers U.S.-style democracy above other forms of government, his country’s development needs are so great it would be foolhardy not to welcome any foreign investment it can get.
“We hope the Americans will invest because we are committed to pursuing shared democratic values, including private property values and protecting private companies that invest,” Mr. Maiga said. “But that doesn’t exclude others. There’s a place for everybody.”
The Chinese, he said, have pumped some $10 billion of loans into cross-country railway projects in Mali in recent years. While current non-security related aid from Washington has hovered in the $140 million range in recent years, Mr. Maiga said he hoped a series of behind-the-scenes meetings with the Trump administration officials this week might inspire a surge in U.S. private investment.
His timing is delicate, coming just months after National Security Advisor John Bolton announced a sharp refocus of the administration’s Africa strategy to counter what the White House calls “predatory” lending by China and Russia, who seek to gain a competitive advantage on the continent.
“China uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands,” Mr. Bolton said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation in December. “Its investment ventures are riddled with corruption and do not meet the same environmental or ethical standards as U.S. developmental programs.
U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, at a major industry conference in Houston earlier this month, made a strong pitch for open markets and energy independence for African states, insisting that the U.S. “is very eager to share its energy resources and expertise with the American continent.”
While in Houston, Mr. Perry met with ministers and energy executives from a wide range of African countries, including Mali.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for Mali, where roughly half the country’s 20 million population is under 15 and the strain of conflict still looms five years after a U.S.-backed French military intervention ousted Islamic militant groups that had seized a swath of the nation’s north and threatening to overthrow the central government.
The internal jihadist threat has been pushed back in recent years. But religious and ethnic tensions persist, as evidenced last weekend’s violence left more than 150 people dead — more than a third of them children — in the country’s central Mopti region.
The deaths reportedly stemmed from a massacre mostly targeting the ethnic Fula community, which is Muslim. The Associated Press quoted a U.N. spokeswoman as saying the massacre signaled a “spike in killings” tied to a cycle of violence that has caused 600 deaths and displaced thousands since last March.
The U.S. stake
Mr. Maiga said that a wider security threat stems from the flow of arms into Mali from Libya, which has been widely viewed as an extremist safe haven in recent years.
“It’s about regional security, which means international security,” the prime minister said. “A lot of the jihadists [in Mali] have been defeated, but they receive their arms from Libya.”
The recent defeat of the Islamic State “caliphate” in the Middle East may only exacerbate the problem as terrorist fighting there return home — a sobering assertion at a moment when Trump administration officials have shown little appetite to expand U.S. military operations in the Sahel.
As part of an administration’s Africa policy rollout in December, Mr. Bolton said the White House wants regional forces from the so-called G5 Sahel group, a bloc that includes Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania, to take a bigger role in fighting terrorism on their own.
Mr. Maiga said he did not think the administration would leave the bloc out in the cold.
“Now that the Islamic State has been defeated in the Middle East, terrorists are starting to come in the direction of the Sahel. I think Trump understands this and part of the reason I am here in Washington this week is to make sure that the Trump administration is aware of this.”
“We want the United States to participate actively in training our counterterrorism and military forces,” he added. “More of that is needed right now, particularly if we are going to create an environment that really attracts private investment and companies.”
Malian Finance Minister Boubou Cisse, who accompanied the prime minister ton Washington, said the Trump administration sees the strategic and economic opportunity at hand.
The Malians were slated to meet with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan on Tuesday. But Mr. Cisse said they were given an unexpected audience with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as well.
“We were not expecting to see Mr. Pompeo, but he came into our meetings and spent time with us, so there was an appetite for Mali that we felt. Now, we need to concretize it,” the finance minister said.
The China factor
Mali is just one of several African nations being targeted by China. While part of Beijing’s approach involves working with the United Nations — the Chinese military has a small contingent of troops in Mali as part of U.N. peacekeeping operations there — the economic side of China’s activities centers on billions in loans being churned through President Xi Jinping’s ambitious “One Belt One Road” initiative the includes investments in Asia, Europe and Latin America in addition to Africa.
Mr. Xi last year pledged $60 billion for development projects in Africa, even as U.S. officials like Mr. Bolton have warned Beijing’s goal is to burden countries with debt and lay the groundwork for future Chinese economic and military hegemony.
Mr. Cisse, a former World Bank economist, said that despite U.S. concerns, Mali badly needs the investment money China is offering.
“The challenges are so high, that actually we do need everybody. We need China, we need France, but even more importantly, we need American investment now and we are extremely keen to have American investment coming into Mali,” he said. “Without massive investment, the development challenges we are facing will be very hard to overcome.”
He acknowledged concerns about the strings that come with Chinese offers. Most of China’s deals have not been “concessional” — meaning they don’t have grace periods on interest traditionally associated with Western development lending.
“We’re looking for funds that are more-interest friendly for us,” Mr. Cisse said. “This is why even on the Chinese side, we are very careful.”
Mr. Maiga expressed confidence in President Trump as a business-focused leader’s business background and business-oriented policies can spur greater U.S. private-sector interest in Mali.
While American energy giants like ExxonMobil and Chevron are believed to be reluctant to invest in Mali without strong, back-channel security and financial assurances from Washington, Mr. Maiga said Mr. Trump’s pro-business posture could help resolve such issues.
“The Trump administration is very interested in helping American business. So this is a great opportunity at hand here,” he said. “Chevron has already stated their interest and we’re moving forward. Exxon Mobil is already in Algeria, and Algeria and Mali share the same basin of natural gas resources, so it’s logical that Exxon will be interested in Mali as well.”