The US Re-Engages With Africa

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Washington is trying to regain ground it lost to Beijing and Moscow.

After three decades of treating the African continent mostly as an afterthought, the U.S. is adjusting its strategy to curb the growing influence of its biggest rivals. The new approach was detailed in an August 2022 report, “U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa,” which described plans for a more pragmatic Africa policy and greater engagement in the realms of security and economics. Then, in December 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden hosted leaders and senior officials from 49 African countries in Washington. This new U.S. focus on pragmatic engagement across multiple sectors became increasingly evident throughout 2023.

From the Cold War to Wagner

After the first wave of decolonization dislodged European powers from Africa from the mid-1950s until the early 1960s, the global competition between two new superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, cast a shadow over the continent. To contain Soviet influence and communist ideology, the U.S. formed partnerships and provided financial and security aid to friendly African governments as well as groups opposed to pro-Soviet regimes. When the Cold War ended, Africa tumbled down the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities. In most cases where it became involved, Washington tended to stress adherence to Western ideals like democracy, transparency and human rights, which often clashed with the interests of authoritarian African regimes. With Washington offering less but demanding more, growing numbers of Africans questioned whether the U.S. could meet their countries’ needs.

Into this vacuum stepped Russia and China. The Chinese offered investment, but the Russians offered guns. Initially through the mercenary Wagner Group, Russian forces spread in and around the Sahel – in Mali, Burkina Faso, Libya, the Central African Republic and Sudan – and entrenched themselves in the national security infrastructure (not to mention lucrative mining concerns). Western-led efforts to isolate Russia over its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine spurred Moscow to dedicate even more attention and resources to Africa, where friendly governments help Russia resist international political pressure, evade sanctions and threaten U.S. allies in Europe with energy insecurity and mass migration. For the U.S., it was clear that a new strategy was urgently needed.

Trade, Investment and Diplomacy

Outlined during the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit in 2022, the first major change was a U.S. commitment to invest $55 billion in the continent over the next three years. In year one, the U.S. and Africa signed hundreds of deals worth at least $14.2 billion. These included U.S. investments in minor infrastructure projects, local industrial development and green energy projects. Washington also established Prosper Africa, an initiative that connects U.S. and African businesses to facilitate trade and investment.

A potent example of the shifting U.S. policy is in southern Africa, where the U.S. (with EU support) is looking to counter Chinese dominance in the critical minerals sector. For well over a decade (and with minimal competition), Beijing has been snapping up African mineral rights and pouring money into African infrastructure. But now the U.S., through the G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment fund, is trying to catch up. The headline project, the Lobito Corridor, involves building a railway connection between the mineral-rich regions of the southern Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia’s copper belt and Angola. A memorandum of understanding was signed in October, and the African Development Bank promised to help raise $1.6 billion in financing, in addition to contributing $500 million itself. Upon its completion (which U.S. officials claim could be within five years), the corridor will support regional trade and provide an efficient route for the region’s minerals to reach the Atlantic coast and then U.S. and European markets.

Besides trade and investment, Biden administration officials also have traveled frequently to Africa. To name a few, Vice President Kamala Harris visited Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia; First Lady Jill Biden went to Namibia and Kenya; Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with officials in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda in August; and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stopped by Djibouti, Kenya and Angola in September. For the first time in decades, U.S. department heads and bureaucrats were instructed to step up their engagement with the continent.

Bases and Security Assistance

Managing security relationships posed a tougher test, but Washington’s newfound pragmatism is on display here too. When Niger suffered a military coup, the U.S. resisted pressure from allies, particularly France, to condemn the actions of the new junta. Its caution paid off. French military bases in the country were closed and French forces were expelled, while American troops at a U.S. drone base remain. (In another setback for Paris, U.S. mining company Global Atomic has moved into Niger’s uranium mining sector, which was previously dominated by French state mining company Orano.) Even the military junta’s outreach to Russia has not radically changed the U.S. approach.

Another example is the Central African Republic. Through the Wagner Group, the Russian security establishment has tightly bound itself to the regime of President Faustin-Archange Touadera and exerts significant control over the CAR’s economy. However, the government in Bangui evidently has not shut the door on the United States, because it is reportedly in discussions with U.S. military contractor Bancroft on the establishment of a military base. Bancroft would also train CAR forces, protect mining sites and provide security against armed groups in the country. The contractor has extensive experience in Africa and working with the U.S. military, having spent the past decade operating in Somalia, where it supported U.S. and government forces against the al-Shabab terrorist group. Considering this history, U.S. officials were likely aware of the discussions, though they deny having been involved. However, Russian media expressed surprise at the news. Many of the functions Bancroft would provide are already being managed by the Russian military, which has taken over Wagner’s contracts, making the potential deal a direct challenge to Moscow’s influence in Bangui.

After many years of detachment, the U.S. is making Africa a priority again. This is largely in response to China’s maneuvers to control the continent’s strategic minerals and Russia’s attempts to replace Western countries as security providers and to circumvent Western sanctions. The U.S.’ more pragmatic strategy is already bearing fruit, but it is unclear how successful it will be over the longer term.

Ronan Wordsworth is an analyst for Geopolitical Futures. He completed a Masters in Geopolitical Studies at Charles University in Prague in 2022. He has an ongoing association with the University, including assisting an ongoing project of African University partnerships and is co-host of a Geopolitics Podcast. Prior to undertaking the master’s program, Mr Wordsworth completed a Bachelor of Civil Engineering from the University of Sydney and spent nine years working across Australia, Europe, and Southern Africa working up to the level of Senior Project Manager providing experience in statistical analytics.
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