Analysis - Political Transformations

Double Containment

Does Blinken's Africa Tour signify a change to US foreign policy?
Thursday، November 25، 2021
Double Containment

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken travelled across Africa from November 15-20 in his first official tour to the continent since he took office in January. The tour which included Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal came amid huge challenges facing the US policy across Africa. These include a faltering transition in Sudan following the unusual measures taken by Army Chief and Head of the Sovereignty Council General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan on October 25; an ongoing civil war in Ethiopia, and mounting fears that instability, shrinking democracy and the survival of the state in Nigeria. On top of that, Washington is concerned over the expansion of both Russia and China in Africa that comes at the expense of the United States’ traditional partners.


Goals of Blinken’s Africa Tour

The importance of prioritizing Nigeria, Kenya and Senegal in Blinken’s Africa tour lies in the fact that it reflects the goals of a new US policy on the continent being pursued by the Administration of President Joe Biden. The strategic importance of the whole African continent means that it will shape the future of the world, according to Blinken himself. All the three African nations are likely to be an example of the new US partnerships over democratization, supporting drivers of economic growth, innovation as well as the fight against climate change. 


This was reflected by Blinken’s meeting with Senegalese women entrepreneurs in Dakar, his participation in the signing ceremony of deals between four US companies and Senegal worth more than $1 billion to build infrastructure projects in the African country. The American top diplomat also visited the Institut Pasteur, a Dakar-based biomedical medical research center producing Covid-19 vaccines with help from the US.  This is one of the goals of Blinken's Africa tour, where the US is helping the African nations step up their Covid-19 vaccination efforts. But on the other side, defending democracy features in the Biden Administration's foreign policy, especially because the US and China are competing for influence, not only in Africa but also across the world. 


Blinken’s first stop was in Kenya, a major player in Ethiopia and Sudan and is currently a member of the United Nations Security Council. Furthermore, Kenya has major interests in Somalia, which has been suffering violence and instability for decades. Blinken, however, appeared to have concerns over Kenya’s political system. Human rights groups say that the system showed signs of authoritarian tendencies over the past years. That is why the US high-level official insisted on meeting Kenya’s civil society activists, who warned against threats facing the progress of democracy, as the country is heading towards elections in August next year. This indicates that the Biden Administration realizes democratic stagnation across Africa. 


The Slogan of Returning to Africa

Despite its crucial impotence in the rivalry between the US and China, Africa was often overshadowed by more pressing matters in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and even Latin America. That is why, Blinken’s Africa tour was aimed in part at raising Washington’s profile as a major player in regional and international initiatives to restore peace and promote democracy amid its competition with Russia, China and other actors in international relations. Additionally, it was hard to promote the message of America is back’, despite the huge funds and vaccines offered by the US to Africa to help in the fight against Covid-19 and other infectious diseases. All the while China has been pumping billions of dollars into Africa’s energy and infrastructure projects that Washington sees as rip-offs designed to take advantage of the African nations. 


Blinken’s trip to Africa was postponed from August, a telling sign of a change of priorities during the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan. A special source of concern was that China filled the void created by Washington’s absence from Africa as it was preoccupied by other parts of the world. This view fueled the Donald Trump Administration’s indifference to Africa as its policy solely revolved around China’s fast-paced expansion, a reality that the Biden Administration hopes to change. 


A New Approach to Contain China

Washington is showing a new realistic approach to contain China’s influence in Africa. This is what showed Blinken as much different from his predecessors. US policy has long been based on candidly lecturing African nations not to strike deals with Beijing that could saddle them with debt. But rather than lecturing again, which didn't really work, Blinken is trying to offer countries a different path, deals that are going to benefit local workers, deals that are more sustainable. He wants this US-China competition on the continent to be a race to the top, as he calls it. It was a funny moment on Blinekn’s trip when Nigeria's Foreign Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, talked about how this competition might be a good for his country. Onyeama said that his country is like an attractive bride and everybody is “offering (her) wonderful things. So she takes what she can from each of them.”

Blinken made an implicit reference to the risks of Africa’s growing reliance on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese investment, much of it in the form of massive debt. He insisted that American dollars come with labor, environmental and anti-corruption protections — all of which are often absent from Chinese projects. Blinken, according to the New York Times, has adopted a lighter touch on the subject of China than his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, who framed his sole visit to Africa, in February 2020, around competition with Beijing — urging African nations to “be wary of authoritarian regimes and their empty promises.” He claimed that economic partnership with the US would bring “true liberation.”


Promoting Trade Exchange

Nigeria and South Africa are the United States’ largest two trading partners in Africa, both accounting for more than 50%  of the US-Africa trade. However, US trade with the continent accounts for only 1 percent of US total foreign trade exchange. While African countries export natural resources, such as crude oil, which accounts for a third of total exports, they import manufactured goods from the US. This deficit or negative trade balance with the world’s poorest region is intentionally being promoted through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which has been in place for more than two decades. The act allows for duty-free import of products from African countries, and supports African-made textile/apparel exports to the US. However, trade between the US and Africa has been plummeting over the past five years. At the same time, China has become an increasingly important trading partner for Sub-Sahara and the whole continent. Recent statistics show that the volume of Sino-African trade is four times higher than Africa’s trade with the US. That is why, the US is working on forging trade partnerships with African nations. 


