- Written by Ann Soy
- Africa Reporter
First, it was the US Secretary of State who went on a trip to Africa, now it’s the vice president, and later in the year the president himself is expected to come.
This wave of visits by senior administration figures reflects a growing awareness that the United States needs to deepen its engagement with the continent.
All of this comes in the face of increasing competition from other global powers, especially China and Russia.
Vice President Kamala Harris begins her nine-day trip in Ghana before moving on to Tanzania and Zambia.
Ghana, with its focus on strengthening relations with the African diaspora, as well as its record of many peaceful democratic transfers of power, provides an ideal launching pad for Ms. Harris.
Her trip, according to an official statement, is meant to “build on” the December US-Africa summit in Washington where President Joe Biden said the US “cares about the future of Africa.”
But it is this future, bolstered by a young and growing population as well as the continent’s vast natural resources, that has attracted so many other powerful nations vying for influence.
While Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent visit to Ethiopia and Niger focused on security challenges in those two countries, the Vice President’s tour will take her to countries facing serious economic problems.
The country is seeking to restructure its debts amid inflation soaring more than 50%. Finance Minister Ken Ofori-Atta was in Beijing leading negotiations with the Chinese government.
“So far, the meetings have been very positive and encouraging in China,” the finance minister wrote on Twitter, expressing optimism that it would secure external assurances “very soon.”
It needs assurances to unlock financial support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
It is not clear what, if any, assistance Ms. Harris could provide, but she would be pressured to act as a willing partner in the aftermath of Mr. Ofori-Ata’s visit to China.
“The United States is a friend – like China and Russia”
Economist and professor of finance at the University of Ghana, Godfred Aluvar Bokpen, does not believe the visit will bring “immediate dividends” to help alleviate the country’s financial woes.
“Having China on board is complicated,” he said, noting that Ms. Harris’ visit was “very important” for Ghana because it “brings our relationship with the United States to another level.”
He told the BBC that the interest shown by the United States in the country and its debt crisis is “good”, but he is concerned about what he described as “unfavorable terms of trade” with creditor countries.
Zambia finds itself in a similar situation to Ghana.
The copper-rich country became the first African country to default on its debt when the Covid pandemic hit.
It is in lengthy discussions with China to restructure its debt and has also sought financial support from the International Monetary Fund.
Reuters quoted a senior US official as saying that Ms. Harris “will discuss how best the international community can address the debt challenges facing Ghana and Zambia.”
Like Professor Bokpin, Zambian analyst Dr Sechua Sechua believes that China has more leverage when it comes to debt restructuring. But the United States wants to be seen as the most reliable partner.
There is a growing feeling on the continent that Africa should have freedom of choice in its relations with the rest of the world.
Dr Sichua told the BBC that “Zambia views the US the same way it sees China and Russia – as a friend”.
“When a country turns to China, Russia or the United States for support, this should not be seen as disdain for one power bloc or another.”
He said that attempts to seek exclusive relations with African countries may be counterproductive and unsustainable.
That echoed comments by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa during a visit to Washington last year when he said: “Nobody we’re working with should tell us.”
Senior US officials told the BBC they had no plans to tell African countries who they could be friends with.
However, the United States has been keen to stress its focus on democracy in its relations with African countries, something the vice president is also expected to discuss during her visit.
Zambian President Hakinde Hichilema is set to co-host a virtual summit for democracy, along with four other heads of state including President Biden, shortly before welcoming Ms. Harris to the country.
It is one of the values, along with human rights and good governance, that the US government says underpin its relations with the continent – and set it apart from China and Russia.
Doubt in Africa
China has a policy of non-interference in the internal political affairs of countries – something that has facilitated its dealings with authoritarian leaders.
There is no doubt that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gave Western countries an added sense of urgency to win more African countries. The United Nations voted to condemn the division of African nations which accounted for half of all abstentions, including Tanzania which also falls on Ms Harris’ itinerary.
The Vice President of the United States – the first woman to hold the position – will meet with President Samia Solo Hassan, her country’s first female head of state.
This shared experience of being pioneers creates a sensation in Tanzania.
Many also promote the visit as an endorsement of the country’s progress and its increasing visibility on the global map.
It wasn’t long ago that Tanzania was a pariah under the presidency of John Magufuli, who was seen as having authoritarian leanings, limiting 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 the US-Africa summit in December.
They include Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas Greenfield, First Lady Jill Biden and Mr. Blinken.
But with the renewed interest comes a demand from the continent to be treated fairly.
The Ghanaian professor, Bokbin, said there was a level of skepticism about the growing interest in Africa.
“There is a belief that there is a new struggle for Africa,” referring to the division of the continent by European nations in the late 19th century that led to decades of colonization and exploitation.
“This participation needs to emphasize mutual respect,” he added.
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