US Secretary of State Antony Blinken whirlwind visit to three African countries is the second in less than 12 months.
In November 2021, he visited major US regional partners Senegal, Kenya and Nigeria.
In South Africa – the first leg of this journey – Blinken unveiled the US strategy towards sub-Saharan Africamarking a remarkable paradigm shift in America’s engagement with Africa.
Why do I call the new strategy a paradigm shift?
First, it sets a positive tone for U.S. engagement with Africa. Previous US strategies assumed that Africa was not a strategic player in the broad scheme of US foreign policy.
This strategy is different. It is based on the assumption that Africa is a key priority of US foreign policy.
This guiding assumption frames the fundamental commitment to work together toward common aspirations in advancing a shared agenda.
The tone matches the emphasis on African agency. And the continent’s ability to effectively lead and participate in decisions on economic, political and military commitments.
But, first a few thoughts on Blinken’s three-country tour.
Importance of stopovers at three countries
The visit to South Africa underscored the interest of the United States in re-engaging the South African government in the framework of the United States-South Africa strategic dialogue. This was designed by the Barack Obama administration in 2010 to deepen the relationship between the two sides.
The dialogue provides a forum for both partners to examine common aspirations and goals while addressing lingering disagreements. But it was interrupted by the Donald Trump administration as well as the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.
South Africa is one of the few African countries to have this type of strategic partnership with the United States. The forum therefore reinforces South Africa as an African player that Washington takes seriously. This despite the differences that the two partners have to manage amicably.
Hopefully Blinken’s delegation was given the opportunity to cautiously voice its concerns about the instability and disarray within the ruling coalition, the African National Congress (ANC). This has had a negative impact on South Africa’s foreign policy stature. In Africa and around the world.
In the DRC and Rwanda, Blinken will face endless conflicts In the region. These have decimated lives and communities, thwarted international and regional stabilization efforts and relegated the Great Lakes region to global marginality. This despite its abundant resources.
Bilateral, regional and international efforts to address the root cause of the problem – the antagonism between the DRC and Rwanda – have failed. They need the injection of American mediation to break the impasse.
Read more: Rwanda and DRC’s turbulent past continues to fuel their torrid relationship
The government of President Félix Tshisekedi has makes decisive attempts to mend fences with Rwandan President Paul Kagame. But the two are unable to resolve their issues as long as the conflict persists.
Kagame will not cease his relentless military adventures in the region if the DRC and its supporters cannot eliminate the insurgent Hutu rebels involved in the 1994 genocide.
Furthermore, neither the DRC government nor the United Nations Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO) seem able to mobilize the resources needed to pacify eastern DRC sufficiently to deal with the Kagame’s concerns.
It will take US diplomatic dexterity and sustained economic and political re-engagement to resolve this 30-year-old crisis. A start could be a US-led military force made up of new military contingents from various countries. This could be bolstered by bold US engagement against authoritarian and autocratic regimes in the region.
But Blinken is bound face opposition from some of the major players .
The paradigm shift
The strategy outlined by Blinken has four key objectives. These promote openness and open societies; provide democratic and security dividends; advancing pandemic recovery and economic opportunity; and supporting conservation, climate adaptation and the just energy transition (pp. 7-10).
An innovative idea is the involvement of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on the education front. What has been announced is that American academic institutions and the private sector are offering online courses for African students. Topics could include science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) (p.16).
The strategy also emphasizes digital democracy, the centrality of cities, and the incorporation of the African-American diaspora into American-African relations.
Beyond these, the four goals capture the continuity of policies that past administrations have articulated.
The change prescribed in the strategy is therefore in tone rather than substance.
Third, racial sensitivities play a dominant role in strategy, reflecting the convergence of Africanists and African Americans in the Biden administration and its Africa policy.
Throughout the document, there is talk of placing people of color at the heart of American-African relations as well as
recognizing historical and current links between racial justice and equality in sub-Saharan Africa and the United States (p.12).
Equally relevant, the strategy acknowledges past criticisms of US training and support for African militaries who launch coups against civilian regimes and violate human rights.
Finally, the strategy is cleverly articulated to undermine critics who often point to US competition with China and Russia in Africa as the primary driver of engagement with Africa. The strategy addresses this issue poignantly. It is said:
the United States has an abiding interest in ensuring that the region remains open and accessible to all, and that governments and publics are able to make their own choices, consistent with international obligations. (p.7).
Instead of being judgmental and prescriptive regarding African relations with other powers, the strategy presents African states with the enticing option of working with the United States in advancing shared values, mutual respect, of democracy and prosperity.
The strategy is a new beginning in US-Africa relations. But its results will be judged on two factors. Will the Biden administration be able to broker implementation in the turbulent US political process? And will African countries be able to seize the opportunities presented by the strategy?
December 2022 Africa-US Summit in Washington will be an excellent opportunity to gauge reactions to this strategy.