Secretary of State Antony Blinken observed firsthand the limits of American power in Africa. Blinken had to deal with authoritarianism, resurgent radicals, COVID-19, and global warming, all of which rejected different US efforts.
His recent trip to Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal revealed clear indicators of the strength of the fight between the US and China. This geopolitical power struggle has favored China for two decades, particularly in Africa.
Blinken said he was pleasantly treated by all three presidents he visited before departing Africa. However, people must be assessed on their actions, not just what they say.
Although Washington’s influence has always been limited, President Biden’s recent promotion of an “America is back” narrative underlined it. The secretary spent much of his time in Nairobi in the presence of a large Chinese-financed elevated highway building project.
The US and China
In Abuja, Blinken’s convoy passed the massive Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Nigeria offices. A top official even joked about playing the US and China off one another and China’s appeal as a partner.
Blinken: Let's hope Africa doesn't fall into China's debt trap.
Nigeria's foreign minister: The Chinese investment presented "fantastic opportunities" and the debt profile was "sustainable". pic.twitter.com/oG9t3QV0qE
— Dai Weiwei (@WEIWEIDAI4) November 20, 2021
Less encouraging is the overall image of the Biden administration’s attempts to assist African nations in combating the coronavirus outbreak and promote climate-friendly legislation.
Last Friday, Blinken claimed administrations were becoming less accountable. As witnessed across Africa, presidents ignore term limits, manipulate elections, and use popular grievances to achieve and keep power.
They also imprison opposition figures, censor the media, and allow security agencies to enforce restrictions ruthlessly. While Blinken did not visit either nation, he mentioned the issues at each stop.
I urge all sides to further talks and redouble efforts to complete key transitional tasks on a civilian-led path to democracy in Sudan. I also reiterate our call for security forces to refrain from excessive force against peaceful protesters.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) November 21, 2021
Democracy in Africa
Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok of Sudan, who a military coup toppled, negotiated an agreement with the military to be reinstalled. Blinken himself was hesitant, admitting he was impressed but wanted to see more.
In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed refused to lift a humanitarian embargo imposed on the northern Tigray area by rebels marching on the capital.
Conversely, the US continues to stifle African infrastructure, economic, and poverty reduction projects via persistent corruption and power abuses.
However, more important issues in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America have often overshadowed Africa in the Biden administration’s first ten months on the job.
The White House said on Friday that Biden would organize a meeting of US-Africa leaders next year to improve ties based on mutual respect, common interests, and values. However, the statement lacked important specifics, like who would be there and when.
Aside from the attention it garnered in Washington, the Afghan pullout has left several American allies, notably those in Africa, questioning the strength of their ties with Washington. That has been a concern as China stepped in to fill a perceived hole in US interest in Africa.
Biden and Blinken want to overturn that impression, fostered by the Trump administration’s apathy toward Africa and viewed through the lens of China’s rising might. For example, in his Friday speech on the Biden administration’s Africa policy, Blinken never mentioned China by name.