The United States Returns to Africa
After Trump’s insults and detachment, the Biden administration is crafting a new, more engaged approach to the continent.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
This week’s highlights: After four years of insults and indifference, the United States is taking a hands-on approach to Africa, why Tanzania’s new president may not be a breath of fresh air, and Botswana’s “Butterfly” spy case.
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Biden Breaks from Trump on Africa Policy
From expletive-laden rants at the start of his presidency to allowing corruption to run rampant as one of his last foreign-policy acts, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s relationship with the African continent was characterized by detachment.
While he hosted leaders considered important to his administration’s security ambitions, Trump himself never set foot on the continent. A new administration with a new foreign-policy strategy under President Joe Biden is already showing a marked shift toward African priorities.
A fresh start. “We’re not simply picking up where we left off, as if the past four years didn’t happen. We’re looking at the world with fresh eyes,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a speech outlining his department’s goals. It was part of the Biden administration’s ambition to make foreign policy serve the American middle class, but the bid to build national consensus on international issues will be felt most acutely by the countries that are prioritized or ignored.
Among the State Department’s list of eight focus areas—including immigration, the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S.-China relations, and cybersecurity—was the clear message that the U.S. government planned to return to the world stage. Africa could benefit from the State Department’s new focus on the climate crisis and strengthening democracy, but the emphasis on rebuilding alliances will be key as regions from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa become the front lines in emerging security crises.
Hands-on in Ethiopia. The State Department’s decision to openly raise allegations of human rights abuses and massacres in Ethiopia shows a willingness to once again play a role as an international voice of conscience, a shift from the perceived moral indifference the Trump administration had toward Africa. This week, a close Biden ally, Sen. Chris Coons, arrived in Ethiopia to “convey President Biden’s grave concerns about the humanitarian crisis and human rights abuses in the Tigray region and the risk of broader instability in the Horn of Africa.”
Focus on the Horn. Signaling the importance of the conflict, Biden is also expected to tap seasoned diplomat Jeffrey Feltman as his special envoy for the Horn of Africa. “Our consistent senior-level engagement—including on security, global health, climate change, freedom and democracy, and shared prosperity—demonstrates our commitment, and that certainly applies to the Horn of Africa,” a State Department spokesman told Foreign Policy about the appointment.
While Blinken has yet to outline his policy in Somalia, Feltman’s expected appointment shows a willingness to be more active in the region. Toward the end of his term, Trump ordered the withdrawal of about 700 U.S. troops from the country, where they provided support to the Somali military, including dozens of airstrikes targeting al-Shabab.
The January withdrawal came at a time when Somalia seemed at risk of sinking further into political chaos. Last week, the State Department called on Somali politicians to set their differences aside and pursue the election process that stalled in February.
“Iraqification” of African issues. Critics fear the U.S. influence further south could worsen the security crisis in Mozambique and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Earlier this month, the State Department designated insurgent groups in both countries as terrorist organizations due to their alleged links to the Islamic State. The designation makes way for greater involvement, as already seen in Mozambique, where U.S. Special Forces will begin training Mozambican security forces.
But this has raised concerns of what one analyst calls an “Iraqification” of the region through a militarized response that overlooks the socioeconomic realities on the ground in favor of what seems like a quick fix. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, analysts fear that identifying the violence with the Islamic State overlooks the historic roots of a decades-old conflict.
Soft power. But U.S. foreign policy in Africa is about much more than military assistance. It encompasses an economic relationship that has been largely imbalanced, but also a raft of humanitarian policies that have become essential to the continent’s poor.
Former President George W. Bush had the African Growth and Opportunity Act and the massive President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, while his successor Barack Obama had Power Africa and the Young African Leaders Initiative. Even Trump, who was late to realize the region’s importance, announced the Prosper Africa trade program, largely to woo governments and business away from China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Image matters when trying to counter Chinese influence in Africa, but these broad-brush efforts have often overlooked the agency of Africans in seeking to foster a relationship with Beijing over Washington. Obama appealed to the continent’s youth, while Trump was surprisingly popular with Africa’s authoritarian regimes.
