From left: Ghana s Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia, Harris, Ghana s President Nana Akufo-Addo, and US Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff in a state banquet at the Jubilee House in Accra (photo: AFP)
On 26 March, US Vice President Kamala Harris set off on a tour of Africa that includes Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia, as part of the Biden administration’s latest bid to strengthen relations between the US and the continent, which Washington had largely ignored under former president Donald Trump. Harris hopes to reshape the image of her country and present it as a better partner than China, which has pumped vast investments into the continent over recent decades, acquiring an influence there that has outstripped that of the US and Europe.
The US vice president’s visit follows through on the US-Africa Summit that US President Biden hosted in December 2022 with the purpose of strengthening US strategic relations with Africa. The summit was attended by 49 African countries who collectively received pledges for more US investment and assistance. The vice presidential tour also comes shortly after US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s visit to Ethiopia and Niger in mid March.
Washington’s drive to step up cooperative relations with Africa has covered support for climate change action, exploration of ways to improve food security in a region that is home to many of the world’s poorest nations, and steps to improve institutional relations with the African Union, as occurred in December when Biden invited the AU to become a permanent member of the G-20 and promised to reform the UN Security Council to ensure a permanent seat for Africa.
With its eye on its economic competitor, China, Washington has also offered African countries export privileges to US markets and signed partnership agreements in various economic sectors. The Harris tour is expected to see the launch of initiatives to promote US partnership with the African Continental Free Trade Area, industrial cooperation and investment opportunities for US businesses in Africa.
The Biden administration has evidently rediscovered Africa as a potential linchpin for reinforcing its global leadership status in a particularly turbulent environment and at a time when it sees China and Russia encroaching on American interests and zones of influence. It is particularly disturbed by a growing Russian military presence in Africa, and by the inroads China has made in key economic sectors in a large number of African countries. Such circumstances set the context for Harris’ statements on the eve of her African tour, in which she stressed the importance of her country’s deep-rooted relations with Africa and its eagerness to promote peace, security and stability in the continent.
In addition to political and economic focuses, Washington has also been active in supporting the health sector in Africa. The US has invested $100 billion in public health in African countries over the past two decades, sending large quantities of Covid-19 vaccines to those countries that were most vulnerable to the virus and least able to combat it.
The US vice president’s visit to Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia is intended to demonstrate American support for the continent as it contends with severe economic and environmental challenges, according to political commentators. However, it is clear that her tour is also driven by the desire to counter international and regional powers whose policies conflict with Washington’s agendas. Foremost among these, of course, are Beijing, Moscow and Tehran which have developed vast networks of economic and political interest and influence across the African continent, which has once again become an arena in international power struggles. Washington’s current rivalry with Beijing, in particular, helps to explain its rush to Africa carrying packages of incentives to win over countries and offset the advances made by its strategic adversaries.
Washington has been campaigning to bolster its international alliances to secure its position at the helm of a unipolar world order and ward off the Russian and Chinese threat to its global hegemony. The competition has escalated into a new Cold War the most salient manifestation of which is the war in Ukraine. Most African countries have opted to remain neutral on that war and many of them have refused to comply with the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. Harris’ African “charm offensive,” as it has been described, is a sign that Washington was taken by surprise by such stances and that it has recalibrated its approach to influencing African policies on global issues that intersect with US interests the better to be able to mobilise African support for American positions on international and regional conflicts. In this regard, Washington is campaigning to have the Wagner PMC, which has expanded its operations in Africa, designated as a “terrorist organisation,” and it will need African support for that.
Of course, Harris’ trip and Blinken’s before, must also be seen in the context of the US desire to ensure access to Africa’s natural resources. The continent has long been famous for its abundant mineral and natural wealth and, more recently, significant natural gas reserves have been discovered off the coast of West Africa. All those resources are crucial to the US economy, especially at this time of global economic crisis. In addition, Africa offers a vast market for American products.
The quick succession of Blinken and Harris’ trips are a sign that US activities in Africa will pick up pace in the coming period, now that it has moved up in Washington’ priorities as a strategic asset on its global chess board.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly