The Guardian view on the US in Africa: a better tone, but what next?

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images

The only way was up. When Donald Trump wasn’t denigrating “shithole countries”, his administration showed little interest in Africa. In the second visit to the continent by the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, which wrapped up in Rwanda on Thursday, he sought to continue rebuilding US relationships, moving past not only Mr Trump’s contempt but also the earlier tendency to lecture other governments on their real needs and best options. No one should dictate African choices, Blinken insisted. Washington would not treat democracy as “an area where Africa has problems and the United States has solutions”, but would recognise common challenges to be tackled as equals.

Such humility is welcome and necessary. The question is what such rhetoric means in practice. And while Mr Blinken said that the commitment to a stronger partnership was “not about trying to outdo anyone else”, it is plainly rooted in Washington’s concerns about China’s growing clout and, more recently, Russia’s attempt to woo and reinforce support, with last month’s four-nation tour by its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. Many African countries are refusing to take a side in the Ukraine war. Gulf states also play a growing role on the continent, particularly in the Horn of Africa. Beyond security interests and competition for mineral resources lie the opportunities afforded by demography: by 2050, a quarter of the world’s population will live in Africa.

There is no lack of scepticism on the continent about Russian and, especially, Chinese involvement. But that does not equate to sharing US perceptions or priorities. Most Africans still view China’s role favourably. It has rapidly built a good deal of useful infrastructure. US aid, though substantial and at times very effective, has hardly proved beyond reproach. When Covid-19 hit, the west hoarded vaccines and left Africa hanging. While the US stresses the need to tackle the climate crisis, and preserve pristine rainforest and peatlands in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all Mr Blinken offered in his visit was a working group.

Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s foreign minister, was trenchant in a joint appearance. While she said that the US had not asked South Africa to choose, she spoke of “a sense of patronising bullying” from some partners in Europe and elsewhere. She pointedly set Russia’s Wagner Group of mercenaries alongside broader concerns about countries whose hunger for minerals has proved destabilising. She noted the uneven application of international law.

As Mr Blinken observed, polls show that Africans want democracy. America’s soft power reserves are dwindling yet persistent. In a speech at Pretoria University, the secretary of state sought to reach past the political elites courted by China and towards their peoples, over half of whom will be 25 or younger within a couple of years. They may not remember Soviet and Chinese support for liberation movements, and US support for rightwing authoritarianism, as their elders do. But they, too, can see the inconsistencies.

US concern for democratic standards has not precluded support for Paul Kagame, though Mr Blinken said that he raised human rights concerns in his meeting with the Rwandan president. Washington does not place the same stress on democracy when visiting the UAE or Saudi Arabia as it does in addressing Africa. Mr Blinken’s pitch this time was both canny and appropriate. But Africans across the continent and at all levels of society will be looking to the US for deeds as well as words.