Kamala Harris’ trip to the African continent took place against a complex diplomatic and geopolitical environment for the United States, highlighted by increased competition from China, Russia, and even middle powers like Turkey.
The Trump administration’s legacy in Africa was defined by verbal antagonism and a succession of policy errors. He upset many Africans by mispronouncing their country’s name, referring to African countries as “shitholes,” and prohibiting Muslim-majority countries from travelling to the US.
In contrast, Joe Biden began his presidency with widespread support from the international community. His foreign policy agenda vowed to mend strained ties with former President Donald Trump’s administration’s allies and partners, particularly those in Africa.
To signal the US desire to reset relations with Africa, Biden dispatched his Vice President Kamala Harris on a nine-day journey with stops in Ghana, Zambia and Tanzania.
In Lusaka, Harris met with Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema and announced that the US will offer an extra $16 million for new programmes, including fighting corruption and advancing the reform path, as well as signing a memorandum of agreement on trade development to increase the movement of goods and services. The discussions covered a wide range of topics, from the African countries’ economic reform agenda to debt restructuring and climate change.
She emphasised the significance of concentrating on continuing economic growth. In response, President Hichilema said that the objective is to reconstruct the economy, but that this priority clashes with “the excess debt,” emphasising the need for assistance from the US and other nations.
Earlier in Dar es Salaam, Harris visited Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan and pledged $560 million in trade and democratic support. In Accra, she met with Ghanaian Nana Akufo-Addo, the nation’s president to whom she promised a 139 million dollar aid program to help the country’s economy, which is likewise saddled by a large foreign debt. Furthermore, Harris offered security assistance and expanded investment in the area, promising more money to be used for conflict prevention and stabilisation operations across West Africa.
The United States’ new approach seeks not only to counter the emergence of superpowers such as China and Russia in Africa, but also to challenge middle powers such as Turkey and Japan, who are both increasingly present on the continent.
Turkey, for example, cleverly transitioned from soft to hard power. Turkish Airlines did not even serve Sub-Saharan Africa in 2002, and Turkey had only a dozen African embassies. It now has 43. Additionally, Turkey has provided military weapons to Libya, as well as Bayraktar TB2 drones to nations such as Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Togo, all of whom are fighting Islamic extremists in the Sahel.
Additionally, Turkish companies have constructed African projects worth $78 billion, which include airports, stadiums, sports centres, hospitals, and mosques, while trade between Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa has expanded eightfold in two decades to almost $11 billion yearly.
Similarly, Japan is the most recent country to attempt to widen its connection with Africa. Its strategy in Africa aims to achieve both financial and geopolitical goals. Japan aspires to close the gap with other Asian and Western nations by shifting its emphasis from state development support to private investment.
At the 8th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), Japan offered US$30 billion in public and private investment over the next three years in sectors such as green growth, health, human resource development, regional stabilisation, and food security.
Also, Japan pledged to train 300,000 individuals in a variety of professions that will benefit Africa’s future, including health, education, agriculture, justice, and administration.
This year, the eighth TICAD was held in Tunisia, marking the second time the conference has been hosted in Africa. Kenya hosted the event in 2016.
Apart from the growing number of middle powers investing in Africa, the US’s major competitors are China and Russia. The post-World War Two era of decolonization was a pivotal time for both Chinese and Russian involvement in Africa. This resulted in ideological and military support from China and Moscow for anti-colonial movements in several African states’ struggles against European powers.
There is mounting empirical and statistical evidence that China and Russia are expanding their economic and, by extension, political influence across Africa.
From 2007 to 2017, the percentage of U.S. trade with Africa fell by 54% while Chinese trade increased by 220 %. Russia’s investment in Africa has increased by 40 percent since 2015 China has helped finance and operate 11 of Africa’s 46 port projects.
Furthermore, every three years, China hosts the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which was established in 2006. Similarly, the inaugural Russia-Africa Summit was held in Sochi, Russia in 2019. The US also hosted a similar-themed event back in 2014. The second edition happened in 2022, when Joe Biden decided to rethink the US-African strategy.
Africa is a hotspot for endless possibilities. Its population is predicted to double within the next 35 years, accounting for approximately 30% of the world’s population by 2050. An estimated 90 million Africans will enter the consumer market by 2025, contributing $2.1 trillion in purchasing power to the global economy.
Some African heads of state, buoyed by their countries’ economic prospects, are calling for a stronger voice and more recognition abroad. Additionally, more and more African leaders are insisting that they not be seen as pawns in larger geopolitical struggles. And that they are not oblivious to the increasing geopolitical significance of their own countries.
Earlier in March, in a testy exchange, Namibian President Hage Geigob reminded the German ambassador not to meddle in his country’s domestic affairs in relation to a complaint about the increasing number of Chinese people in Namibia. “Mr Ambassador, what are your problems with this? Why has this become your problem? This is more of a European problem than ours. We are in our own country. Every time it’s about the Chinese.” The president retorted.
Is a new, modern scramble for Africa taking place? Beyond the rhetoric, do leaders on the continent have a coherent strategic plan to take advantage of the intensified interest in Africa and improve the lives of 1.429 billion people? Time will tell.