Blinken to refocus on Africa as Russia, China make gainsThu, 18 Jan 2024 15:36:05 GMT

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit sub-Saharan Africa for the first time in 10 months, the State Department said Thursday, redirecting his focus as rivals Russia and China seek gains there.After four frenetic tours of the Middle East since war broke out on October 7 with a Hamas attack on Israel, Blinken will visit Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Angola and Cape Verde starting Monday.Blinken will discuss economic growth and “advance security partnerships based on shared values such as respect for human rights, promotion of democracy and expansion of the rule of law,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.On Blinken’s last visit to sub-Saharan Africa, he became the highest-ranking US official ever to visit Niger, hoping to champion the fragile democracy, also a frontline country in the fight against Sahel jihadists.Just four months later, the military deposed the elected president, Mohamed Bazoum. Niger’s army-installed prime minister this week visited Russia for talks on boosting military cooperation.Russia, through its powerful Wagner mercenary group, has also been active in Mali, the Central African Republic and allegedly Burkina Faso.Molly Phee, the top US diplomat for Africa who visited Niger in December, said that Niger should look at Mali’s descent since aligning with Russia.”That isn’t a model that I would want to follow,” she told reporters.”We have a demonstrated track record there that they’re well aware of, and we hope they make the right decision,” she said.Ivory Coast has been among the most outspoken countries against the Niger coup, backing sanctions and with President Alassane Ouattara initially musing about joint West African military action to restore democracy.Blinken will also look to show Washington’s softer side, including by attending a football match in Abidjan during the Africa Cup of Nations.In Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and home to the headquarters of West African regional bloc ECOWAS, Blinken will head to Abuja to meet President Bola Ahmed Tinubu and also tour the bustling metropolis Lagos.US President Joe Biden, who vowed a new interest in Africa when he welcomed African leaders to Washington in December 2022, had promised to visit in 2023 but did not do so, and a trip is seen as increasingly unlikely this year as he focuses on reelection.- Combatting unease in Africa -Even before the Middle East crisis, in which the United States has been nearly isolated in its staunch support of Israel, many in Africa had watched uneasily as the West devoted billions of dollars to Ukraine in its fight against a Russian invasion.Blinken will arrive in Ivory Coast on Monday, days after a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.While US-China tensions have eased, Washington considers Beijing its top long-term rival and has pitched itself as a better partner for Africa than Beijing, whose speciality is major infrastructure projects financed through loans.Phee rejected talk of a US-China “soccer match” on African soil, saying, “If China didn’t exist, we would (still) be fully engaged in Africa. Africa is important for its own sake, and it’s important for American interests.”Mark Green, a former US ambassador to Tanzania and congressman who is now president of the Wilson Center think tank, said that while China will inevitably come up, African leaders will not respond well if it dominates the conversation.Political leaders “tend to go to Africa because of ‘security’ or China or problems. In fact, listening to African leaders — their hopes, their dreams, their capacities — is the way we brighten the world’s future,” said Green, pointing out that the continent has the world’s youngest population.”There are short-term issues, but this is a long-term investment,” he said.The United States has been developing closer relations with Angola, a major oil producer, since its transition to democracy, after supporting UNITA rebels in the country’s decades of civil war.Angola, along with close US ally Kenya, has worked to broker an end to fighting in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which accuses Rwanda of backing rebels there.