Amid wars in Gaza, Ukraine, U.S. tries to show Africa it still cares

ABIDJAN, Côte d’Ivoire — Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in West Africa this week and drove straight to an African soccer championship match, a moment of pride for this coastal country and a prime opportunity to show American support for a national event.

But Beijing had been here first: The venue, a massive new Olympic Stadium called Ébimpé, was constructed by China, and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, visited Abidjan last week to promote the “win-win” partnership with Côte d’Ivoire.

Blinken this week will cross sub-Saharan Africa in a bid to prove that the United States is not abandoning the continent despite its intense focus on raging crises in Gaza and Ukraine.

As China and Russia press their advantage here while Washington focuses elsewhere, Blinken is using his fourth trip to the region to reassure nations that the continent is still a destination for U.S. dealmaking and policymakers.

“We’re here for a very simple reason, because America and Africa’s futures, their peoples, their prosperity, are linked and joined as never before,” Blinken said Tuesday after meeting President Alassane Ouattara.

U.S. seeks to balance security and human rights in turbulent West Africa

With President Biden’s first term in office counting down and his reelection prospects uncertain, this also may be one of the last moments for Blinken to shape his legacy on a continent where coups and other setbacks have in many ways led to more instability than when the administration took office.

A cavalcade of senior administration officials, including Vice President Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, has passed through, though Biden himself, despite a vow to visit, has not done so.

Senior diplomats joining Blinken have said the trip is about concrete opportunities for economic cooperation, not pushing back on China and Russia.

Many African countries, they note, are already rejecting Russian offers of support from military contractors. China, meanwhile, has been less active with new infrastructure projects, mostly finishing those it launched years ago — although China’s imprint on the region is an inescapable feature of the trip, with Blinken’s meetings at his first stop in Cabo Verde, the island chain-nation off the western coast of Africa, taking place in the government palace also constructed by Beijing.

“You guys are bumming me out because you’re not talking about any of the really fun and positive, forward-looking things we’ll be doing,” Assistant Secretary of State for African affairs Molly Phee told reporters ahead of the trip, as she faced repeated questions about security challenges on the continent and China competition.

Blinken said that security had been a major focus of his talks in Côte d’Ivoire, including ways to protect civilians during military operations and how to promote development so that marginalized communities aren’t lured to radical groups.

Côte d’Ivoire faces a security threat from spillover terrorism in neighboring Burkina Faso and, more broadly, a challenging situation throughout the Sahel. Nigeria, where Blinken landed later on Tuesday, has experienced its own internal tensions while attempting to stabilize the tumult next door in Niger after a military coup in July. Angola, the final visit, is working to stabilize upheaval in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Extremist attacks escalate in Niger after coup topples American ally

Niger had been an important security partner to the United States. It’s served as a major U.S. hub for counterterrorism operations, and the administration has struggled to adapt after its democratically elected president was toppled, with no clear backup plan and the future of U.S. military presence in the country still unresolved.

The coup was a reminder of the limits of American power in the region. The military junta that took over is skeptical of the United States and has brought in Wagner, the Russian military contractor, to prop up its rule.

In Wagner’s largest African outpost, Russia looks to tighten its grip

Some regional leaders have expressed a desire for the United States to play to some of its strengths — long-term economic relationships, good governance, democracy-building — which analysts said ought to be the U.S. focus rather than going head-to-head with Chinese infrastructure projects and Russia security-for-hire.

“We are committed to justice, to rule of law and to all that can improve the daily life of our population,” Ouattara said after meeting Blinken.

And Blinken mentioned a range of practical issues that the Biden administration is helping to fund, including public health measures such as HIV control and digitizing medical records, and expanded backing for U.S. private investments.

Still, the Biden administration has been happy to seize on some moments to step in when China has stepped back. In Angola, for instance, the United States has invested in a project to refurbish a railway that runs from the country’s Lobito port to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, after deep frustration about the quality of Chinese railway construction in recent years, and it is investing in mining there as well.

There are plans for further rail development in the coming years, and Biden hosted President João Lourenço in the White House in November.

“Infrastructure that people can see and feel, yes, it’s wonderful. But what the U.S. brings to the table is something more long term,” said Oge Onubogu, director of the Africa program at the Wilson Center.

“Democracy is something that African citizens value deeply. That is something that China and Russia do not,” she said. “For the U.S., I think our hearts are in the right place, but we have to be able to able to invest the time and the resources to show that the relationship and partnership is for the long term.”

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