Focussing on Combating Terrorism

Combating terrorism, backing national military and security forces of African nations represent a main pillar of the current US policy on Africa. One should remember that three years before the 9/11 attacks, the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were blown up on August 7, 1998. The terrorist bombings claimed more than 220 lives, left scores others injured and completely destroyed the buildings of the two embassies. As a result, security became a dominant feature of the US policy on Africa and up to date continues to be a determinant in the US relationship with the whole continent. 


This approach materialized, when the United States Army began in 2001 to build a network of bases in 15 African countries, and in the Sahel and Horn of Africa in particular. Most and foremost, this contributes towards fighting terror jihadist groups, basically operating in the Sahel, Nigeria, Somalia and Mozambique but posing a threat to neighboring countries as well. The largest US military base in Africa is in Djibouti, on the continent's eastern coast. 


US troops have been engaging in widespread activities in Africa over the past years. Washington has pumped billions of dollars in security assistance to its African partners. Additionally, the US special forces conducted counter-terrorism combat operations in no less than 13 African countries from 2013 and 2017. Later in 2019, the American Army conducted an airstrike against the Somalia-based Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen on a weekly basis. Furthermore, US military advisers are training African troops and even directly conducting operations against Uganda’s Lord's Resistance Army rebels. 


In 2007, during the tenure of former President George W. Bush (2001-2008), US Africa Command (AFRICOM) was established and was located  in Stuttgart-Möhringen. As of January 2020, some 5,100 US service members and about 1,000 Pentagon civilians and contractors were deployed in Africa, according to AFRICOM. 


This US military presence began to shrink as more Americans are demanding that troops be sent home. Up to date, there are no signs that the Biden Administration will be more militarily engaged in combating terrorism. And at the same time, it is also not clear whether Trump’s decision to remove all troops from Africa will be overridden.


The Biden Administration attaches great importance to the Russian presence in Africa, which gives rise to what can be called ‘double containment’ of Russia and China in Africa.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently  warned a shadowy Russian private security company Wagner Group in interfering in efforts aimed at restoring democracy in Mali. Wagner deployed mercenaries to Syria, the Central African Republic and Libya, angering Western countries that accuse it of committing human rights abuses. 


Challenges in Sudan and Ethiopia

Blinken’s made his trip to the Eastern African country of Kenya after months of intense diplomatic engagement by President Biden's special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffery Feltman who was trying to reach diplomatic solutions to the region’s crises. But the US diplomatic influence in Africa is facing serious challenges due to the faltering transition in Sudan and the war intensifying in Ethiopia. Blinken spent a long time in Kenya, his first stop in the Africa trip to discuss the deterioration in Sudan and Ethiopia, a sign that Washington is seeking to push Nairobi to play a leading regional role and replace Addis Ababa. 


Ethiopia’s civil war, which began a year ago in the Tigray Region, has led to a severe famine and atrocities. The US has been trying to convince the Ethiopian government to halt offensives and allow humanitarian assistance to move into Tigray. But these attempts prompted Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to take to twitter to harshly criticize Western governments’ efforts to put an end to the war, and to accuse “enemies” of leading an “existential war”. He was referring to his bitter enemies, the Tigray. Ahmed said that these forces are using misleading information as a pathway for their evil movement. In light of the intransigence of all parties to this war, Blinken was looking for help from regional countries to reach a solution to this crisis. 


The issue in Sudan appears to be less complicated. The US top diplomat condemned the measures taken by General al-Burhan and demanded the reinstatement of Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok to put the country’s democratic transition back on track towards election of a civilian government. The deal that resulted in the reinstatement of Hamdok on November 21 and the formation of a technocratic cabinet appears to have restored some stability to Sudan. Additionally, this development meets US demands of reinstating Hamdok, even though his cabinet is still under military oversight. 


Although some demand a more decisive US approach, where Washington flexes its muscles, Blinken did not offer an explanation as to the additional steps that the US may take to influence the course of action in Sudan and Ethiopia, but he warned that there will be consequences of what he described as “atrocities being committed in Ethiopia.


The conclusion is that Blinken’s trip to Africa showed signs of a remarkable shift in the US rhetoric about, and view of Africa. In his three stops, Blinken spoke about cooperation partnerships between sovereign equals  that are based on mutual interests. He avoided the arrogant rhetoric embraced by the former US Administrations towards Africa. No doubt, the US acknowledgement that Africa is the future shows that it is no longer possible to ignore this continent. However, the standard that will govern the new approach to Africa hinges on how far would the US give up the rhetoric of rivalry between great powers and its colonial implications in Africa. 


Keywords: USAfricaBlinken African Tour