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Speaking at the University of Pretoria on Monday 8 August, America’s top diplomat sought to cast the United States as the continent’s partner of choice, especially compared to China and Russia. South Africa is the first leg of a three-nation trip that will also take Blinken to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
“Our strategy is rooted in the recognition that sub-Saharan Africa is a major geopolitical force. One that shaped our past, is shaping our present, and will shape our future. It’s a strategy that reflects the region’s diversity, its power and influence,” Blinken said. “Put simply, the United States and African nations can’t achieve any of our shared priorities — whether that’s recovering from the pandemic, creating broad-based economic opportunity, addressing the climate crisis, expanding energy access, revitalising democracies, strengthening the free and open international order — we can’t do any of that if we don’t work together as equal partners.”
This strategy articulates a new vision for how and with whom we engage, while identifying additional areas of focus.
While Africa has long taken a back seat in US policymaking to developments in Europe and Asia, the Joe Biden administration seeks to make it a higher priority, highlighting the continent’s fast-growing population, the promise of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), its biological diversity and Africa’s large regional voting blocs at the United Nations (28 percent of votes in the General Assembly).
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“This strategy articulates a new vision for how and with whom we engage, while identifying additional areas of focus,” the strategy states. “It welcomes and affirms African agency, and seeks to include and elevate African voices in the most consequential global conversations.”
The strategy is built around four pillars:
- Fostering openness and open societies;
- Delivering democratic and security dividends;
- Advance pandemic recovery and economic opportunity;
- Support conservation, climate adaptation, and a just energy transition.
In contrast with the Donald Trump administration’s perceived indifference to both Africa and global human rights, the new strategy declares sub-Saharan Africa to be “critical to advancing our global priorities.”
It “recasts traditional US policy priorities — democracy and governance, peace and security, trade and investment, and development — as pathways to bolster the region’s ability to solve global problems alongside the United States.”
The administration has been working on the 16-page strategy for about nine months, seeking input from US embassies, African diplomats and other stakeholders.
It was spearheaded by Judd Devermont, who recently replaced Dana Banks as senior director for African Affairs at the National Security Council. Banks for her part is now the council’s senior advisor for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, which will take place in mid-December in Washington.
The strategy “really puts meat on the bones in terms of how do we engage, with whom, to what ends and with what tools,” a senior administration official told reporters on a background call ahead of Biden’s speech.
“If you’re going to make a commitment, and say that Africa is important to addressing all of the most challenging problems in the world, that means you have to invest in African agency, welcome it, work with Africans, give them a seat at the table to help shape the global response, to provide input on some of the challenges and how we get through them. And to highlight the opportunities.”
Key aspects of the strategy include working with African nations on a “just” energy transition, vowing to “work closely with countries as they determine how to best meet their specific energy needs, which include pursuing energy access and economic development goals through technologies such as energy efficiency and renewable energy, as well as gas-to-power infrastructure.”
The rhetoric comes amid strong and growing pushback from African countries – notably coal-rich South Africa – against efforts to zero out fossil fuels as Europe looks to alternatives to Russian energy following the invasion of Ukraine.
The strategy also calls for a rethink of US military support for African nations to focus on good governance as a way to weaken insurgent groups and stem insecurity.
“The United States will seek to stem the recent tide of authoritarianism and military takeovers by working with allies and partners in the region to respond to democratic backsliding and human rights abuses, including through a targeted mix of positive inducements and punitive measures such as sanctions,” the strategy states.
“At the same time, the United States will partner with other governments and regional bodies, including the African Union (AU), to address public dissatisfaction with the performance of some democracies, which provides a pretext for aspiring coup plotters, populist movements, and authoritarian leaders to undercut democratic values.”
The importance of these policies is that they shape relations across trade and investments, political and diplomatic engagements, assistance through various philanthropic agencies and initiatives and military relations.
And it calls for an equitable recovery from covid is a “prerequisite to regaining Africa’s trust in US global leadership, increasing US trade and investment, and creating US and African jobs.”
The strategy – and its implementation over the next few years – will be closely watched on the continent.
