Washington seeks deeper ties to Africa as Russian and Chinese influence abounds

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s four-day courtship of West Africa solidified US interest in region

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Luanda on January 25, 2024. AFP
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken swept through West Africa last week courting regional partners as the administration of President Joe Biden looks to deepen its ties to the continent.

Mr Blinken’s charm offensive comes as the administration sees an opportunity to invest in the region and strengthen relationships as Chinese and Russian influence rises.

He made his fourth trip to the continent since taking office, travelling to Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Angola.

The Biden administration has been adamant that it regards African countries as important partners for the future and key allies in the fight against extremists in the Sahel.

In Ivory Coast and Nigeria, Mr Blinken promoted US investments and announced $45 million in new funding for security, which has been threatened by terrorism and coups across the region in recent years.

“Cote d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast] is an essential partner for us and for other countries in the region that are trying to move forward,” Mr Blinken said next to Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara at the country’s presidential palace in Abidjan.

“We appreciate particularly the leadership shown by Cote d'Ivoire in countering extremism and violence.”

In July, Washington lost a key ally in Niger, a country in which it had invested heavily, when the military junta overthrew democratically elected president Mohamed Bazoum.

Coups in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have fractured the Economic Community of West Africa, an important economic driver for the region.

On Sunday, the three countries, which had each been suspended from the bloc after the coups, announced that they were officially leaving.

Russia has honed in on the Sahel as a region of opportunity, with the mercenary group Wagner maintaining a presence in Mali and Russian troops recently flying into Burkina Faso.

During his whirlwind tour, in which he slept in a different city every night, Mr Blinken sought to highlight Washington's positive influence on the region and its deepening economic ties with countries.

In Angola, his last stop, he promoted more than $1 billion in US investments, including $900 million for solar energy projects and a $250 million investment in the Lobito rail corridor, an ambitious project that connects resource-rich central Africa to the Atlantic Ocean through the Angolan coast.

"Our relationship is stronger, it’s more consequential, it’s farther-reaching than at any point in our 30-year friendship," Mr Blinken said while in Luanda.

The Lobito project is the biggest US investment in infrastructure on the continent in a generation.

“This project has genuinely transformative potential for this nation, for this region, and – I would argue – for the world,” Mr Blinken said next to Angolan Foreign Minister Tete Antonio.

The corridor, part of which is already operational, will allow critical minerals such as cobalt and copper to more easily reach global markets.

US officials said the investments are advancing the Biden administration’s climate goals by having “clean energy through solar” and diversifying US supply chain access.

“Africa has the lowest rail and road density in the world and the refurbishments, plus the additions, is addressing a major deficit on the continent and it redounds to the US brand, the US reliability and US leadership,” a US official said.

It also is helping the US to bolster a new relationship with Angola at a time when the country appears to be turning away from China and Russia, two longtime allies.

Angola emerged from three decades of civil war in 2002. Historically, it has looked to China for major infrastructure projects.

In the years after the devastating civil war, Angolan president Jose Eduardo dos Santos sought Chinese loans and investments to rebuild the country. Years of borrowing have left Angola heavily indebted to Beijing.

“Angola is not about to become a Kenya, a sort of pro-West stalwart,” said Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, a professor at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford.

“But becoming closer to America does have the positive effect of diluting the overwhelming Chinese role in Angola, which the Angolans want to dilute."

American officials insisted that US interest in the region was genuine and mutually beneficial, and rebuffed the idea that there was any geopolitical jostling.

For the better part of four decades, Angola was ruled by Mr do Santo. The current President, Joao Lourenco, appears to be cutting a different path, away from Russia and China.

Updated: February 01, 2024, 3:00 AM