Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought on a trip to Africa to prove US commitment both in gestures and deeds, but it was also about playing defence as crises mount and Russia and China eye gains.
Blinken toured four US-friendly democracies on the Atlantic — Angola, Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Cape Verde — as security deteriorates further inland in the Sahel region.
Blinken was visiting Africa after four crisis trips to the Middle East, and he was repeatedly asked why President Joe Biden failed to live up to his promise to visit the continent last year.
The top US diplomat tried to send a message by showing a lighter side.
In Abidjan, he saw a match of the African Cup of Nations, where Ivorian leaders presented him with an orange national jersey in his name, and Blinken made sure on every stop to praise the national football team’s skills.
In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, Blinken got out of the capital Abuja and toured the sprawling metropolis of Lagos, chatting with young software engineers.
The gentler approach also applied to policy. After a decade of failed military-first campaigns against militias led by France, Blinken called for a more “comprehensive” approach that focuses on development.
He held up Ivory Coast as a model, with its northern border areas appearing stable after concerted efforts to bring opportunities to young people.
On his last trip to Sub-Saharan Africa in March 2023, Blinken hoped to bolster Niger’s elected president, who was toppled four months later by the military, which is now in talks on closer ties with Russia.
If many Africans voiced unease over the billions of dollars sent by the United States to Ukraine to defend against Russia’s invasion, Washington has been even more isolated in its support of Israel as it pounds the Gaza Strip in response to a Hamas attack.
“Generally, the US is in a defensive mode in Africa at the moment given its support to Israel,” said Jakkie Cilliers, founder of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies think tank.
“The momentum has swung to Russia and China, I am afraid,” he said.
Blinken did not visit South Africa, which has faced US criticism for filing a case at the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of genocide.
Blinken discussed the Middle East with his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor, by telephone as he left and told reporters that the row should not affect broader relations with Pretoria.
Steven Gruzd, head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said that while Biden was clearly putting a greater priority on Africa after neglect under his predecessor Donald Trump, “the crises in Ukraine and Gaza take priority.”
“African states are beginning to identify more strongly with the global south than the US, but trade with the US remains vitally important,” he said.
With Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group deploying on behalf of military regimes, and China making headlines with big construction projects — including the Abidjan stadium attended by Blinken — the United States has long insisted it is looking for long-term partnerships rather than flashy projects.
But on Blinken’s trip, he also made clear that the United States had concrete initiatives for Africa.
In Angola, he reviewed progress on the Lobito Corridor, the most ambitious US infrastructure bid in Africa that will connect landlocked Zambia and the resource-rich Democratic Republic of Congo to an Atlantic port.
At events in both Ivory Coast and Angola, Blinken touted a US project to send resilient seeds to grow crops that can withstand severe weather worsened by climate change.
On one of the signature US programmes benefitting Africa, however, Blinken was forced to mention domestic politics — the deadlock in Congress on re-authorising Pepfar, the anti-AIDS plan that US officials say has saved 25 million lives over two decades.
Blinken also consulted at length on US efforts alongside Africans to mediate conflicts, especially in the troubled east of the Democratic Republic of Congo and discussed economic reforms with Nigeria’s new president, Bola Ahmed Tinubu.
Femi Mimiko, a political science professor at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria, said Blinken’s trip showed a “validation” of the country’s democratic pathway and was significant considering all else going on in the world.
“It underscores trends in US commitment to strengthening relations with Nigeria and, of course, thereby, Africa,” he said.
Source: The East African