Antony Blinken in Africa to turn the page on the Trump years

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken boards his plane for Dakar at Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport in Abuja, Nigeria, November 19, 2021.

Obviously, all relationships seem simpler when they are not subjected to insults and annoyances, when rather than seeing you as “Shitty country”, your counterpart, the world’s leading power in this case, qualifies you as “Strategic partner”. For his first trip to the African continent, completed Saturday, November 20, the American Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, was deliberately humble in tone and modest about the capacities of his country, after the excesses of Donald Trump and the manifest contempt he displayed.

“Too often, African countries have been treated as inferior partners, or worse, rather than of the same rank”, said Friday in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, the head of American diplomacy, after noting a “Authoritarianism on the rise all over the world” and recognized that « [s]our own country is struggling against threats to [les] democracies. And the solutions to these threats will come as much from Africa as elsewhere ”.

Powerlessness in the face of democratic setbacks

This is not a policy, but the intention displayed during this trip, which has taken him since Tuesday to Kenya, Nigeria and then Senegal, is to revive the idea of ​​cooperation between Washington and the African continent, with “The deep will to convince Africans to think about their problems, that they identify the solutions and put in place the resources, because the United States will not be able to do it”, warns Mamadou Diouf, professor of history and African studies at Columbia University.

Scheduled for August, this tour was finally postponed, due to the capture of Kabul by the Taliban. Africa remains far from White House emergencies. Since coming to power, Joe Biden has not yet defined the orientations of his policy towards the continent, but his National Security Council should do so in the coming months.

Read also the editorial: Endangered democracies around the world: resisting the authoritarian tidal wave

In the meantime, American diplomacy seems tossed from one emergency to another, powerless in the face of democratic setbacks, characterized in Africa by the succession of coups d’état – four in a year, “The highest number in four decades ” – and “Leaders ignoring term limits, rigging and postponing elections, exploiting social tensions to gain or remain in power, arresting opposition figures …”, as Mr Blinken lamented.

Focus on regionally influential allies

In a context of exacerbated rivalry with China, which the Secretary of State tried to minimize with ready-made formulas (“We don’t want you to choose. We want to give you choices ”), the selection of the three stages – Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal – of this trip can be read as revealing Washington’s intentions in Africa: to bet on regional and continental organizations as well as on allies seen as poles of influence, whereas the limits of the American diplomatic weight were recently and brutally exposed in two countries where they were largely invested.

In Sudan, in October, General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Al-Bourhane waited only a few hours after the departure of the American special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, who thought he had completed his mediation, to overthrow the civilian government. As if to drive the point home, it was when Mr. Blinken was in Kenya, in Nairobi, to mention the case of Sudan in particular, that the repression in Khartoum was the most deadly, with about fifteen protesters killed on Wednesday.

Read also In Sudan, the city of Bahri mourns its martyrs

“The United States shot itself in the foot by pushing the Sudanese government, too fragile for that, to agree to deliver [l’ex-président] Omar Al -Bachir at the International Criminal Court. Inevitably, Generals Al-Bourhane and “Hemetti” [Mohammed Hamdan Daglo, ex-vice-président] could consider themselves next on the list ”, a posteriori analysis Paul-Simon Handy, of the Institute for Security Studies, a think-tank based in South Africa. The researcher is just as critical of the American approach to try to find a negotiated solution to the war in Ethiopia. “They remain an influential player in this crisis, but, there too, they lacked subtlety in showing their sympathies for the Tigrayan rebels”, he said.

Hence the need for relays, both for the sake of efficiency and not to get involved directly. Besides Sudan and Ethiopia, Kenya is a key player for the entire Horn of Africa. Nigeria, although it has lost its strategic interest in the United States since the latter no longer depend on energy from crude from the Niger Delta, remains the main economic hub of the continent. Finally, in Senegal, a still fragile democratic model, the Head of State, Macky Sall, will chair the African Union throughout 2022.

“Play smarter”

The speech given in Abuja by the Secretary of State gave only a few general lines of what American policy should be in the coming years in Africa. Nothing has been said about the future of AGOA, this law on development and African opportunities allowing the nations of the continent to export their productions to the American market without customs duties, which expires in 2025.

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A note from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, published in June and devoted to the Sahel and the coastal countries of West Africa, could however serve as a benchmark. Entitled “The bad choices”, it judges that “To promote its strategic interests the United States will have to play smarter”. Returning to the National Security Council, of which he was already a member under the Obama administration, its author, Judd Devermont, believes that in order to combat violent extremism, stem democratic setbacks and stem “The malignant influence” China and Russia, Washington will have to “Increase investments in the judicial sector, strengthen the fight against corruption, particularly in the mining and energy sectors, and prioritize accountability in the security sector”.

This, continues the former CIA executive, “Will involve a significant divestment from traditional counterterrorism programs and security-focused policies that have had minimal success in the Sahel over the past two decades, to reinvest in democratic institutions.” It could be a topic of discussion of the “summit for democracy” that Joe Biden plans to organize in December and to which several of his African counterparts are invited, or of the one that the White House intends to hold later with African leaders, such as Mr. Blinken announced it, a sort of response to the one to be held at the end of November in Dakar between China and the countries of the continent.