Is the New U.S. Africa Strategy More of the Same?


Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: A peace deal is signed in Senegal’s south, Ghana pursues reparations, and Nigeria pressures Britain on the return of Benin Bronzes.

If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.

Blinken Follows Lavrov on Africa Tour

On Monday, the White House 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 is 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.

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 reevaluate 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.

The Week Ahead

Wednesday, Aug. 10: South Africa’s opposition parties meet to discuss an approach to a no-confidence motion for President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Wednesday, Aug. 10, to Friday, Aug. 12: Blinken visits Rwanda following his stay in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Monday, Aug. 15: The United Nations Security Council’s Panel of Experts delivers a final report on sanctions in Mali.

What We’re Watching

Electoral commission officials proceed to count votes after the official closing of the polls during Kenya’s general election at Mathare North Social Hall in Nairobi on Aug. 9.

Electoral commission officials proceed to count votes after the official closing of the polls during Kenya’s general election at Mathare North Social Hall in Nairobi on Aug. 9.

Electoral commission officials proceed to count votes after the official closing of the polls during Kenya’s general election at Mathare North Social Hall in Nairobi on Aug. 9.LUIS TATO/AFP via Getty Images

Kenyan presidential elections. There were delays in voting in parts of Kenya yesterday, including in Mombasa, in part due to the failure of some electronic fingerprint scanning kits. Despite the logistical issues, more than 56 percent of the country’s 22 million registered voters cast their ballots; observers suggest the final tally will still be far lower than in the previous election, when 80 percent of those eligible voted. The results of Kenya’s last presidential election in 2017 were annulled after the Supreme Court ruled that the race had been called before all results from Kenya’s more than 40,000 polling stations had been received.

This year’s elections took place as Meg Whitman, the new U.S. ambassador to Kenya and a longtime tech executive, started her diplomatic posting in the country. Whitman told reporters in Nairobi on Sunday that she would use her “background in Silicon Valley” to work toward improving trade with Kenya and addressing issues around social media disinformation, which took on an outsized role in the run-up to elections

“As I understand deeply the challenges here in Kenya, I want to make sure that the companies who are responsible for these platforms also understand the positive and the negative effects,” Whitman said.

U.N.-Congo clash. More than 5,000 people attended a mass burial for 10 demonstrators killed during anti-U.N. protests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most of those killed at the protests were under the age of 30; the youngest was an 11-year-old child. According to multiple reports, soldiers from the U.N. mission in Congo, known as Monusco, were returning from leave when they opened fire on the border post. The U.N. blamed the violence on some demonstrators, which it accused of having seized weapons from local police.

Nearly 20 people have been killed in eastern Congo since protests began on July 25. Demonstrators blame the U.N. mission for failing to protect civilians from militia violence. The Congolese government said it would like peacekeepers to leave the country before the end of 2024.

Rwanda backing rebels. Rwanda’s government has rejected an unpublished report by U.N. Security Council experts, which found “solid evidence” that members of the country’s armed forces are working with and supporting the M23 rebel group in eastern Congo. Rwandan government spokesperson Yolande Makolo described the report as “false allegations” and a “tactic to distract from real issues.”

U.N. experts found evidence that M23 fighters and Rwandan troops jointly attacked a large Congolese army base in Rumangabo, in eastern North Kivu province, on May 25. Kigali has denied supporting M23; instead, it accuses Kinshasa of shelling its territory.

Senegal peace deal. Senegalese President Macky Sall’s ruling coalition lost its parliamentary majority in elections held last week. His Benno Bokk Yakaar coalition won 82 seats compared to the 125 seats it previously held. Opposition leaders had warned that a majority win would allow Sall to run for a controversial third term in 2024.

There was some good news for his administration though. The Senegalese government signed a peace deal with the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) rebel group from the country’s southern province of Casamance—which could bring about an end to a 40-year conflict in the southern region of Senegal. This is not the first time a peace deal has been struck, but there is hope that the agreement will be maintained.

MFDC leader César Atoute Badiate has pledged to lay down arms and work toward a permanent solution under an agreement with Sall that was mediated by Guinea-Bissau’s president, Umaro Sissoco Embaló, who is the new chair of the Economic Community of West African States. Casamance was under Portuguese rule for several centuries before being ceded to the French colonial empire in 1888; it was then integrated into Senegal at the time of its independence in 1960. People from the region speak the Jola language rather than Wolof—Senegal’s primary language—and factions from Casamance have demanded independence since 1982.

This Week in Culture

Nigeria seeks returns. Nigeria’s minister for information and culture, Lai Mohammed, called on the British government to return looted treasures to the country to demonstrate that the United Kingdom is serious about fortifying Commonwealth bonds now that it is out of the European Union.

In an op-ed published in Britain’s Independent over the weekend, Mohammed argued that Nigeria is “still awaiting a response to a letter from October 2021 demanding the repatriation of antiquities.”

It comes as Oxford’s Pitt Rivers and Ashmolean Museums as well as Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology agreed to return a combined total of 213 Benin Bronzes. These are not their entire collections; the Pitt Rivers Museum alone holds 105 of the bronzes, and Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology holds 160 bronzes. The claims will be assessed by the U.K. Charity Commission on whether legal ownership of the artifacts can be transferred to Nigeria.

Meanwhile, London’s Horniman Museum said on Sunday that ownership of its 72 Benin Bronzes would be transferred to the Nigerian government. Frederick John Horniman, a tea trader, purchased his collection of Benin Bronzes at an auction and from British soldiers involved in the sacking of Benin City in 1897.

Ghana to pursue reparations. Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo pushed for reparations for colonial crimes and slavery at the Reparations & Racial Healing Summit held last week in the Ghanaian capital, Accra.

“No amount of money can restore the damage caused by the trans-Atlantic slave trade—and its consequences—which has spanned many centuries, but nevertheless, it is now time to revive and intensify the discussions about reparation for Africa,” Akufo-Addo said.

The Accra summit seeks to create a unified continental approach toward ensuring reparations are paid. Ghanaians responding on social media accused Akufo-Addo of an attempt to distract citizens from the country’s economic troubles and his administration’s U-turn on talks with the International Monetary Fund over a bailout package.

Chart of the Week

U.S. and European envoys can’t seem to shake off African skepticism that reengagement on the continent is based on a desire to counter Chinese and Russian influence. Bilateral trade between China and Africa rose 35 percent in 2021 to $254 billion, although African countries only account for less than 4 percent of all global trade with China.

What We’re Reading

Gang-linked airline. An investigation by Malawi’s Platform for Investigative Journalism has revealed that an aviation company, Nyasa Air Charters, licensed in Malawi and linked to members of a gang sanctioned by the United States that emerged in Ireland, allegedly conducted a money laundering business out of Dubai.

The small airline reportedly runs an air ambulance service in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, but Malawi’s aviation department was unaware of the airline’s existence despite one of its former senior officials being listed as a director. According to leaked records obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the gang operates dozens of front companies that help transport narcotics and launder the proceeds.

Nigerian war crime? In Premium Times, journalist Ibrahim Adeyemi revealed that Nigeria’s military bombed a community in Kurebe in Niger State, Nigeria, in April—killing six children—while targeting Boko Haram and armed gangs known locally as bandits. Nigerian officials claimed only terrorists were occupying the area during the military airstrike, but Adeyemi’s investigation found the community is dominated by vulnerable civilians.

Free weekly Newsletter

A weekly breakdown of forecasts and trends

Enter your contact info to get The Financial Gambits VIP Newsletter for FREE.

We hate spam as much as you, if you dont like it just unsubscribe and we will never bother you again