Vice President Kamala Harris is the latest in a string of senior Biden officials to visit Africa as the Biden administration works to uphold pledges made at the U.S.-Africa Leader’s Summit in December 2022 and demonstrate its commitment to the continent. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen took a 10 day-tour in January, with UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield visiting Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique and Somalia later that month. First Lady Jill Biden visited Kenya and Namibia in February, and Secretary of State Blinken traveled to Ethiopia and Niger in March, his fourth trip since November 2021. President Biden reportedly also intends to visit the continent in 2023.
Harris was warmly welcomed in Ghana, Zambia, and Tanzania. In each country, she announced new initiatives and investments, including a $1 billion global initiative to support female African entrepreneurs and a promise to invest $7 billion in the private sector to help boost food production. This is in line with the $55 billion Biden pledged to spend across Africa over the next three years at the Summit last December.
The Africa Leader’s Summit was the first manifestation of the Biden Administration’s Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa. Released in August 2022, the strategy represents a significant shift in tone, asserting that the U.S. “must reset its relations with African counterparts.” It “affirms African agency,” emphasizes uplifting African voices, and highlights the opportunities and dynamism of the continent rather than its challenges.
Yet in other ways, the strategy is a continuation of U.S. policy, insofar as the Biden administration is still working to counter China and Russia’s respective influences across Africa. As Gilles Yabi, a nonresident scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently stated, “Now the messages from the Biden administration are much more subtle and sophisticated, but they are still a lot about countering Russia and China in Africa.”
Other Key Actors in Africa
The U.S. is not the only country increasing the pace of senior officials’ visits to Africa. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has conducted three diplomatic tours of Africa since July 2022. The war in Ukraine and Russia’s increasing isolation has made Africa an even more important potential partner for the Kremlin. While Russia takes a very different approach from China’s economic-driven model, its influence is nonetheless on the rise. Common tactics include disinformation campaigns, the deployment of mercenaries like the Wagner Group, and arms sales. Via these untraditional means, Russia “has systematically sought to undercut democracy in Africa, both to normalize authoritarianism as well as to create an entry point for Russian influence,” as the African Center for Strategic Study’s Joseph Siegle argues.
China’s presence across Africa is well established. While this was just the second U.S.-Africa Leader’s Summit, China has hosted the forum on China-African Cooperation consistently since 2000. China is currently involved in infrastructure projects in 35 African countries, is Africa’s largest trading partner (with trade hitting $254 billion in in 2021), and is also the largest provider of foreign direct investment across the continent (providing roughly twice that offered by the U.S.). In addition to these economic relationships, China has strong political, military and security ties with many African nations. Experts like Paul Nantulya, a research associate with the African Center for Strategic Studies, emphasize that Africa will only become more central to Xi’s ambitions during his third term.
While China has been systemically deepening its ties across Africa over the last 20 years and Russia over the last 10, other actors are now also competing for influence. Countries ranging from Brazil, Japan and South Korea to Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have a new (or renewed) interest in the continent. As the U.S. seeks to increase its influence across the continent, it will also have these actors to contend with.
African leaders, diplomats, and citizens are well aware of the choice that the U.S. has seemed to present in recent years: a binary selection between Washington and Beijing. While the recent Leader’s Summit featured less lecturing, some policy-makers continue to leverage these outdated talking points, much to the frustration of African leaders. As clearly articulated by Foreign Policy correspondent Howard French, the U.S. is not the only potentially valuable partner for African nations. The U.S. should avoid reacting to other countries’ activities on the continent, instead staying focused on its own clearly-articulated priorities and on delivering real benefits to African partners.
A Lasting Commitment
Over the next two years, the same senior U.S. officials who have been touring Africa will instead likely be touring the U.S. during Biden’s reelection campaign. The Biden administration should work to put policies in place that will enable a strong U.S.-Africa relationship to persist, regardless of the results of the 2024 election. This will also help create deep and lasting relationships with African leaders and publics alike, who are familiar with the potential whiplash that can be created by U.S. domestic politics.
Fortunately, there are number of programs with existing bipartisan support, including the African Growth and Opportunity Act, Power Africa, the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation. The Biden Administration should seek to enhance these programs and work through them where possible. The $15.7 billion worth of private sector partnerships and investments announced at the Leader’s Summit are also beneficial; once created, these relationships can ideally persist without support from Washington. Private sector efforts should focus on sectors where the U.S. has an upper hand, such as health, financial technology and renewable energy. The U.S. should also make senior civil servants a central component of its increased diplomacy to create relationships that can persist across administrations.
Following shortly on the heels of Harris’s visit to Africa, the deepening crisis in Sudan has thrown into sharp relief the challenges that continue to face some African nations, and the types of events that can undermine the U.S.’s priorities and derail its commitments. At the U.S. Africa Leader’s Summit in December 2022, President Biden stated that the U.S. was “all in on Africa.” Since then, the Biden Administration is taking steps to prove its commitment is more than just verbal. Nonetheless, the question of what “all in” will look like remains as political realities in the U.S. and circumstances across Africa evolve.