Fraught with intractable violence, interminable disease and abject poverty, Africa is traditionally observed by policymakers through a humanitarian lens. However, the continent's emerging geo-strategic importance transcends such condescending colonial overtones to command the attention of the United States beyond the moral, humanitarian and security imperatives.
Distracted by long-winded plans to end the war in Iraq, one is hard-pressed to detect any semblance of serious interest on the websites of American presidential candidates that goes beyond ending the genocide in Darfur or supporting HIV/Aids initiatives in Africa. Indeed, American foreign policy towards Africa has seldom been addressed by US presidential hopefuls.
Equally disheartening has been the fourth estate's deafening silence on this matter. As if to further ostracise the continent, foreign-policy questions filed by prominent national newspapers prior to the final Democratic debate in Ohio neglected to address a single African issue directly.
The US strategy of indifference towards Africa's ever-growing importance is counterproductive and potentially dangerous.
The American economic stake in Africa's success cannot be overstated. Energy-hungry nations such as China, India, Malaysia, South Korea and Brazil are fiercely competing for access to Africa's resources to fuel their voracious economies.
China, in particular, has made significant inroads in securing African resources and agricultural produce with financial incentives from Beijing encouraging more Chinese companies to invest.
Currently, Africa provides 16% of US oil imports, equivalent to Middle Eastern supplies, and is poised to double its output in the next decade. A surge in competition, however, may thwart attempts to secure future supplies. Africa's energy oasis is of great strategic importance to the US considering that nearly all of the continent's oil reserves lie in unstable countries threatened by strife and violence.
Turning a blind eye to serious violations of human rights and weak governance may risk jeopardising long-term US interests in the region.
Meanwhile, according to the United Nations's most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, Africa may be most vulnerable to adverse environmental effects. Rampant poverty, fragile governance, lack of disaster management and limited financial resources present a sobering threat for some countries, given their low adaptive capacity.
Unpredictable and harsh weather patterns and increasing temperatures would further strain already scarce water resources and food supplies, leading to a widespread humanitarian crisis. This looming danger not only threatens coastal communities and infrastructure in vital oil-producing regions, but, more importantly, also undermines subsistence agriculture, the only livelihood for many Africans.
Expanding US military and security interests on the continent has broad appeal in exerting regional influence while battling insurgents in America's war on terror. However, this has not shielded Washington from a barrage of criticism for its decision to set up its new African Command (Africom). Fully operational by September this year, its mandate will facilitate US military operations for all African states, with the exception of Egypt.
Despite assurances to the contrary and apart from Liberia's vocal support, Africom is viewed by many as yet another veiled US attempt to cement its foothold in Africa in order to safeguard precious energy imports and counter terrorist threats, notably in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.
These efforts would bolster several military initiatives, such as the combined joint task force of the Horn of Africa and the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative already in operation. However, critics on the continent and abroad remain wary and have long argued that this new command centre will essentially serve US geo-political interests while enticing terrorism and instability in Africa.
Perhaps the only issue where the US has received much praise, even from its fiercest critics that chide socio-economic development on the continent, has been its health initiatives.
The Bush administration has devoted much attention in recent years to supporting Africa's battle to contain the HIV/Aids epidemic and the devastating effects of malaria.
Since 2003, the US government has allocated $15-billion over five years -- $10-billion in new money -- to provide desperately needed drugs to more than 1,3-million people who would not have been able to afford them. This has had a tremendous impact in scaling up access to Aids treatment. The President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief is the largest global initiative to date dedicated to tackling a single disease.
Although US presidential candidates remain focused on addressing the domestic issues of a crumbling economy and a tattered healthcare system, changing the perception that Africa only matters marginally in US foreign policy must evolve not on moral merit alone but, more importantly, also for the US's future stability and prosperity. There is a need to move beyond the colonial misconception that Africa is merely a region endowed with abundant natural resources and plagued by regional conflict.
"All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward," warns the adage. Growth, however, requires change, and only then may forward movement occur.
To believe that one leader's "audacity of hope" can transform Washington's audacity of indifference first requires all citizens to become the change they want to see. Americans deserve to hear more from their presidential hopefuls about their vision regarding the land of hope, Africa.
also published in Daily News (Egypt), New Vision (Uganda)