Africa: The Battle to Re-Engage with Africa – Anthony Blinken’s Visit

The African Centre for the Study of the United States (Johannesburg)opinionBy Amukelani Charmaine Matsilele

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to visit South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda, from August 7 to 12. It is an African visit primed with geopolitical agendas as the US strives to boost its influence on the continent amidst the resurgence of old powers and the entry of new powers all looking to garner the support of African states in global affairs. Blinken’s visit follows junkets by the leaders of several global powers who have been strategizing to create alliances in and with Africa. A review of some of the recent visits can help in understanding the crowded alliance-building developments that the US is attempting to respond to in an increasingly multipolar world.

In February, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan made a four-day tour to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Senegal, and Guinea-Bissau. For nearly a decade now, Turkey’s foreign policy towards the continent, dubbed “Strategic Africa”, has focused on all aspects of bilateral relations and opportunities for improving cooperation. This has given Turkey a boost as its foreign policy strategy towards Africa speaks to collaboration and development. As a result, according to the US thinktank, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Turkey has increased bilateral trade by over five folds between 2015 and 2018.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been a frequent visitor to the continent.   In July this year, he visited Benin, Guinea-Bissau, and Cameroon. Macron’s trip provided an opportunity to cement relations between France and Africa against the background of France colonial and neocolonial legacy in Africa. Coming That Macron’s visit to Africa was his first international trip outside Europe since re-election in April signaled the continent as a political and economic priority

The same month of July saw a dense itinerary of Chinese leaders to Africa. For instance, in early July, Yang Jiechi, former Chinese foreign minister and member of the Communist Party of China’s Politburo visited Zimbabwe, a country that is treated as a pariah in the West. Shortly thereafter, Chinese special Representative on African affairs, Xu Jinghu visited eight African countries, namely, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo-Brazzaville, Namibia, Madagascar, Mauritius, and Seychelles. The running thread in these visits is that China is focused on helping Africa with economic development rather than focusing on political issues such as human rights and democracy.

While Macron’s visit may eat into America’s influence on the continent, it does not greatly threaten its interests as France and US have many shared values they seek to promote in Africa. It is with the visit in July by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that the stakes escalate with regards to geopolitical clashes on the continent. Lavrov’s visit July 2022 took him to Egypt, Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Ethiopia. Throughout the trip, Lavrov framed the Russian message around the theme of Africa’s support for Russia in its military action in Ukraine. The trip was meant to shower up Africa’s support for Russia amidst sanctions by Western countries and their allies in Asia, Latin America, and Oceania.   Emphasizing the alignment of Russian and African interests in the global system, Lavrov also used the trip to Africa as an opportunity to rally support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ensure that Russia is prepared for the Russia- Africa Summit in 2023.

These other high-level state visits to Africa speak to a changing geopolitical landscape in which Africa is being persuaded to take sides and in which global powers seek political and economic opportunities on the continent.   Besides the visits, another strategy has emerged: summit diplomacy in which nations and regions fashion large events with African leaders.

In February 2022 for instance, the sixth European-Union Africa Summit took place in Dakar, Senegal with discussions revolving around the promotion of common principles, shared values, and international law. EU and AU leaders agreed on a joint vision for a renewed partnership to bring regions and organizations together. A reading of the resolutions made during the Summit show that the EU is a keen on crafting continent-wide engagement strategy for a 55-nation region. This approach seems to be working for the EU as African leaders and AU officials attended the Summit in what is emerging as a continental diplomacy with Brussels, the EU headquarters, coordinating programs with Addis Ababa, the AU headquarters.

There are more examples of high-level visits by leaders of powerful countries making trips on the continent with an eye on influencing the continent on the global stage or seeking economic deals. It is thus evident that Blinken’s visit will be watched closely by the foreign policy strategists in places such as Ankara, Moscow, Paris, Beijing, and Brussels. The question therefore is: what does Blinken’s visit mean for the US, Africa, and the world?

First, the US’ engagement with Africa over the years has witnessed ebbs and flows, with periods of high-level engagement alternating with periods of low-level engagement. For instance, the low priority of Africa during the presidency of Donald Trump means that the Joe Biden administration is starting almost from scratch in terms of building a diplomatic mechanism. Scholars and officials have often lamented the lack of a clear US policy towards Africa as a drawback to US’ effective, consistent, and sustainable engagement with Africa. The fact that Blinken will be unveiling a new policy towards Africa will be one of the most watched aspect of US “return” to Africa.

Second, it is apparent that the US is no longer the only global power with great interests in Africa. Officials and politicians in Africa are cognizant of this fact and have been trying to find means and ways of countering other powers, particularly the geopolitical rivals of Russia and China. The visit can therefore be read with competitive lenses. China has maximized its efforts in Africa by framing the relations as an equal partnership, with phrases such as “strengthening of mutual support”, “community of shared future” and “all-round cooperation”, often invoked. It will be interesting to watch and see if Blinken’s message to Africa will be one of countering other powers or proposing new and direct ways of engaging with Africa bereft of the “competition” framing.

Third, it is in the interest of Africans to familiarize themselves with the anticipated US policy towards Africa. One can argue that Biden’s foreign policy toward Africa should speak to Africa’s concerns and needs as some of his crucial personnel had first-hand experience with African state and non-state member policymakers. Indeed, Blinken’s visit, and the new policy come at a time when the Biden administration has announced a US-Africa Leaders’ Summit to be held in Washington DC in December this year. It would be strategic for African countries to analyze the new policy once it is made available and respond substantively ahead of, and during the December Summit.

The author is communications and public diplomacy researcher at the African Centre for the Study of the US at Wits University: