US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken began a three-country tour of Africa on Sunday amid growing US concern over Russian influence on the continent and following a recent trip by Moscow’s top envoy.
Many African countries have resisted taking sides in the war in Ukraine and rejected Western calls to join sanctions aimed at Moscow. Mr Blinken’s trip, which starts in South Africa, comes amid a flurry of high-level visits to the continent by 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 Sangafowa Coulibaly of the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution think tank. “African countries did not signal an overwhelming appetite to simply buy into Western rhetoric.”
Major powers such as South Africa have refused to support United Nations resolutions condemning Russia. The African Union has complained to European leaders that paying for Russian food exports has become more difficult since most major Russian banks were removed from the Swift payment system.
Mr Blinken’s tour, which will include stops in Congo and Rwanda, will begin as US UN envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield wraps up a trip to the continent. Ms Thomas-Greenfield repeatedly blamed Russia for the food crisis in meetings with senior officials and others during her four-day trip, according to official statements about the meetings.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited four countries in late July, thanking African governments for staying out of the Western sanctions campaign over the war in Ukraine. He blamed Europe and the US for high food prices and offered to sell Russian oil, despite US warnings that such deals would break Western sanctions.
“If there is a state in Africa that is interested in our oil, there is no obstacle to it,” Mr Lavrov told a news conference with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
French President Emmanuel Macron was also in West Africa in late July, where he accused Russia of being one of the world’s remaining colonial powers.
“Africa is becoming an arena of competition around global influence, with different parties trying to really win some hearts and minds of African states and show that their positions are more beneficial for the continent,” said Gustavo de Carvalho, senior researcher for Africa. governance and diplomacy at the South African Institute of International Affairs.
Influence will not be easy for Mr. Blinken.
South Africa, his first stop, carefully avoided choosing sides. President Cyril Ramaphosa met Russian President Vladimir Putin virtually in March but is not scheduled to meet Mr Blinken. When then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited South Africa, she met with then President Jacob Zuma. The top US envoy will see his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor.
Pretoria’s stance is unlikely to change, said Mzukisi Qobo, who heads the Wits School of Government at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. One issue Ms Pandor is likely to raise with Mr Blinken is the future of the African 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 certain goods, a boon to its automotive industry in particular.
The pair may also discuss the commitment of the US – along with the UK, Germany, France and the European Union – to help mobilize $8.5 billion in funding for South Africa’s transition away from coal. These funds are vital for Africa’s most developed economy, which has been plagued in recent weeks by blackouts lasting up to 10 hours a day.
While in South Africa, Mr Blinken is set to present 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.
The continent’s governments will seek more details on a $600 billion infrastructure fund announced by the US and its allies at a June summit of the Group of Seven advanced economies, which is intended to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Mr Blinken will be received by heads of state in Congo and Rwanda, where he is likely to spend much of his time trying to defuse a new flare-up of tensions between the neighbours.
Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi has accused Rwanda of backing a militia that is attacking civilians and gaining ground in mineral-rich eastern Congo, a charge Rwanda has denied. Several US senators have called on the administration to review its ties 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,” Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Fee told reporters before the trip.
Nelleke van de Walle, project director for the Great Lakes region at the International Crisis Group, said that without a solution, the US may freeze military aid to Rwanda as it did during the previous M23 insurgency in 2012-13.
Mr Blinken may also try to build support for UN peacekeepers in eastern Congo. UN personnel have been involved in occasionally violent protests over the force’s failure to protect civilians. Mr Tshisekedi’s government said it was reviewing the status of the UN mission, one of the world’s largest, after at least 36 people, including three peacekeepers, were killed in protests over the past two weeks.
—Nicolas Bariyo in Kampala, Uganda contributed to this article.
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