On August 7, 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken began a tour of Africa, including South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda. This is his second visit to the continent since November 2021, when he visited Nigeria, Senegal, and Kenya, in an attempt to promote American influence and revive American participation on the continent and to counter its geopolitical rivals there, especially China and Russia. This American interest reveals Washington’s efforts to intensify its diplomatic moves in Africa in light of the extensive and intense competition among major powers, particularly since Blinken’s visit followed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s trip last July, which coincided with French President Emmanuel Macron’s tour of West Africa.
American moves in Africa will be aimed at achieving several strategic objectives, most notably:
1. Growing American interest in Africa: Washington views African countries as strategic partners and recognizes the central role of South Africa at the regional and continental levels. As the dominant regional power in southern Africa and in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), South Africa has great geopolitical importance on the continent and plays a prominent role in decision-making within the African Union. It is also one of the three largest economies in Africa; the US’s largest trading partner on the continent, hosting more than 600 American companies; and an important gateway to African markets.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo has vast potentials of wealth and natural resources, such as hydroelectric power, and is an important regional power in the Great Lakes region. The country is especially important in combating the terrorism that threatens the east of the country, amid fears that it will spread to neighboring countries and threaten international and US interests in the region. In the same vein, Rwanda has become an important player at the regional and international levels amid its recent prominent role in fighting terrorism in the region.
2. Promoting the new US strategy for Africa: There is a new shift in Washington’s view of the African continent as an important strategic ally whose future can no longer be ignored. During his visit to South Africa, Blinken is expected to announce Washington’s strategy for the continent, reflecting the Biden administration’s strategy aimed at returning to the international arena and restoring American influence on the continent. This strategy focuses on several objectives, first and foremost, consolidation of democracy, protection of human rights, counterterrorism, recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing the challenges of the climate crisis, diplomacy and development, and countering Russian and Chinese influence on the continent.
Blinken’s announcement can be considered an American message that recognizes the importance of African countries for American policy, as influential players on the international scene. It reaffirms Washington’s priorities regarding its African allies, especially South Africa, with which the American administration is attempting to strengthen its relationship, in contrast to the approach of the previous administration of President Donald Trump to that country.
3. Rebuilding Washington’s African alliances: There is a push to strengthen political and diplomatic relations with African countries with the goal of rapprochement with the US’s traditional allies and preparation for confronting the growing Chinese and Russian presence on the continent. This is evident in the flurry of diplomatic visits by US officials in recent months. For example, Blinken’s visit was preceded by other US tours, like UN Ambassador Linda Thomas Greenfield’s trip to Ghana and Rwanda.
Likewise, Samantha Power, the director of USAID, visited both Kenya and Somalia to discuss ways to address security and food challenges and droughts in the region, and Derek Chollett, the Counselor of the US State Department, visited Senegal and Mauritania in July of 2022. Before that, Victoria Nuland, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, visited Djibouti, Mozambique, and Nigeria in June of 2022, and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited South Africa in May of 2022, to prepare for Blinken’s visit and conduct a strategic dialogue between the two countries.
4. Reinvolving the US in the continent’s crises: Washington wants to send the message that it stands by African countries in their crises and will not abandon them. American diplomacy is trying to improve US-African relations by stepping up its cooperation with African countries to address many important issues that threaten Africans, such as food security, in light of fears that the risk of famine will grow in African countries. Washington has pledged to support the African Development Bank initiative aimed at increasing food production on the continent to avoid the food crisis caused by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Washington will also provide USD 1.3 billion of humanitarian assistance to the Horn of Africa to help avert famine.
Security issues will be one of the main themes of Blinken’s visit to the Great Lakes region, especially given the growing security threats in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and increasing terrorist activity in the region, particularly ISIS. Other topics include support for Rwanda’s role in combatting terrorism in the region, along with the attempt to mediate and settle some regional disputes, with Washington pressing for the easing of tension between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda arising from mutual accusations of support for armed rebel groups, like the March 23 Movement. These issues raise US concerns over the escalation of violence in the region and its impact on its strategic interests there.
5. Opening new horizons for American investment in Africa: Washington is convinced that economic partnership with Africa is of paramount importance at this stage, especially in light of the African Union’s growing position in the global economic arena, in conjunction with the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area, which created an economic bloc that ranks eighth in the world and is an important factor in strengthening American influence on the continent.
Africa is also an important market for US products, with some estimates indicating that one out of every four people will be an African citizen by the year 2050. Through USAID, Washington seeks new investment opportunities in many African countries, as well as to extend its work under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act until 2025, which promotes opportunities for African countries to obtain tax exemptions for nearly 6,500 American products.
