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Harris heads to Africa amid Biden’s urgent courtship on the continent


As Vice President Harris kicks off her first trip to Africa since taking office on Saturday — part of an all-out push by the Biden administration to show African leaders she is committed to strengthening ties — she will be facing widespread suspicion on the continent that the effort reflects a desire to counter China and Russia, not a deeper desire to improve relations with Africans for their own good.

Harris’ weeklong trip includes stops in Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia, chosen because they are struggling to maintain democracy in the face of economic pressures rocking the continent, White House officials said. Harris met with the leaders of the three countries at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in December, and she sees the nine-day trip as an extension of those dialogues, the officials said.

“The message is the same as the president delivered at the African leaders’ summit here in December,” White House spokesman John Kirby said. “And that is that Africa matters, the continent matters and our relationships across the continent all matter. So it’s very much about Africa – African leaders, African nations – and no one else.

That’s not how everyone on the continent sees it. “We have a saying in Swahili: ‘When elephants fight, it’s always the grass that gets trampled.’ We don’t want to be trampled,” said Fatma Karume, a prominent lawyer in Tanzania and former president of her Law Society. “Tanzania needs to think about its own national security and its own national interest. It doesn’t bode well for Tanzania not having China, Russia or the United States as friends – we have to be friends with them all.

Harris’ trip is the latest leg of heavy attendance after US relations with Africa soured badly under President Donald Trump, who has never visited the continent and whose reference to ‘shitty countries’ , in a closed meeting in 2018, was seen by many Africans. as directed towards them. In addition to hosting the Africa summit – the first time the United States has done so in eight years – President Biden announced his support for the long-sought effort by the African Union, which represents 55 States, to become a permanent member of the Group of 20.

First Lady Jill Biden visited Namibia and Kenya in February, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Niger and Ethiopia earlier this month. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield have also surrendered, while the president himself is expected to surrender later this year, capping a remarkable charm offensive.

For Harris, however, the trip holds a special meaning. She is the first black woman to win nationally elected office in the United States and is of Indian and Jamaican descent. A senior official said that throughout her trip she will address the human ties between Africa and its diaspora.

Perhaps the most striking example will be a visit to Cape Coast Castle, one of dozens of large forts built along the African Gold Coast that was a hub for the transatlantic slave trade. Harris is also making a trip back to Lusaka, Zambia, where her maternal grandfather worked as a civil engineer and where she went as a child.

Although the rhetoric and engagement have intensified, questions remain about how much US policy toward Africa will actually change under Biden. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dominated the administration’s foreign policy, and the president has repeatedly suggested that the effort to counter China’s economic and military influence is central to his global strategy. .

More broadly, Biden said this moment in world history is about the battle between democracies and autocracies. It has left many countries – including those Harris plans to visit – wondering where they stand as the world’s giants vie for position.

“If you ask the average Zambian what the United States has done for the country, he will have a hard time pointing to anything,” said Sishuwa Sishuwa, professor of history at the University of Stellenbosch, in a E-mail. “But the same person will quickly notice that China has in recent years built a world-class international conference centre, a major public hospital and a national stadium – all built at no financial cost to Zambia.”

Many African countries have been hit hard by the economic effects of the covid pandemic and have felt left behind in the distribution of coronavirus vaccines and treatments, often receiving them just before they expire and without the capacity to store or distribution needed to vaccinate as many people as possible.

The war in Ukraine posed another challenge to African nations. Many countries in the South bore the brunt of the economic turmoil of the war and faced shortages of fertilizers, fuel and food – often blaming Western sanctions for this and making it more difficult to win their support to UN resolutions condemning Russia. Biden has argued that Russian aggression, not Western sanctions, is at fault, with mixed success.

During her trip, Harris plans to announce a series of U.S. investments in Africa as a whole, as well as specific projects in the trio of countries she is visiting, administration officials said. They will aim not only to channel US aid, but also to stimulate additional investment by private companies. The strategy is in many ways similar to administration efforts in countries in Latin America’s Northern Triangle, where Harris has been tasked with helping reduce the root causes of migration.

“We anticipate that this collaboration with the private sector will be a major component of our trip,” a senior administration official told reporters on a call previewing the trip. “She is a firm believer in the power of public-private partnerships around the world, and throughout her engagements she will demonstrate that to unlock growth and opportunity on the continent, we must all come together and work together.”

The effort comes after China, under its Belt and Road Initiative, loaned billions of dollars to Africa to build ports, railways, power stations and other projects across the continent.

Biden administration officials admit it will be difficult to counter the long, mixed history of U.S. engagement in Africa and the continent’s strong historical ties with Russia and China. Many of the African liberation movements that eventually came to power were backed by the former Soviet Union, while the United States sometimes backed right-wing forces with little regard for human rights.

Zambia and Tanzania, for example, practiced socialism after the end of colonial rule, offering refuge and aid to South African anti-apartheid forces at a time when President Ronald Reagan vetoed anti-apartheid legislation. for “constructive engagement”.

These memories are still very much alive for some Africans. “Our relationship with Russia is a historic relationship,” Karume said. “They were there during the anti-colonial campaign, and we don’t forget our friends. … A lot of people in power right now went to school in Russia.

Some of that sentiment could be overcome if Harris offered real economic support in the coming days, mainland experts said.

“When African leaders attended the last United States-Africa Summit, Joe Biden announced that there was $55 billion available for immediate investment in Africa. Many are now asking: where is the money? Sishuwa said in the email. “If Harris arrives empty-handed, Zambia may not be swayed by his childhood ties to the country.”

China has dramatically increased its investment and lending to Africa over the past 20 years, becoming its biggest trading partner. And it’s not just China and Russia – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and India, among others, are all stepping up their engagement in Africa.

But a senior administration official said the United States and Africa have unique common interests and that the United States is always recognized as the powerful leader of global democratic forces, as evidenced by its support for a Ukraine. vulnerable.

“We understand that many African countries have a historic relationship with the Soviet Union, which supported their liberation movements, and the countries have current relations with Russia,” the senior administration official said. “But we think it’s important to have a conversation to identify shared points of agreement, especially on how to end this justly. [Ukraine] war and how to deal with the negative consequences and simply uphold shared principles.

Yet many African countries resist the idea that they have to choose one side or another. The continent has seen the re-emergence of a strong non-aligned movement, as national leaders struggle for neutrality amid antagonism between the West and an authoritarian bloc led by China and Russia.

Harris advisers pointed out that, unlike the Cold War, the United States does not pretend to tell African nations who should be its allies. “We are not asking our partners in Africa to choose,” the administration official said. “We want to expand African options, not limit them.”

But the official said Harris would nonetheless bring up the aggressive actions of Russia and China.

“Obviously, we cannot ignore the current geopolitical moment,” the official said. “Russia’s war is not only hurting the peoples of Ukraine and Europe, but it is hurting Africans and others around the world by generating a rise in commodity prices that actually has a disproportionate impact on African countries.”


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