Africa Reacts to Secretary Blinken’s Africa Tour

In our “Africa Reacts” series, the CSIS Africa Program asks prominent African journalists, civil society activists, and thought leaders to share their analysis on developments in the United States. By flipping the script—featuring African analysts’ views on the United States rather than U.S. analysts’ opinions on Africa—we are seeking to turn a fresh page in U.S.-Africa relations.

In our 11th edition of Africa Reacts, we asked African experts to provide their reactions to U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken’s recent trip to Nigeria, Senegal, and Kenya. It was the secretary’s first trip to sub-Saharan Africa in that role and provided a key opportunity for Blinken to communicate the administration’s approach toward the region. Many analysts noted Blinken’s stated desire to renew the U.S.-Africa relationship and wondered what this might look like beyond rhetoric. Others pointed to Blinken’s comparatively soft criticism of China—a U-turn from the Trump administration—but still questioned whether the visit’s primary aim was to send a message to Beijing. Finally, analysts looked ahead to the Summit for Democracy in December and emphasized the critical role of civil society and citizenry in future U.S.-Africa fora.

Read the previous installments of our Africa Reacts series here.

The contributions in this commentary have been edited by the CSIS Africa Program for brevity and clarity.

Oluwatosin Adeshokan, Journalist, West Africa (@theOluwatosin)

Secretary Blinken’s trip to Africa was a rehashing of old and very redundant ideas about America’s greatness and role in the world. For all of the “America is a friend to Africa” rhetoric we see, America and other Western powers have since reduced their presence on the continent. Instead, we have a continent where China, Russia, and Turkey are making substantial investments, as well as forming new alliances in trade, security, and the military. Blinken’s trip really is just a show of power in this new iteration of a Cold War: China versus the United States. It does not come with extra pledges for investment, it does not do anything more to strengthen Africa’s rather weak institutions and democracies. It is just a message to China, like almost everything the United States does these days.

Dr. Ibrahima Aidara, Open Society Initiative for West Africa (@ibrahimaaidara1)

Here are some key takeaways from Blinken’s trip to Africa:

  • The United States wants to change the way it engages with Africa, but we have little indication of the tools that can be created (or revamped) to meet this resurgence of influence, especially on the economic and democratic fronts. For example, what is the future of trade or infrastructure cooperation, and how far is Washington willing to go? What will happen to the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), Power Africa, Prosper Africa, and other frameworks?

  • Instead of a direct attack and critique of U.S. competitors (namely China and Russia), Secretary Blinken emphasized the need to engage African governments based on shared U.S.-African interests—instead of simply competing with other big powers. The big lesson is that if the “race” is to be won, Africa must be treated with respect.

  • The United States is seeking to reclaim its role as a global leader in defense of democracy. The countries visited during Blinken’s trip qualify as democracies. However, these are also countries where the risk of regression exists.

  • Blinken’s visit was also a call for African leadership, scholarship, and citizenry to reinvest and reclaim foreign policy space. A sine qua non condition for better China-Africa relations, for example, is for Africa to be much more invested, accountable, forward looking, and ambitious about what they need from the partnership. The United States cannot solve this problem for us.
Uduak Amimo, Journalist, Kenya (@UduakAmimo)

U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken’s first official visit to Africa marks the Biden administration’s recognition of the damaging effects of the “shithole” comment made by the previous administration, as well as the elevation of the continent on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. The shift is hardly surprising. Africa moved on with other strategic relationships with partners who offered both resources and respect. While we in Africa often feel burdened by poor leadership, we’ve managed to organize ourselves into the world’s largest free-trade zone through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA); we remain the world’s fastest-growing, youngest continent. The change in approach is welcome and overdue. Washington has a lot of catching up to do to move beyond lofty promises to demonstrate and embed the equal partnership approach, while remaining sensitive to centuries of colonialism, slavery, and exploitation, which Blinken promised to do during his stop in Nigeria.

Idayat Hassan, Centre for Democracy and Development (@HassanIdayat)

U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken’s recent visit to Nigeria, Senegal, and Kenya—three of the continent’s biggest socioeconomic and political giants—highlights the continued strategic importance of Africa to the United States. However, the fact that the visit came 11 months after President Biden’s inauguration into office indicates that it is not a top priority for his administration.

Blinken’s visit showed that the United States is reluctant to take a hands-on approach to the brewing political instability and security issues on the continent. Blinken emphasized the need for African countries to take the lead on solving problems. But with rising insecurity and the increasing potential for state failure in several contexts, the United States needs to take a more active role in deepening democracy. Instead, Blinken identified Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as important mediators in helping reach a truce in Sudan and placed the burden of solution to the simmering conflict in Ethiopia on the African Union and Kenya. Relying on illiberal countries like Saudi Arabia to broker solutions is unlikely to boost democracy promotion efforts in the region.

Blinken also spoke of the need to organize a second U.S.-Africa leaders’ summit. This conference, while welcome, continues the age-old pattern of government-to-government engagement, which cuts off the very visible need to involve citizens as important stakeholders in U.S.-Africa relations. U.S. policy toward Africa should focus more on government-to-citizen partnerships, active engagement with civil society organizations, people-to-people engagements, and the mandatory inclusion of citizens, advocacy groups, and civil society in any U.S.-Africa fora and roundtable engagements. Despite the United States’ flaws, many Africans continue to look to it as a benchmark for democracy and democratic ideals. It must not look away.

Aggrey Mutambo, Nation Media Group, Kenya (@agmutambo)

Secretary Blinken’s trip offered a glimpse into U.S. policy toward Africa under Biden. While Blinken seemed to turn away from former president Trump’s perceived disrespectful comments about Africa, he unfortunately seemed to be playing catch-up to China. The United States should learn by now that its ties with Africa must be independent of how Africa relates with anyone else, including China.

Tope Templer Olaiya, The Guardian Nigeria (@TopeTempler)

Secretary Blinken’s visit to Nigeria, Senegal, and Kenya (his first Africa trip in his current role) comes after the controversial Nigeria tours of his predecessors. Recall that Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, infamously got the boot via a tweet during his first (and last) trip to Nigeria. Secretary Kerry’s visit just months before Nigeria’s 2015 general election—in which the incumbent president lost—was less dramatic but more controversial. Secretary Clinton’s visit to Nigeria in August 2009 was not quite as controversial.

Blinken’s visit comes amid shrinking civic space in the country; it also raised some dust, as 24 hours before his arrival, he delisted Nigeria from nations accused of violating religious freedom by the U.S. government, ignoring recommendations from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). His visit also came days after a leaked government report indicted the country’s military of killing defenseless protesters in Lagos, and during a time when social microblogging site Twitter is under ban and lawmakers are considering a bill to gag the media.

Ayisha Osori, Open Society Initiative for West Africa ( @Naijavote )

Blinken’s speech was thoughtful and a welcome deviation from the rhetoric of the past. However, Africa’s potential of being an effective partner in solving global issues (climate, security, economic equity) is limited by our politics, which are currently designed for state capture and democracy capture. These multiple captures have been facilitated by democratic and undemocratic nations whose activities need to be addressed in order to sustainably strengthen democracy. Beyond words, we need an honest review of the current world order, including the United Nations, and a globally accepted understanding of the ways in which people can shape and determine the types of systems that work for them. The agenda, structure, and participants at the U.S. Summit on Democracy and the promised U.S.-Africa summit will be a useful litmus test of sincerity.

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