Can US charm offensive woo Africa away from China?

Friday, March 31st, 2023 02:50 | By
African union building.
African union building. PHOTO/Courtesy

First it was the US secretary of state who went on a trip to Africa, now it is the vice-president and later in the year the president himself is expected to come.

This flurry of visits by top figures in the US administration reflects a growing awareness that the US needs to deepen its engagement with the continent. This all comes in the face of growing competition from other global powers, especially China and Russia.

Vice-President Kamala Harris started her nine-day trip in Ghana on Sunday, where she was greeted by drummers and dancers at Kotoka International Airport. She will later go to Tanzania and Zambia.

Ghana, with its focus on strengthening ties with the African diaspora as well as a record of several peaceful democratic transfers of power, provides an ideal launchpad for Ms Harris.

Her trip, according to an official statement, is intended to “build on” December’s US-Africa summit in Washington where President Joe Biden said the US was “all in on Africa’s future”.

But it is that future, boosted by a youthful and growing population as well as the continent’s immense natural resources, that have attracted a lot of other powerful nations vying for influence.

While Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s recent visit to Ethiopia and Niger focused on these countries’ security challenges, the vice-president’s tour will take her to nations facing serious economic problems.

Ghana’s once-thriving economy is going through its most difficult financial crisis in decades.

The country is seeking to restructure its debt amid surging inflation of over 50pc. Finance Minister Ken Ofori-Atta has just been in Beijing leading negotiations with the Chinese government.

“So far, very positive and encouraging meetings in China,” the finance minister tweeted as he expressed optimism that it would secure external assurances “very soon”. It needs the assurances to unlock financial support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It is not clear what, if any help, Ms Harris can offer, but it will be under pressure to act like a willing partner in the wake of Ofori-Atta’s China visit.

Economist and professor of finance at the University of Ghana, Godfred Alufar Bokpin, does not think the visit will deliver “an immediate dividend” to help alleviate the country’s financial woes.

“Having China on board is complicated,” he said, while noting that Ms Harris’ visit was “a very important” one for Ghana as it “elevates our relationship with the US to another level”. He told the BBC the interest the US is showing in the country and its debt crisis “is good” but he is worried about what he described as “unfavourable terms of trade” with creditor nations.

Restructuring debt

Zambia finds itself in a similar position to Ghana.The copper-rich nation became the first African country to default on its debt when the Covid pandemic hit.

It is in prolonged discussions with China to restructure its debt and has also sought financial support from the IMF.

The Reuters news agency quotes a senior US official as saying Ms Harris “would discuss the best ways for the international community to address debt challenges faced by Ghana and Zambia”.

Like Prof Bokpin, Zambian analyst Dr Sishuwa Sishuwa thinks China holds more influence when it comes to restructuring debt. But the US wants to be seen as the more reliable partner.  There is a growing sentiment on the continent that Africa should have a free choice in its relationships with the rest of the world.  “Zambia sees the United States in the same way as it sees China and Russia - a friend,” Dr Sishuwa told the BBC.

“When a country turns to China, or Russia, or the US for support, this should not be seen as snubbing one major power bloc or the other.”

He said attempts to seek exclusive relationships with African countries may be counterproductive and unsustainable.

This echoed South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s comments during a visit to Washington last year when he said: “We should not be told by anyone who to associate with.”

Senior US officials have told the BBC it is not their intention to tell African countries who they can be friends with. The US has, however, been keen to emphasise its focus on democracy in its relationships with African countries, something the vice-president is also expected to discuss during her visit.

President Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia is due to co-host a virtual Summit for Democracy, along with four other heads of state including President Biden, shortly before receiving Ms Harris in the country.

It is one of the values, along with human rights and good governance, that the US government says underpins its relationships with the continent — and sets it apart from China and Russia.

Scepticism in Africa

China has a non-interference policy in countries’ internal political affairs - something that has smoothed its engagement with autocratic leaders.

And Russia’s presence in African countries that have experienced coups recently - Burkina Faso and Mali - has led to a souring of relations between them and the West, especially France, the former colonial power which had maintained close ties to both countries.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has no doubt given Western nations an added sense of urgency in winning over more African countries. UN votes to condemn it divided African nations which accounted for half of all abstentions, including Tanzania which is also on Ms Harris’ itinerary.

The US vice-president — the first woman to hold that position — will meet President Samia Suluhu Hassan, her country’s first female head of state.This shared experience of being pioneering women is creating a buzz in Tanzania.

Many are also touting the visit as an endorsement of the progress the country is making and its growing visibility on the global map.

It was not that long ago that Tanzania was something of an outcast under the presidency of John Magufuli, who was seen as having autocratic tendencies, curtailing the activities of the opposition and independent media.

Ms Harris is the most senior US official from the Biden administration to visit Africa and the fifth since December’s US-Africa summit.

Others have been the Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, First Lady Jill Biden and Blinken.

But with the renewed interest comes a demand from the continent to be treated fairly.

Ghana’s Prof Bokpin said there was a level of scepticism about the heightened interest in Africa. “There’s a belief that a new Scramble for Africa is in play,” referring to the sub-division of the continent by European nations in the late 19th Century which led to decades of colonialism and exploitation. “This engagement needs to emphasise mutual respect.”        

More on World