Blinken’s ‘Stand-In’ Tour Underscores Waning Dynamic of U.S.–Africa Relationship

The secretary of state’s third trip of the year is seen as a frantic attempt to counter China’s and Russia’s inroads on the continent.
Blinken’s ‘Stand-In’ Tour Underscores Waning Dynamic of U.S.–Africa Relationship
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, during a week-long trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East on Jan. 7, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool via AP)
Nalova Akua
News Analysis

YAOUNDE, Cameroon—A recent visit to Africa by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has once again laid bare the limits of Washington’s power and the waning dynamic of the U.S. relationship with African governments.

During the U.S.–Africa Leaders Summit in December 2022, President Joe Biden promised to visit Africa in 2023.
But that visit never happened. Mr. Blinken’s Jan. 21–26 tour of four democracies on the Atlantic Coast—Cabo Verde, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Angola—has thus been viewed as a “stand-in” for President Biden as security deteriorates in the Sahel and doubts grow about a key U.S. base in neighboring coup-hit Niger.

The shift in global priorities, changes in the political landscape of Africa, and a growing sense of skepticism among African leaders toward American involvement in their countries has seen the role of the United States in Africa shrink and its influence wane.

It isn’t surprising that Africans’ approval of U.S. leadership plummeted by an average of 22 percent between 2009 and 2014 in 11 African countries surveyed by Gallup.
Aid—mainly from European Union members and the United States—has fallen from peaks of about 6 percent of Africa’s gross domestic product in the 1990s to an average of only 2.5 percent in the past decade as Africa’s economies have gained in size.
One major factor is the changing geopolitical landscape, as the United States has turned its attention toward other regions of the world, particularly the Middle East and Asia.
Analysts say Africa seems to have been pushed to the back burner under President Joe Biden as his administration is increasingly consumed by other international issues such as the fighting in Ukraine, the Israel–Hamas war, and the U.S. rivalry with China.
“It is still impressive to have Blinken [visit Africa] now given his role as an international “first responder” to escalating regional crises stemming from Hamas’ brutal October 7 murderous rampage,” Tibor Nagy, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told The Epoch Times in an email.

“When U.S. secretaries of state visit Africa, there is always keen competition within the State Department over which countries should be on the itinerary. In this case, each of the stops makes sense.

“Cabo Verde—although a small island nation—represents what the U.S. wishes all of Africa looked like: democratic, well-governed, and supportive of global norms. And it helps that thousands of Cabo Verdeans have settled in Massachusetts and tend to vote reliably Democratic.”

Ivory Coast and Nigeria both figure prominently in coastal West Africa’s attempts to keep the Sahelian instability and violence from infecting the coastal states, according to Mr. Nagy.

“And Nigeria has a recently inaugurated president in addition to being a giant in terms of African geopolitics and economics,” he said. “With Angola, the United States recently signed a major project involving the 1,300-mile Lobito corridor, which will bring rail lines to connect Angola’s Lobito port with exportable minerals in Zambia and the [Democratic Republic of the Congo.]”

The United States once played a dominant role in the affairs of Africa, with influence across the continent. Gone are the days when American diplomats and soldiers, businessmen, and aid workers were ubiquitous in the region working to advance U.S. interests and values.

Instead of building on these shared values, however, critics believe that the United States is being outflanked by other countries.

One of Kenya's standard gauge locomotives on a Chinese-built railway between Mombasa and the nation's capital city of Nairobi on May 31, 2017. (TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images)
One of Kenya's standard gauge locomotives on a Chinese-built railway between Mombasa and the nation's capital city of Nairobi on May 31, 2017. (TONY KARUMBA/AFP via Getty Images)
China has become Africa’s largest trading partner and is expanding its influence with $143 billion in loans and the construction of 48 Confucius Institutes (language and cultural centers).
India, Malaysia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have similarly expanded their presence on the continent. Russia is also boosting its involvement, sending troops to the Central African Republic, Mali, and Burkina Faso.
Russia hosted African heads of state in Sochi in 2019 and St. Petersburg last year, promising investments.

The net effect of these changes is that African governments are no longer bound to the United States or its European partners. African leaders today regularly forum shop for support, playing external powers off each other to negotiate better terms of engagement and to avoid conditions that they no longer consider acceptable.

