Kamala Harris tour bares Africa’s diplomatic vortex

US Vice President Kamala Harris.

Photo credit: File | AFP

What you need to know:

  • US Vice President Kamala Harris's weeklong trip to Africa highlights the continent's rising strategic profile - and begs the question: can a united Africa play a bigger role in world affairs?

Africa finds itself in the middle of a growing diplomatic vortex as the United States and its Western allies ramp up efforts to counterbalance the expanding clout of China and Russia. India, Turkey and Middle Eastern countries are also in the mix as US vice president Kamala Harris embarks on a week-long tour of Africa, with  U.S. President Joe Biden planning to visit Africa later this year.

Regional analysts suggest the increased visibility of the US in Africa is part of a strategic pushback against Beijing and Moscow.

Aly-Khan Satchu, Economist and CEO of the investment advisory firm Rich Management Ltd is of the opinion that the West and the U.S. (especially under President Trump) had neglected Africa outside of the security, counter-terrorism and immigration lens.

He asserted, however, that "the war in Ukraine and Africa's evident sympathy for Russia was a wake-up call and the West is trying to push back geo-strategically speaking. It's an uphill task. The ground has shifted." 

Rekindling alliances

According to US broadcaster, National Public Radio, officials said Harris' trip is part of Biden's commitment to go "all-in on Africa" and confirmed that Biden is also expected to visit the continent this year.

As high-ranking officials from the US and its allies descend upon Africa, the message is clear: rekindling alliances on the continent is a top priority.

Biden's presence was particularly noticeable at COP27 in Egypt in November 2022,  all the more so because the event coincided with U.S. mid-term elections. Following the summit, marketed as the "African COP", Biden met with African leaders at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in December, announcing US support for the idea that the African Union join the G-20, permanently, and pledging to visit the continent.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was in Ethiopia and Niger earlier in 2023, after touring South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Rwanda in August 2022.

Blinken's 2022 trip came just days after Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov's visit to Uganda, the Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Egypt.

In January 2023, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen also completed a 10-day trip, marking the start of a year of high-level US engagement.

The same month, a cabinet member visited Somalia with US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield. The trip to Mogadishu was the first for a U.S. cabinet member in nearly eight years.

And in February, US First Lady Jill Biden visited Namibia and Kenya to strengthen areas of corporations between Washington and African states. 

Diplomatic engagements

Meanwhile, the US's European allies have also been noticeably engaging with the continent.

In January, Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni met Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune in Algiers, while in March, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Angola, the Republic of the Congo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a high-profile trip that went viral on social media, after an earlier trip to Gabon. Soon afterwards, Italian President Sergio Mattarella made a four-day official visit to Kenya.

In May 2022, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz travelled to Senegal, Niger, and South Africa.

Turkey has also grown its strategic presence on the continent, hosting regular Türkiye-Africa Partnership Summits and its companies have invested heavily in Africa, as well as becoming a major provider of infrastructure capacity, even rivalling China in some markets. A Turkish presence has been very noticeable in Somalia, after initially rebuilding the country's main airport and a Turkish company, Karpowership, has offered three of its mobile power stations to help with South Africa's power crisis. In February 2022, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Central and West Africa.

These diplomatic engagements reflect the growing geo-strategic importance of Africa as global powers recognise the need to secure their alliances in the region.

Recent reports have shown that the continent's vast resources, including minerals critical for the green energy transition and green hydrogen production, make it an attractive prospect for investment and collaboration. This was particularly evident soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in March, 2022, sparking a whirlwind of Africa tours by panicked European energy ministers and companies seeking new sources of gas.

But Africa also now represents another opportunity. With a rapidly growing population, and now a free-trade agreement on the continent, Africa presents a significant market opportunity for world trade and economic growth.

And as global powers vie for influence, the continent has the potential to benefit from increased investment, security cooperation, and development partnerships.

African states, arguably for the first time, are putting their geo-strategic interests first, as witnessed by Africa's ambivalent responses to the Ukraine war. While Russia was a cold war ally to many African states and was seen as a direct ally in various wars for independence, the U.S.'s immediate post-cold-war influence was virtually uncontested. In the 21st Century, after witnessing the rise of China's "soft-power" (and in some cases feeling the pain after taking China's easy loans) African countries have by and large grown more cautious in managing their relationships with external actors. Increasingly, African governments are keen to ensure their partnerships align with long-term development goals and serve the best national interests.

Folashade Soule, in an analysis in The Conversation, urges the continent avoid a 'zero-sum game', especially when dealing with the US-China rivalry.

"They should adopt measures that strategically play rivals against each other. They should also implement long-term strategies and domestic policies for dealing with strategic partners like China," the senior research associate at the University of Oxford said.

To win over Africa, Satchu believes, the West should seek out the opportunities offered by the continent's challenges. This may not always be easy.

"Africa is in a debt crisis. The West needs to offer a Brady Plan. I don't think it has the bandwidth. It looks as if the BRICS+ constellation will beat the West to the punch," he asserted, referring to a U.S. plan to assist a debt crisis amongst Latin American countries in the 1980s.

"Europe is playing the green economy card and is keen to restrict access to its garden and therefore, realistically speaking, needs to think about a Marshall Plan for Africa to create jobs for Africans in Africa. It's not clear that they have the focus. So debt, food and fuel are Africa's challenges. On food and fuel, the West faces a formidable adversary in Putin's Russia who made promises recently on both scores."

But as a rivalry between the West, China and now Russia, grows, other countries are seizing the opportunity to expand their business interests in Africa too.

In addition to Turkey, both India and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have ramped their investments and partnerships with African nations in recent years, positioning themselves as strong contenders for China's dominance.

Recent economic and political challenges have led China to rethink its approach to Africa. The Asian giant's infrastructure development strategy investments in the region saw a 55% reduction, to US$7.5 billion, last year, as disclosed by a recent report from Shanghai's Fudan University Green Finance and Development Center. Some experts believe this trend may continue.

India meanwhile has been steadily increasing its presence in Africa in recent years, with investments in agriculture, healthcare, and renewable energy sectors.

This shifting ground of international politics, the increasing reliance on both African commodities and its fast-growing market now, as Soule says, offers the continent a remarkable opportunity. The question is, will the continent capitalise on the moment?