“The importance of these policies is that they shape relations across trade and investments, political and diplomatic engagements, assistance through various philanthropic agencies and initiatives and military relations,” Bob Wekesa, the deputy director at the African Centre for the Study of the US at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, wrote in AllAfrica.com.
“For African governments, civil society, businesses, and individuals, reading an American policy between the lines can, for instance provide a bellwether on where American dollars are likely to flow.”
Coming right on the heels of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to the continent, Blinken’s trip is inevitably seen as another US attempt to convince a skeptical Africa to stand up for the US-backed international order.
South Africa was one of 17 African countries that abstained from condemning Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations back in March. And just this month, Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor – with whom Blinken met earlier in the day to relaunch the US-South Africa Strategic Dialogue that was suspended under President Trump – denounced passage in the US House of Representatives of a bill on Russian influence in Africa as being “intended to punish countries in Africa that have not toed the line on the Russia-Ukraine war.”
Too often, African nations have been treated as instruments of other nations’ progress, rather than the authors of their own. Time and again, they’ve been told to pick aside in great-power contests that feel far removed from daily struggles with their people…
“More stunning than that action is the loud silence of Africa political intellectuals who surely hold freedom of choice and sovereign status in high regard,” Pandor wrote in South Africa’s Daily Maverick. “How do developing countries exercise their sovereign rights as UN member states when confronted by such reactions?”
Blinken addressed the conflict with Russia head-on in his speech.
“Too often, African nations have been treated as instruments of other nations’ progress, rather than the authors of their own. Time and again, they’ve been told to pick aside in great-power contests that feel far removed from daily struggles with their people,” he said. “The United States will not dictate Africa’s choices. Neither should anyone else. The right to make these choices belongs to Africans, and Africans alone. At the same time, the United States and the world will look to African nations to defend the rules of the international system that they’ve done so much to shape.”
The strategy itself makes no bones about US hostility to Chinese and Russian influence on the continent.
Beijing, it says, views Africa as “an important arena to challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken U.S. relations with African peoples and governments.” As for Moscow, it views the continent as a “permissive environment for parastatals and private military companies, often fomenting instability for strategic and financial benefit.”
The Biden administration, however, insists that it’s not there to order Africans around, even as it warns then against violating US sanctions on Moscow.
“Countries can buy Russian agricultural products, including fertilizer and wheat,” US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said during her visit to Uganda last week. However, “if a country decides to engage with Russia, where there are sanctions, then they are breaking those sanctions” and “they stand the chance of having actions taken against them.”
A senior administration official who briefed reporters ahead of Blinken’s speech however pushed back against the notion that China and Russia were
“Genuinely, this strategy is about how we see Africa, what Africa wants,” the official said. “Our analysis (is) that Africa is a global player, and no longer sort of the isolated or neglected continent, and how to define how we engage with them. The China and Russia thing is very subsidiary from our perspective. This was really about how we can do better to work more effectively with Africans to achieve results in areas that challenge both (of us).”
Likewise, the strategy document argues that democratic African nations will likely make that choice on their own.
“Open societies,” the strategy states, “are generally more inclined to work in common cause with the United States, attract greater U.S. trade and investment, and pursue policies to improve conditions for their citizens, and counter harmful activities by the People’s Republic of China, Russia, and other actors.”
As another official on the call said, “the best way for us to engage with Africans on China or on Russia is to make sure it’s a free conversation”
Setting the stage
In many ways, the strategy is setting the stage for the US-Africa Leaders Summit scheduled for mid-December.
During their background call, the administration officials mentioned several new “deliverables” expected to be unveiled in the run-up to the summit. These include a new Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant program focused on “urban issues in major African cities” as well as a new initiative on digital Africa meant to provide “new opportunities to work together to shape new technologies and innovations to support open societies and democracies”, “foster and boost economic growth and two-way trade and investment” and “a just energy transition and governance.”
“This (strategy) announcement and indeed the summit further underscores the importance of US-Africa relations and the Biden administration’s commitment to revitalising global partnerships and alliances,” a third senior official said. “We expect to engage a wide range of African and US stakeholders to illustrate the breadth and depth of American partnerships with African governments, institutions and citizens.”
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