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Blinken’s African tour amid the ‘New Scramble for Africa’

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Picture: Jacoline Schoonees/DIRCO – Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, Dr Naledi Pandor hosts US Secretary of State of the United States, Mr Antony Blinken, for the SA-US Strategic Dialogue, August 8, 2022. It is widely perceived that the US is seeking to counter Russian influence on the continent against the backdrop of Moscow’s increasing military presence and African states’ reluctance to criticise the Kremlin in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis, the writer says.

By Oluwaseun Tella

United States (US) Secretary of State Antony Blinken embarked on his second visit to Africa from August 7 to 12, touching down in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. This was a follow-up to his first tour in November 2021 which included Nigeria, Kenya and Senegal.

During his first stop in South Africa, Blinken outlined the US’ “new strategy” towards sub-Saharan Africa, saying that Washington sees African states as “equal partners” in its efforts to tackle global challenges such as combating Covid-19 and climate change. He added that “our strategy is rooted in the recognition that sub-Saharan Africa is a major geopolitical force — one that has shaped our past, is shaping our present, and will shape our future … It’s a strategy that reflects the region’s complexity, its diversity, its agency; and one that focuses on what we will do with African nations and peoples, not for African nations and peoples”.

The priorities include democracy promotion, security and stability, investment, clean energy and recovery from the pandemic. While Blinken stressed that “the US will not dictate Africa’s choices, and neither should anyone”, he urged African states to embrace democracy and openness.

The US is increasingly realising that one of the reasons Beijing and Moscow have made inroads into Africa is that they do not engage in moral preaching like Washington does. Thus, the US narrative of not dictating to the Continent is synonymous with China’s policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of African states. Equally, the narrative of “equal partners” is similar to the EU’s notions of “equal partnership” and “mutual respect” in its policy towards Africa. The US is thus playing catch up following years of neglect of the Continent. While it was previously the dominant player in Africa in all dimensions of power including economic, military and soft power, China overtook the US in 2009 as the Continent’s largest trade partner.

Russia is increasingly assertive in the security realm and the EU is exercising its soft power in Africa. Given this “new scramble for Africa”, it is imperative that the African leaders are strategic in their relations with external actors in order to optimise pursuit of their economic and other vital interests.

Given that Blinken’s visit followed his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov’s tour last month in a bid to garner African support for the war in Ukraine, it is widely perceived that the US is seeking to counter Russian influence on the continent against the backdrop of Moscow’s increasing military presence and African states’ reluctance to criticise the Kremlin in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis. Indeed, during a press briefing following her meeting with Blinken in Pretoria, South African minister of International Relations and Co-operation Naledi Pandor reiterated South Africa’s neutral position and criticised the US and its Western allies for focusing on the Ukrainian war and neglecting other international crises such as the perennial Israel-Palestine conflict. She further condemned the draft Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act that is currently before the US congress that could penalise African states that do not condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

In the DRC, Blinken discussed US-DRC partnerships in areas such as promotion of human rights, peace and security in eastern DRC, ensuring smooth, free and fair elections in 2023, protection of the environment, enhancing food security and improving the investment climate.

In terms of security, he noted that the US is committed to supporting the mediation efforts led by Kenya and Angola and the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), and condemned the activities of the M23 rebel group, urging it to cease violence and pursue dialogue. Talks were also held on the tensions between the DRC and Rwanda following mutual accusations of supporting rebels in opposite camps. While both states have denied these allegations, a recent United Nations (UN) report claims to have compelling evidence that the Rwandan armed forces are supporting the M23 rebel group in the DRC, prompting Blinken to note that “we are very concerned by credible reports that Rwanda has provided support to M23”.

“We call on all parties in the region to stop any support or co-operation with M23 or, for that matter, any other non-state armed group.” He said that he would engage Rwanda on this issue as it could trigger instability in the region.

In Rwanda, Blinken engaged policymakers on easing the Rwanda-DRC conflict, governance, peacekeeping and the seemingly wrongful trial of Paul Rusesabagina, a staunch critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the hero of the Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda, a hotel manager in Kigali who sheltered refugees during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Rusesabagina was convicted of terrorism and sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment to the chagrin of the US, the European Commission and several human rights organisations. While he did not go into specifics, Blinken said that he discussed the issue with Kagame. He also informed Kagame that the UN report which alleges that Rwanda is supporting the M23 rebel group is credible.

Blinken said, “my message to …[the] presidents of Congo and Rwanda this week has been the same. Any support of any armed group in eastern (Congo) endangers local communities and regional stability and every country in the region must respect the territorial integrity of the others”. While a meeting between Kagame and DRC President Félix Tshisekedi in Angola in July called for cessation of hostilities, M23’s withdrawal from eastern Congo and cordial relations between the two states, tension persists.

Against this backdrop, the chairperson of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee called for a comprehensive review of US policy towards Rwanda in a letter addressed to Blinken last month. Indeed, Blinken was critical of human rights abuses in Rwanda, noting at a press briefing in Kigali that “we recognise Rwanda’s incredibly difficult history of the 1994 genocide and we know the ongoing legacy of that genocide but the criminalisation of some people … in politics, harassment of those who express opposition views to the current government, we believe (that) undermines total peace and stability and success, which has been extraordinary in the case of Rwanda”.

While it is too early to measure the success of Blinken’s African tour, following his mediation in the Rwanda-Congo conflict, the presidents of these states have agreed to engage in direct talks.

However, it remains to be seen if this will result in lasting peace.

Oluwaseun Tella is director at The Future of Diplomacy, Institute for the Future of Knowledge, University of Johannesburg, South Africa. He holds a doctorate in Political Science.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.