The US also provides major economic assistance to African countries with the goal of supporting their budgets and helping ease the impact of the current global crises, such as rising food prices, which have become a clear threat to African food security. In the framework of the Biden administration’s cooperation with Africa, Washington is expected to focus on five areas: trade, the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, security and peace, and democracy.
6. Strengthening the process of diplomatic mobilization against Russia: Washington seeks to gain support for its position on the Russian war in Ukraine by securing African condemnation of Russia, with the goal of increasing Moscow’s isolation internationally. In this framework, Washington is trying to change South Africa’s position on the Russian-Ukrainian war and convince it to take a stronger stance against Moscow, especially since South Africa abstained from voting on a resolution in the General Assembly condemning the war in March of 2022.
7. Leaving no space for geopolitical competitors: On one hand, Russia’s presence in certain strategic regions of the continent is gradually growing, posing a clear threat to US strategic interests on the continent. US fears over Russia’s expanding military presence on the continent are growing, as Moscow has succeeded in exploiting rising security threats as a key opening to provide its services to African countries via the Wagner Group, which has increased its presence in several African countries, such as Libya, Central African Republic, and Mali, and is predicted to expand into Burkina Faso during the next stage. Russia has also signed military and security cooperation agreements with several African countries, such as Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
In response, the US Congress recently passed the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, aimed at promoting American efforts to counter the effects of Russia’s moves and those of its proxies in Africa, for fear they are undermining vital US objectives and interests on the continent. Under the act, the US Secretary of State monitors the actions of Russia and its proxies, including the Wagner Group.
On the other hand, China’s economic influence is growing in most of the continent’s countries, especially after American companies failed to protect decades of investments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo against Chinese companies that now control cobalt mines. This situation prompted Washington to accelerate the implementation and promotion of American investments in African countries.
8. Supporting the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Popular demonstrations against the peacekeeping mission’s continued presence in the country broke out in July of 2022, due to the mission’s failure to eliminate terrorist threats in the east of the country. These demonstrations resulted in the killing of several people, which escalated demands for the expulsion of the mission—in which Washington participates—from the country and prompted the government to consider the possibility of discontinuing the mission in the country.
The US approach to Africa has potential repercussions, most notably:
1. Maximizing benefits for African countries: Benefits can be measured in terms of expanding economic opportunities resulting from the major powers’ scramble to pump more investments into the continent and provide it with economic and development assistance, with the aim of winning over African countries and the desire to consolidate influence and dominance in return for curtailing international moves against them. This competition between the major powers may give African countries more room for movement and maneuvering.
2. African countries’ resistance to Western mobilization against Russia: Some African countries, such as South Africa, may continue to refuse to yield to Western and US pressure by taking a conciliatory position to the West against Russia in its conflict with Ukraine. They may also reject the recent US law on Russia, as it may punish African countries that did not vote at the UN to condemn Russia for its war on Ukraine, especially since African countries are trying to maintain balanced relationships with the international players. This may cause tension in African-US relations in the coming period, in exchange for possible Russian-African rapprochement.
3. Loss of confidence in American mediation: Loss of confidence is seen in light of America’s lack of interest in African crises in recent years and in playing the role of mediator. The US also lacks sufficient leverage to play a decisive role in many African crises, such as the conflict in Tigray in northern Ethiopia that broke out in November of 2020. This may result in declining American influence on the continent in favor of other competing powers. This hypothesis is reinforced by the timing of Antony Blinken’s visit, and its coincidence with the visits of officials from other international powers reflects Washington’s engagement on the continent from a purely pragmatic perspective, which decreases confidence in the US role in Africa.
4. Escalation of international competition over Africa: The continent has become an arena for the growing conflict between major powers, especially because it is a geostrategic space that is geopolitically affected by the conflicts of major powers in other strategic regions, such as the Russian-Ukrainian war, with its repercussions on Russian-Western competition in Africa, and Chinese-US tension following Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and its possible consequences on the Chinese-US confrontation on the continent. This intensifies the tug-of-war in Africa that some international powers may engage in, especially Washington, with the goal of threatening Chinese and Russian interests on the continent, which may threaten the continent’s regional stability and security.
In conclusion, Blinken’s visit comes amid a complex global context due to developments in the international arena and associated strategic variables. This context is clearly reflected in the state of fierce international competition on the African continent, which faces economic, security, and health pressures. This may result in Washington rearranging its priorities regarding the African continent and taking several new steps that may help restore American influence in Africa in the coming period.