Diplomacy: Bystanders look on near a poster of US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken as his motorcade moves through the streets of Kinshasa on
9 August, before a meeting with Democratic Republic of the Congo’s president Félix Tshisekedi, during a tour of Africa. (Andrew Harnik/AFP)
Under the harsh, uncompromising glare of superpower realpolitik, the African continent is apparently only significant for three reasons. These are helpfully outlined, in a blue highlights box, in the front of the US’s shiny new “Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa”, which was released this week by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
First, Africa’s people: Africans will be 25% of the world’s population by 2050. In other words, they are the future workforce of a world where the populations of so many countries are ageing fast.
Second, Africa’s geography: The continent is home to 30% of the world’s critical minerals and its second-largest rainforest. There can be no sustainable future without access to those minerals, many of which are crucial to renewable energy technologies. Similarly, the health of the planet depends on the Congo rainforest remaining undeveloped.
Third, African countries are the largest voting bloc in the UN, accounting for about 28% of the vote.
In this context, Blinken’s itinerary on his whistle-stop three-nation tour of Africa makes a lot of sense.
First, he arrived in South Africa, which is the continent’s most influential state in the global diplomatic world. This is largely thanks to its membership of influential global international blocs such as the G20 and Brics. For better or worse, it is often left to South African diplomats to articulate a common African position on the world stage.
Then he visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the primary custodian of the rainforest and the minerals that lie beneath it, and the continent’s fourth-most populous nation. A dangerous conflict is intensifying in the east of the country which could scupper both trade and conservation in the region.
Finally, he stopped in Rwanda, which has been implicated by the UN in stirring up that conflict. It strongly denies this claim.
In its strategic objectives, Blinken’s Africa trip echoed that of his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov last month, who visited the DRC’s neighbours, the Republic of Congo and Uganda, before heading to Ethiopia, Africa’s diplomatic capital — the African Union is headquartered there — and the continent’s second-most populous nation.
There, the Russian embassy hosted a meeting of African ambassadors where Lavrov sought to defend Russia’s unilateral invasion of Ukraine and blame Western sanctions for the global grain shortages hitting African countries especially hard. Lavrov also visited Egypt, which receives 80% of its wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine.
Murithi Mutiga, the International Crisis Group’s programme director for Africa, said: “Both foreign ministers will reflect on their visits with satisfaction. Lavrov obviously exploited old networks and ties that Moscow enjoys with the continent. He received a generally warm welcome. And Blinken was also very nuanced and careful in his approach, and so did not attract any blowback.”
In the middle
America’s new Africa strategy represents a break from the past — on paper, at least. It acknowledges that “some of our longstanding approaches have become insufficient to meet new challenges in a more contested and competitive world”.
It also promises to supplement its relentless focus on counter-terrorism — which has not delivered a safer continent, it acknowledges — with more focus on governance, trade and development.
Blinken sought to downplay concerns that the war in Ukraine, and the subsequent rise in tension between the US and Europe on one side, and Russia and China on the other, signalled the start of a new Cold War.
“Time and again, they [African countries] have been told to pick a side in great power contests that feel far removed from the daily struggles of their people.
“The United States will not dictate Africa’s choices,” said Blinken in a lecture at the University of Pretoria. “Neither should anyone else.”
As laudable as these words sound, some US policies suggest the opposite. Earlier this month, for example, another senior US official, ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said any African countries that bought Russian oil in violation of US-imposed sanctions “stand the chance of having actions taken against them”.
Foreign minister Naledi Pandor, Blinken’s host in Pretoria, staked out the country’s position in no uncertain terms: “One thing I definitely dislike is being told, ‘Either you choose this or else.’ When a minister speaks to me like that, which Secretary Blinken has never done but some have, I definitely will not be bullied in that way, nor would I expect any other African country worth its salt to agree to be treated [this way].”
The spectre of a new Cold War looms large over African decision-makers.
“Few African countries were left unaffected by the last Cold War,” said Crisis Group’s Murithi. “Where it was cold in developed countries, it was hot in many developing countries. The instinct is that when these big powers are clashing, the continent could have a lot to lose and little to gain by being openly aligned.”
But for all Pandor’s bravado, and for all America’s talk of “affirming African agency”, the sheer power imbalance between the superpowers and the continent mean Africans may not get that much of a say in their own destiny — especially in times of global crisis.
This was most obvious during the pandemic, when the developing world’s efforts to waive vaccine patents — led by South Africa and India — were ruthlessly shut down by Western nations, and in the rich world’s refusal to act on the climate crisis.
It is a reality backed up in research released this week by the Institute for Security Studies’ African Futures programme. The think-tank observed that, on various indices of global power, the entire African continent accounts for only between 3% and 6% of global power, leaving it outgunned, both literally and metaphorically, by everyone else.
“Africa has effectively been instrumentalised in global power competition since independence,” the research concluded.
This “limited agency” was “hardly surprising” given that Africa as a whole comprises just 3% of the world economy and is expected to only grow to 5% by 2043, thanks to its population growth.
In this context, it is even more important that African states avoid getting dragged into other nations’ conflicts, argues David Kode, the head of advocacy at Civicus, a global civil society alliance. And there are signs that, this time around, the superpowers will not have it all their own way. “There are growing anti-Western sentiments in parts of Africa, including the Sahel, and areas of Southern Africa.”
A similar concern is growing over Russia’s support of dictatorships in Guinea, Sudan, Central African Republic and other countries, he said.
“What African states need to do is learn lessons from the Cold War, as they were used as proxies, and adopt an even-handed stance in their international engagement in line with [their own] principles on democracy, the rule of law and human rights.”
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here