Mr. Blinken has thus visited a continent where two major geopolitical U.S. rivals—Russia and China—are scrambling to spread their influence.

Freedom Chukwudi Onuoha, coordinator of the Security, Violence, and Conflict Research Group at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, said the speed and scale with which China and Russia have been making significant inroads in Africa while displacing Western interests and strongholds has become a matter of “serious politico-diplomatic and security concern” for the United States.

“Blinken’s visit is the latest of U.S.’s strategic moves to halt the aggressive march of China and Russia into African states where the West has previously dominated,” he told The Epoch Times.

“Consequently, China and Russia would certainly pay elevated attention to Blinken’s visit, to gain a comprehensive understanding of the high points of his meetings and agreements with the political leaders and business communities of these African states to ready their own responses.”

Nigeria is “not unconnected” to the strategic role the West African nation plays in stabilizing a region that is growing increasingly fragile as a result of the resurgence of unconstitutional changes of government and expanding jihadist footprints towards coastal West Africa, according to Mr. Onuoha.
However, Alberto Miguel Fernandez, a former U.S. ambassador who currently serves as vice president of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), thinks Russia and China don’t have much to worry about regarding the visit.

U.S. Role ‘Haphazard and Limited’

“American interest in Africa is haphazard and limited by all sorts of domestic and international constraints (we won’t help or arm certain types of regimes),” Mr. Fernandez told The Epoch Times in an email.

The Biden administration doesn’t engage “deeply enough” in the region to be a major competitor to China, he said.

“Russia, of course, specializes in a more limited range of states and areas than the Chinese. But if this visit leads to more intense and deeper American engagement, then this could at least make things a bit more complicated for the Chinese,” Mr. Fernandez said.

He insisted that the timing of Mr. Blinken’s just-ended Africa tour was “overdue” if the United States really wants to exert influence on the continent.

“One reason is local politics and American ambitions toward promoting like-minded governments,” the retired U.S. diplomat said.

“Three of the four countries are democracies—more or less—while Angola has some elements of a democracy (elected opposition members) while still being authoritarian. So it is an attempt to ’reward' states that have made (according to Washington) the right political choices.”

Mr. Fernandez also asserted that the United States rewarding the Ivory Coast with increased aid is also a message to its authoritarian (pro-Russian) coup neighbors in Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso.

“The stop in Abidjan [was] meant as a message to the coup regimes threatened by extremism in West Africa. The message is meant to be a subtly positive one—that ‘we can help you better than the Russians if you move towards reform and democracy and distance yourself from Russia,'” he said.

Like Mr. Onuoha, Mr. Fernandez said Nigeria’s internal stability is a “major concern” for Washington, given that the West African state does have a regional role to play against the Sahel coup regimes—at the least making sure things don’t deteriorate further.

“Angola has an important role to play in peace diplomacy in the Eastern Congo (the ‘Luanda Process’) which is of some real concern to Washington,” he said.

Oil Production

“Obviously, Angola and Nigeria are major oil producers and it is in the American interest to keep production high given tensions in the Gulf and Red Sea. But none of these countries plays a role in [the ongoing wars in Gaza, Sudan, and Ukraine] nor can they do much to influence them,” Mr. Fernandez said.

Tanzanian-based political analyst Lusungu Mubofu said countries visited by Mr. Blinken during his recent tour should expect much U.S. investment, especially in defense and security at the cost of “maintaining their democratic status.”

“The factors that have informed the choices of these countries are probably military and economical: the U.S. needs to add more drone bases in Africa,” he told The Epoch Times.

“The four countries visited are all bordered by the Atlantic Ocean. The U.S. needs peace to flourish in the region especially Sahel, which is affected by terrorists and borders Nigeria and Ivory Coast.

“China and Russia should be worried [about Blinken’s recent tour], yes, because the U.S. has visited Nigeria, which is a close neighbor to the coup-hit Niger that deposed Mohamed Bazoum, a good friend of Blinken and the U.S.

“Russia, which is still consolidating its influence in the Sahel, should be worried seeing Blinken’s visit to Nigeria as a way of keeping a close eye on neighboring Niger.”