U.S. renews scramble for Africa

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By Nosmot Gbadamosi /Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief

The White House recently unveiled the Biden administration’s new strategy on Africa, released to coincide with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to the continent. Many observers see Blinken’s three-nation Africa tour as part of efforts to rebuild U.S. engagement across Africa to counter geopolitical rivals China and Russia.

Last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a four-nation Africa tour vying for support amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. South Africa and several African countries have maintained a position of nonalignment in the war.

Washington has been insisting that its renewed focus on Africa is not centered on great-power rivalry. “Our commitment to a stronger partnership with Africa is not about trying to outdo anyone else,” Blinken told reporters in Pretoria, South Africa.

But South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation, Naledi Pandor, criticized a draft U.S. bill that she called “offensive legislation”—the so-called Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act—which would identify and monitor African governments working with Russian entities sanctioned by the United States. The bill has received backlash from African governments and citizens for being Cold War-esque.

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Despite the rhetoric from Washington, the new Africa strategy document, which mentions Russia seven times, warns that Moscow views the region as a “permissive environment” for its private military companies to operate in, “often fomenting instability for strategic and financial benefit.” In the policy paper, the U.S. government states Moscow uses security ties and disinformation “to undercut Africans’ principled opposition to Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine.”

The document further warns that China sees Africa “as an important arena to challenge the rules-based international order,” undermine transparency, and “weaken U.S. relations with African peoples and governments.”

Its release also comes just a few days after the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, visited Ghana and Uganda. During her visit, Russia was not far from the agenda. “Countries can buy Russian agricultural products, including fertilizer and wheat,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “If a country decides to engage with Russia, where there are sanctions, then they are breaking those sanctions.”

Thomas-Greenfield’s visit, a week after Lavrov’s, suggests that Washington is continuing to prioritize its own geopolitical interests above the democratic rights of citizens in countries led by its authoritarian allies. The United States has, for instance, ignored the human rights record of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s autocratic regime. “How can we be against somebody who has never harmed us?” Museveni said of Lavrov’s visit. “If Russia makes mistakes then we tell them.” As the East African puts it, “[T]he Ugandan leader also sees an opportunity to benefit from both to keep his grip on power.”

While the United States props up his administration with financial aid, Museveni—who has been in power for 36 years—has been purchasing Russian arms and securing Russian training for his military forces. As security and Africa policy expert Abdullahi Boru Halakhe wrote last year, “Museveni has enjoyed total bipartisan support from six American administrations.” Indeed, more than 70 percent of Ugandans are under the age of 30 and have grown up entirely under Museveni’s rule.

Halakhe argued the Biden administration should not continue U.S. generosity toward Museveni given “Uganda’s dubious human rights and governance record.” Sen. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called for the Biden administration to re-evaluate its relationship with Museveni’s government while influential lawmakers also want Museveni blocked from attending the second U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit, expected to take place in December.

Ahead of his meeting with Thomas-Greenfield, Museveni told BBC interviewers asking about democracy and the trampling of the opposition’s freedoms that “trying to transplant the polarization of Europe into Africa is a mistake, and those who are trying to do it, they are simply mimicking the European way of life.”

The major challenge for the Biden administration is that most African governments simply do not want to become embroiled in a new cold war between the United States and Russia. Meanwhile, African citizens perceive China as offering them greater tangible benefits. One of the strengths of China’s approach in Africa is that it has largely avoided becoming embroiled in domestic policies while presenting itself as committed to ensuring African prosperity—and China’s no-strings-attached lending has won favor among African leaders.

On Africa Brief’s recent trip through Ghana, the depth of Chinese investment was immediately apparent from the dams, roads, and highways taking shape across the country. The walls of a China-backed harbor project being erected carried a logo every few meters in bold red ink, saying “China Aid for Shared Future.” Not all Africans have bought Beijing’s messaging, however, and there are frequent public demonstrations against labor and environmental violations by Chinese companies.

The Biden administration’s new document outlined key priorities for supporting energy transitions, health, democratic governance, pandemic recovery, climate change adaptation, and environmental conservation. The United States will now seek to double down on its enormous soft-power influence across the continent by leveraging U.S. private sector trade and investment, which it has previously underutilized. This includes promoting diaspora engagement, such as government-led initiatives like Ghana’s Year of Return campaign.

The document states that some of the long-standing U.S. approaches to Africa have become “insufficient” to meet new challenges in a more contested and competitive world. Nevertheless, the tools proposed to deal with troubled countries in the revamped strategy—including stemming “the recent tide of authoritarianism and military takeovers” in part through “a targeted mix of positive inducements and punitive measures such as sanctions”—often sound a lot like the old ones.