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Kamala Harris: Biden’s démarche to Africa

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Picture: Jonathan Ernst/AFP – US Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and US Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff. Harris is visiting three African countries – Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia as part of the Biden Administration’s large demarche to re-establish American prominence in African affairs, the writer says.

By David Monyae

In the same week that the United States, Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea and Zambia are co-hosting the Summit for Democracy, American Vice President Kamala Harris is visiting three African countries – Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia. Harris’s visit forms a part of the Biden Administration’s large demarche to re-establish American prominence in African affairs.

Underpinning this interest is America’s admission that “Africa will shape the future — not just the future of the African people, but of the world”.

There are several other reasons for this renewed interest and not all of them have to do with Africa. America will still maintain its security commitments to Africa, that have mainly underpinned US-Africa relations in the wake of September 11. This, while largely beneficial to Africa, is also beneficial to the West.

An Africa that is spared the violence of terrorism might stanch migration to the West, thereby placating the fears of Western conservatives, always wary of losing their ‘identity’ courtesy of the dilution that could be introduced by African migrants.

Africa is the only continent where population is growing appreciably. Without security and skills, the Continent will be left to cope with a deluge of desperate and unemployable young people, the very tantalising prospect for extremist and insurgent conscription. However, security will not remain as prominent a prong of American interests in Africa as it has been thus far.

Africa’s growing importance in the foreign policy of countries such as China and Russia poses a great challenge to the United States. America unwittingly delivered this reality through successive neglect and condescension.

The veneer of American tact, concealing its real snootiness for Africa, was shattered by the Trump Presidency. Trump severely assaulted American democracy and diplomacy, exposed his country’s incorrigible racial biases and pretensions of exceptionalism, prosecuted a doomed trade war against China, called Africa unprintable names, all the while taking the wrecking ball to American allure, or what was left of it after its blunders in Iraq and Libya.

Biden, a more amenable figure than his repugnant predecessor is busily trying to salvage America’s views And what is a better place to start than Africa, coveted partner in a world of depleting resources? And is it not convenient to send Harris, the first female and Vice President of colour?

Harris visit also follows on the back of the December 2022 US-Africa leadership Summit during which America made some pledges including a $55 billion investment. Where is the money, and how has it been used, a question begs? The visit will no doubt give the visited countries some fleeting prestige and distinction.

Do they know, one would wonder, if they are possible pawns in America’s tangle with competitors such as Russia and China? What are their preparedness not to be the playthings of more powerful interests in what could emerge to be a second dose of a Cold War? When Janet Yellen, the American Secretary of the Treasury visited Africa earlier in 2023, she demonised China as a stumbling block to resolving the debt entanglements of countries such as Zambia.

This attitude, of blaming American competitors for Africa’s woes, is more in keeping with America’s instincts in Africa than the disarming pronouncements that Harris is likely to make during her week-long visit. It is as though Africa is not perceptive enough to discern sinister intentions of players that are creeping into the Continent to ensnare it in a debt trap. The formula is not likely to succeed in denting Africa’s close relationship with China.

Zambian academic Sishuwa Sishuwa has recently written that “If you ask an average Zambian what the US has done for the country, they would struggle to point to anything. But the same person will quickly note that China has in recent years built a top-class international conference centre, a major public hospital and a national stadium — all constructed at no financial cost to Zambia.”

Through initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s visibility has grown and been appreciated, especially in the developing world. Between 2008 and 2021, it spent $240 billion bailing out developing countries, with about 80 percent of the amount made in the fives years between 2016 and 2021.

In contrast, it was during this time that Trump was president of America, using his newly gained power to spew all manner of calumny directed at China and the developing world. It is also noteworthy that during lone term as president, Donald Trump never set foot in Africa, despite the urging of institutions such as Brookings.

After Trump, America would thus be best served by making meaningful gestures towards a respectful relationship with Africa, one that could help the Continent’s efforts to end it chronic dependency on the extractive industry and also help to alleviate the dearth of infrastructure.

In the main, this is more effective rather than the now ad nauseum pontifications about China’s perceived damaging impact on Africa. China’s overtures in Africa started grabbing headlines more than two decades, against relentless attacks by successive American administrations. That these diplomatic assaults have only increased Sino-African relations should be a salutary realisation to America that its Manichaean methods have not worked.

Apart from China, other players such as Russia are also in the sights of renewed American interest in Africa. The Russian problem has gained greater significance since the start of the conflict with Ukraine in February 2022. In March 2023, Russian President Vladimir Putin was slapped with an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC), further compounding diplomatic problems.

Putin is scheduled to come to South Africa in August 2023 for the BRICS Summit. South Africa has issued its invitation to Putin, a clear sign it will not comply with the ICC’s expectation that it will bundle Putin to the Hague to answer for his charges. This, no doubt, will revolt America, but South Africa is hardly likely to be bothered.

South Africa, like China and Russia take umbrage at Western domination of international affairs, that filters through such acts as selective indictments by the ICC. This collective exasperation has solidified South-South cooperation with BRICS being the most prominent representative, a more consequential demonstration of what initiatives such as the lethargic Non-aligned Movement were supposed to do.

In the recent past, BRICS has attracted the interest of more countries. In addition to South Africa, other African countries have become more involved in the group – though still short of formal inclusion. This is an endorsement of the allure that the group brings. To be fair, America has also shown some durable appeal to Africa. Its 2022 Leadership Summit was honoured by delegations from all 49 invited African countries and the African Union, alongside members of civil society and the private sector attended the summit.

However, the US has also been tone-deaf on African matters such as the LGBTQ question, a less controversial issue in South Africa, but a particularly vexatious and confounding one for the rest of the Continent. Will Harris succeed in selling America as a responsible partner, respecting the Continent’s affairs and courting it for mutual benefits, and not to help America’s jostle for global dominance? We can judge once the trip is over.

David Monyae is Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Science, and Director of the Africa-China Studies Centre at the University of Johannesburg

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