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Antony Blinken speaking at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, Nov. 18, 2021 (AP photo by Andrew Harnik).

Blinken’s Visit to Africa Aims to Make Up for Lost Time

Friday, Nov. 19, 2021

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is currently on a five-day tour of sub-Saharan Africa, his first to the region since taking office in January. Having already visited Kenya and Nigeria this week, he will conclude his tour Saturday in Senegal.

The trip comes amid intensifying challenges for U.S. policy across Africa, including a deadly new crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Sudan following last month’s coup, a persistent civil conflict in Ethiopia, and mounting concerns about instability, democratic regression and the viability of the state in Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation. Washington is also concerned about China’s deepening relationship with African countries, including some traditional U.S. partners.

Blinken began his visit in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, where he met with Foreign Minister Raychelle Omano and President Uhuru Kenyatta. On the agenda were climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and regional security issues. Kenya is a longstanding U.S. security partner as well as the largest economy in East Africa, and it currently holds a non-permanent, two-year seat on the U.N. Security Council, as well as a seat on the African Union’s Peace and Security Council. The Biden administration is leaning heavily on Kenya to mediate in regional hotspots like Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia. Blinken also met with local civil society leaders before departing Nairobi.

On Thursday, he landed in Nigeria for talks with senior officials, including President Muhammadu Buhari, again to discuss key issues like the pandemic and regional security. During this leg of the trip, Blinken signed a five-year, $2 billion development assistance agreement with Nigeria. He also announced that Biden intends to host a summit with African leaders, though there was no mention of when it would take place. 

In Senegal, Blinken is expected to highlight U.S. efforts to work with the country in manufacturing its own vaccines. In the capital, Dakar, he is scheduled to visit the Pasteur Institute, which received a $3.3 million contribution from the U.S.

For many observers, the visit is a face-saving attempt to make up not only for Washington’s lost ground to China, but also for the previous four years of total neglect and outright hostility toward Africa under former President Donald Trump. Indeed, during a speech Friday to the Economic Community of West African States, he also said the Biden administration would treat the continent as a “major geopolitical power,” suggesting a marked change in approach from the Trump years. The three countries Blinken chose for his visit are all important U.S. partners, and their leaders have been invited to Biden’s democracy summit

Washington is clearly concerned about the inroads China has made across the continent. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the flagship triennial event of China-Africa ties, is scheduled to be held next week in Dakar—albeit without the attendance of Chinese President Xi Jinping—and U.S. officials will almost certainly be monitoring the event closely. 

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However, Blinken has pushed back against the characterization of his visit—and U.S. engagement with Africa more broadly—as driven by geopolitical aims. “Our engagement in Africa … is not about China or any other third party. It’s about Africa,” he said in a joint press conference with Nigeria’s foreign minister. 

But Murtala Abdullahi, a Nigerian journalist and researcher who covers climate change and security issues, is unconvinced. Blinken “basically repeated comments you would hear or expect from American officials. His stop in Nigeria didn’t demonstrate that the Biden administration is invested in expanding the relationship with Nigeria,” he told me. 

In particular, Abdullahi pointed to Blinken’s talking points on climate change, which barely contained any specifics about how Washington could work with Abuja, for example to boost financing for adaptation and mitigation efforts. Nor did Blinken publicly mention increased U.S. assistance to Nigeria on renewable energy development. 

On other issues, too, there were scant signs of progress. U.S. officials “don’t want to press hard on human rights, and they are not dramatically expanding economic and security investments in Nigeria,” Abdullahi said. 

Regardless of the geopolitical implications of U.S. engagement in Africa, many believe that the continent still stands to benefit from the jostling by foreign powers for influence—as long as African leaders are thoughtful in their approach. 

“African governments should determine how offers from rival partners can best align with their national development priorities,” Folashade Soule, a senior research associate at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government, told me. She cited Senegal as an example, where the government has adopted a strategic plan that includes sector-specific priorities determined by a special Economic Prospective Unit, which is attached to the presidency. Members of the unit carefully choose which foreign partners have the best potential to realize key priorities. 

Such a strategic approach to diversifying foreign partners allows Senegal to be less dependent on its legacy relationship with France or its growing new partnership with China, Soule pointed out. She also noted the findings of a recent Afrobarometer survey, which suggest that African citizens see U.S.-China rivalry on the continent not as an either-or dilemma, but rather a win-win situation. “It is up to African governments to make use of the benefits that these rivalries present,” she said. 

Keep up to date on Africa news with our daily curated Africa news wire

Civil Society Watch

Three local civil society groups have sued the South African government over its new plan to develop coal-fired power plants. South Africa currently plans to generate 1,500 megawatts of new energy from coal, but opponents say the plan threatens citizens’ rights to a clean and healthy environment.  

At the recently completed COP26 summit, South Africa announced a “watershed” agreement with several Western countries to transition away from coal-burning power plants.

Culture Watch

Art X Lagos, West Africa’s major contemporary art fair, returned to its physical venue at the Federal Palace Hotel in the city’s swanky Victoria Island district, after going online last year amid the coronavirus pandemic. The sixth edition of the event, reportedly the first in-person art fair anywhere on the continent since the onset of the pandemic, ran from Nov. 4 to Nov. 7, and is continuing online until the 21st. 

Founded by Nigerian entrepreneur Tokini Peterside, the arts fair underscores Lagos’ position as a hotbed of cultural innovation and creativity. During this year’s event, Peterside disclosed that the show’s popularity is growing, with corporate sponsors increasing their patronage every year. 

This year’s edition brought together 30 leading galleries showcasing 120 artists from more than 30 countries. The fair also opted to organize a special sale of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, in partnership with the digital art marketplace, Superrare. African NFT artists such as Youssef El Idrissi, Linda Dounia and Rendani Nemakhavhani showcased their work, as did others from across the diaspora. 

Top Reads From Around the Web

Musically, Congo is the mothership. Vik Sohonie, the founder of grammy-nominated record label Ostinato Records, writes in Africa is a Country about the documentary film “Rumba Kings,” which was selected to screen at the recently held Pan-African Film Festival in Cannes. Directed by Peruvian-American filmmaker Alan Brain, the documentary traces the development of the popular Congolese dance music known as Rumba, while offering “a commendable and tireless argument for both an intangible cultural heritage and a centering of the Congolese way,” Sohonie writes.

Revealed: The CIA and MI6’s Secret War in Kenya. Given Blinken’s recent visit to Kenya, this report from 2020 by Namir Shabibi in the British investigative journalism outfit Declassified UK, on the role of a U.S.- and U.K.-trained Kenyan paramilitary team accused of renditions and extrajudicial killings of terror suspects, is worth re-upping.

Chris O. Ogunmodede is an associate editor with World Politics Review. His coverage of African politics, international relations and security has appeared in War on The Rocks, Mail & Guardian, The Republic, Africa is a Country and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @Illustrious_Cee.

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