On November 15, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken set off for Africa on his first trip to the continent as the United States’ top diplomat, with stops in Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal. This summer, Blinken postponed his visit, originally planned for August, as the United States became engrossed in its messy withdrawal from Afghanistan. Now, Blinken is making the trip this week to convey the Biden administration’s overplayed message that “America is back” as two crises critical to U.S. interests in the strategically important Horn of Africa region rage on.
What’s on the Agenda?
While not making stops in either country, the crises – Ethiopia and Sudan – will likely top the list when Blinken meets with the Kenyan president. In Nigeria, Blinken will deliver a speech outlining the Biden administration’s Africa strategy and discuss health, energy, and security issues with the Nigerian president. Blinken will close out his trip in Senegal, where he will reiterate the close partnership between the two countries.
In the first ten months of his tenure, Secretary Blinken has traveled to every other region of the world, except Africa, which is often eclipsed by urgent crises in regions considered to be more strategically important to the U.S. In fact, Blinken’s visits to three of the United States’ closest partners in Africa highlights the lack of attention that this region receives in U.S. foreign policy. It took two major crises – a coup and a potential civil war – to entice America’s top diplomat to Africa when there are myriad issues in which the U.S. has interests. Now, it is time for the United States to pay closer attention to Africa.
Multiple Coups and A Civil War
Over the past year, coups and civil wars have shaken the African continent. For one, the Horn of Africa has been a hotbed of activity. Ethiopia, arguably the United States’ closest ally in Africa, is on the precipice of civil war. Ethiopia’s western neighbor, Sudan, suffered a military coup in October when the coup leader reappointed himself as the chairman of the new sovereign council, sparking a political crisis in the country’s nascent and fragile democratic transition. To the east, Somalia has been experiencing its own political crisis for decades. These crises promise to be topics of conversation when Blinken visits Kenya, another member of the volatile neighborhood.
Military takeovers in Africa seem to be in vogue over the past twelve months The coup in Sudan was the fourth this year. Similarly, three countries in West Africa – Mali, Guinea, and Chad – also experienced coups. Moreover, coup attempts occurred in the Central African Republic, Niger, and Madagascar. Yet, those countries were able to fight off the unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the sitting governments. One of the objectives of Blinken’s three-country trip to Africa will focus on defending democracy This is coming at a particularly challenging time given the democratic backsliding in many countries across Africa. The military takeovers and potential civil war have the potential to upset U.S. interests in of the most some strategically important regions in Africa. Encouraging democratic governance across Africa is in the United States’ interest.
The Terrorist Threat in Africa is Real
Many countries across all regions of sub-Saharan Africa suffer from terrorist groups operating in the vast and often lawless areas. After the end of the Cold War, counterterrorism became central to U.S. policy toward the continent as a result of the rise of international terrorism. Many of the terrorist groups located in Africa maintain ties with U.S. adversaries like al Qaeda and the Islamic State. In in the Sahel region, terrorist groups such as the Group of the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) plague the vast, instability-ridden region. Boko Haram, a dangerous group in Nigeria, is allied with the Islamic State and is infamous for kidnapping young, school-aged girls.
In East Africa, al Shabab, once labeled as “the world’s largest, best financed, most kinetically active arm of al-Qaida” by the U.S. commander of U.S. forces in Africa, is based in Somalia with approximately 10,000 fighters and aims of overthrowing the virtually non-existent government. In Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army – a fundamentalist Christian group – wages war against the government. Moreover, the Islamic State reaches further south into Africa in the form of an insurgency group in Mozambique, responsible for vicious attacks. These terrorist groups around Africa, many of which espouse anti-American ideology and often target Western citizens, are dangerous and directly pose threats to the United States and its allies.
The Other Global Power
China’s influence in Africa has long agitated the United States. In fact, China has surpassed the United States’ diplomatic, political, and economic influence on the continent. As the second largest economy in the world, China has ample resources to fund development projects in several African countries. Beyond that, Chinese foreign direct investment increased significantly and exceeded the United States’ in 2014. Moreover, China is now Africa’s largest trade partner and largest bilateral lender to many African nations. China’s influence on the African continent cannot be overstated.
As President Biden noted early in his administration, China is the “biggest geopolitical test” of this century. For this reason, Africa is becoming an increasingly important battleground in the growing tensions between the two competitors. China is an attractive option to African nations desperate for economic and development assistance because China, unlike the United States and its Western allies, does not “condition its assistance on political agendas,” including democracy promotion and human rights. Still, this is the primary manner in which China has gained more influence across Africa compared to the United States. As the Biden administration shifts U.S. foreign policy focus toward the Indo-Pacific region, with its eye primarily on China, the United States must step up its engagement with Africa so as not to lose any further ground to China.