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Blinken in Africa: a Fresh Start After Trump

ARTICLES - 3 December 2021

In a November trip to Africa, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was focused on repairing the damage that four years of neglect and contempt under Trump have inflicted on the country’s relations with the continent. The desire for a fresh start and renewed dialogue was reflected in Blinken’s tour of three African countries: historical partners Kenya and Nigeria, and Senegal, which has been steadily growing closer to the US over the past decade. What can we take away from this trip?

Build Back Better after Trump 

When asked about the enthusiastic reaction to Biden’s election by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Zimbabwean researcher Chipo Dendere explained: "The bar for the Biden administration is very low … After the Trump years, Biden only needs to show respect and commitment to working with other countries to be taken seriously."

The emphasis placed on democracy and climate change by Antony Blinken was intended as a shift away from Trump’s focus on security - though there has not been a real break with the past administration for the time being. Washington reinforced its regional security cooperation with both France and Senegal. Blinken also took advantage of the trip to send a clear warning to Russia by mentioning the role of the Wagner Group in Mali. Finally, through its special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey D. Feltman, Washington has made repeated calls for a cease-fire in Ethiopia. 

The main message of the visit was to "stop treating Africa as a subject of geopolitics - and start treating it as the major geopolitical player it has become".

This despite the fact that American influence on the conflict seems limited, according to the State Department itself. But the main message of the visit was to "stop treating Africa as a subject of geopolitics - and start treating it as the major geopolitical player it has become", with Blinken affirming his belief that Africa "will shape the future" in his speech to the ECOWAS Parliament in Abuja, Nigeria. The Nigerian leg of the journey was also marked by an agreement of over $2 billion, which will mainly go toward education and public health.

In Senegal, four agreements were signed, totaling over $1 billion of investment in the country’s infrastructure. Lastly, in Kenya, Blinken’s visit led to increased health cooperation and the announcement of a new vaccine initiative. The Secretary of State also underlined his support for Kenya’s mediation efforts in the Ethiopian conflict.

The pandemic, vaccine diplomacy and soft power

While the Covid-19 vaccination rate currently stands at 67% in the EU and around 58% in the US, it barely reaches 7% for the entire African continent. This figure is in stark contrast with the African Union’s target of 60% by the end of 2021, and hides major regional disparities. The EU, the US and China have been the three main contributors to the COVAX initiative created by the World Health Organization (WHO), Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). Last September, Biden announced that he had increased the number of vaccines donated worldwide by 500 million, bringing the total to 1.1 billion. However, Sub-Saharan African countries have so far received only 76 million vaccine doses from the US, out of the over 250 million sent out to date. For reference, 65 million vaccines have been delivered to East Asia and the Pacific, 57 million to Central and South Asia and over 50 million to North and South America.

During a visit to the Pasteur Institute in Dakar - and contrary to Chinese vaccine diplomacy - Antony Blinken emphasized the importance of African vaccine production capacity. This comes in response to calls by African officials for increased production capacity in Africa rather than dependence on donations that are slow to arrive. The Biden administration wants to position the US as a country that prefers cooperation over coercion - again, in contrast with the Chinese model. In an interview with news magazine Jeune Afrique, Blinken said he was opposed to a model of infrastructure financing that "creates unsustainable debt for the partner country" - an explicit reference to Beijing’s practices.

The Biden administration wants to position the US as a country that prefers cooperation over coercion - again, in contrast with the Chinese model.

The US further donated over $1.9 billion in emergency funds for food and humanitarian supplies to complement its debt suspension for 32 African countries under the World Bank’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI). 

Strategic rivalry and economic opportunity

In a context of growing strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing, China was notably absent from Blinken’s speeches, at least explicitly - but China was omnipresent in the priorities and concerns expressed by the Secretary of State.

In fact, China overtook the US as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009. The balance will be further affected by Washington’s threat to suspend the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) for Ethiopia, Mali and Guinea on January 1, 2022, because of the war waged against Tigray by Ethiopia and the military coups that have taken place in the latter two. In a statement to Congress, the White House said the three countries "are not in compliance with the eligibility requirements of section 104" of the act. AGOA remains a critical part of the US-Africa trade relationship as the law, enacted in 2000, eliminates tariffs on thousands of products that are vital to many African economies.

However, the Biden administration does intend to remind American companies of the continent’s importance for them. Indeed, rapid urbanization and infrastructure development paired with strong demographic growth open up major investment opportunities. This is what Judd Devermont, former director of the Africa program at CSIS and now special advisor for the Africa strategy at the White House’s National Security Council (NSC) previously said in our blog. Biden’s announcement of a US-Africa summit set to be held in the summer of 2022 - news that was applauded by the US Chamber of Commerce - is a reflection of this outlook.

Co-authored with Marin Saillofest, Assistant Policy Officer.

 

Copyright: Andrew Harnik / POOL / AFP

 

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