US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken kicked off a three-nation tour of Africa on Sunday at a time of growing US concern about Russia’s influence on the continent and following a recent visit by Moscow’s top envoy.
Several African countries have resisted taking sides in the war in Ukraine and have rejected Western calls to participate in sanctions targeting Moscow. Mr Blinken’s trip, which begins in South Africa, comes amid a flurry of high-profile visits to the continent from US officials carrying the message that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are to blame for the food crisis.
“It was kind of a wake-up call,” said Brahima Sangavwa Coulibaly of the US-based think tank Brookings Institution. “African nations have not indicated an overwhelming appetite just to buy from the discourse of the West.”
Major powers such as South Africa refused to support UN resolutions condemning Russia. The African Union has complained to European leaders that paying for Russian food exports has become more difficult since most of Russia’s major banks were removed from the express payment system.
Mr. Blinken’s tour, which will include stops in Congo and Rwanda, will begin as US envoy to the United Nations Linda Thomas Greenfield concludes her trip to the continent. Ms Thomas Greenfield has repeatedly blamed Russia for the food crisis in her meetings with high-ranking officials and others during her four-day trip, according to official statements on the meetings.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited four countries at the end of July and thanked African governments for staying away from the Western sanctions campaign over the war in Ukraine. He blamed Europe and the United States for high food prices and offered to sell Russian oil, despite US warnings that such transactions would break Western sanctions.
“If there is a country in Africa that is interested in our oil, then there is no obstacle to that,” Lavrov said at a press conference with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
French President Emmanuel Macron was also in West Africa at the end of July, where he accused Russia of being one of the world’s remaining colonial powers.
“Africa has become a competition space for global influence, with different parties really trying to win some hearts and minds of African countries, and to show that their positions are more beneficial to the continent,” said Gustavo de Carvalho, senior researcher on African affairs. Governance and Diplomacy at the South African Institute of International Affairs.
Gaining influence will not be an easy task for Mr. Blinken.
South Africa, his first stop, carefully avoided choosing sides. President Cyril Ramaphosa nearly met Russian President Vladimir Putin in March, but is not scheduled to meet with Mr. Blinken. When then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited South Africa, she met President Jacob Zuma. Instead, the top US envoy will meet his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor.
Mzukisi Kubo, president of the Wits School of Government at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said Pretoria’s position was unlikely to change. One topic that Ms. Pandor is likely to raise with Mr. Blinken is the future of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which is due to expire in 2025. Like many countries on the continent, South Africa has preferential access to the US market for some. Cargo, a boon to the auto industry, in particular.
The pair may also discuss a pledge by the United States — along with the United Kingdom, Germany, France and the European Union — to help mobilize $8.5 billion to fund South Africa’s transition away from coal. These funds are essential to Africa’s most developed economy, which in recent weeks has suffered from blackouts lasting up to 10 hours a day.
While in South Africa, Mr. Blinken is set to lay out the Biden administration’s strategy for sub-Saharan Africa, which is expected to seek to restore relations with the continent from the strained years of the Trump administration.
Governments on the continent will look for more details on the $600 billion infrastructure fund announced by the United States and its allies at the June summit of the Group of Seven developed nations, which aims to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Mr. Blinken will be received by heads of state in Congo and Rwanda, where he will likely spend most of his time trying to ease new tensions between the two neighbors.
Congo’s president, Felix Tshisekedi, has accused Rwanda of supporting a militia that attacks civilians and controls territory in mineral-rich eastern Congo, a charge that Rwanda denies. Several US senators have called on the administration to review its relations with Rwanda over its alleged support for the M23 armed group.
“The Secretary will highlight the need to respect territorial integrity, and explore how the United States can support efforts to reduce tensions,” Molly V, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, told reporters before the trip.
Without a solution, the United States may freeze military aid to Rwanda as it did during the previous March 23 rebellion in 2012-2013, said Neliki van de Waal, Great Lakes project manager at the International Crisis Group.
Mr. Blinken may also try to rally support for UN peacekeepers in eastern Congo. UN staff have at times been involved in violent protests over the force’s perceived failure to protect civilians. Mr Tshisekedi’s government said it was reassessing the situation of the United Nations mission, one of the largest in the world, after at least 36 people, including three peacekeepers, were killed in protests over the past two weeks.
– Nicholas Barrio in Kampala, Uganda, contributed to this article.
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