Biden could build a legacy on the continent by prioritizing the Africans left behind economically and caught in the middle of violent conflicts.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, March 24: The United Nations Security Council will discuss the crisis in Libya following a briefing from the special envoy and mission head.
Friday, March 26: Results are expected to be announced in the Republic of Congo presidential election.
Tuesday, March 30: The U.N. Security Council will discuss the latest report from its mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
What We’re Watching
Tanzania’s new president. Samia Suluhu Hassan made history last week, becoming the first woman to be sworn in as president of Tanzania. The former vice president took over after President John Magufuli’s death just months into his second term. Because she is a Muslim woman from the semi-autonomous Zanzibar archipelago, optimists are celebrating her leadership as a progressive shift for Tanzania.
Just seeing her wear a mask is a welcome change in a country that officially denied the COVID-19 pandemic until recently. Yet, as Magufuli’s vice president since 2015, Suluhu Hassan enforced his policies. Even if she is planning sweeping changes, she still has to work within the ruling party, where Magufuli’s allies remain influential.
Congo-Brazzaville’s unsurprising election. The final results are not yet in, but it is likely that incumbent Republic of Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso will extend his 36-year reign. The March 21 vote took place under an internet blackout, amid reports of low voter turnout and with few independent observers.
In 2016, allegations of a rigged vote led to violence after Sassou Nguesso declared victory, but this time around the president secured a peace accord with the main rebel group—and the main opposition leader, Guy Brice Parfait Kolelas, died of COVID-19 on March 21.
Violence spikes in the DRC. The United Nations refugee agency has warned about an alarming increase in violence in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Allied Democratic Forces have killed nearly 200 people since January, kidnapped over 70 people, and raided 25 villages.
In a perpetually restive region, the group’s renewed audacity is concerning. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees attributed the increase to retaliation against government soldiers and communities believed to be working with security forces. Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department designated the group a terrorist organization over its supposed links to the Islamic State.
Botswana’s “Butterfly” spy case. Botswana has appointed the attorney who successfully prosecuted athlete Oscar Pistorius to handle a case that could have serious diplomatic repercussions for South Africa and Botswana. Gerrie Nel, who now heads the legal unit of the Afrikaner rights group AfriForum, said he took on the case after South African authorities failed to assist in the prosecution of former spy Welheminah Maswabi.
Codenamed “Butterfly,” Maswabi is accused of laundering $10 billion linked to former President Ian Khama and South African businesswoman Bridgette Motsepe-Radebe in 2019. Motsepe-Radebe, who is the wife of a senior African National Congress official and is President Cyril Ramaphosa’s sister-in-law, hired a private consulting firm to clear her name and Khama’s.
Chart of the Week
Africa’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout gains pace, albeit slowly.
The World Health Organization announced on March 18 that 7 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine had been administered across Africa. The continent has also received 25 million doses shipped to 27 countries.
This Week in Culture
Nigerian singer and rapper Burna Boy took home his first Grammy award this month for his album Twice As Tall. It was the second time he was nominated, losing out to the Beninese-American singer Angélique Kidjo last year. Already one of Africa’s brightest stars, Burna Boy has cultivated a loyal audience across the Atlantic, where Afrobeat and Afrofusion sounds are going mainstream.
“This is a big win for my generation of Africans all over the world,” he said in his acceptance speech. Burna Boy’s win and performance at the awards also ushered in a new generation of African musicians on the Grammy stage in a category that has struggled to cross over to the popular charts. Last year, the Grammy’s changed the name of the World Music category to the Best Global Music Album award, given the previous category’s colonial connotations.
The sheer injustice of fate. The COVID-19 response in the United Kingdom was deeply flawed, but British residents were far more fortunate than those in poorer African countries. With a struggling health care system and no state safety net, many Sudanese had little to rely on beyond the generosity of relatives and neighbors. “To face Covid in those societies is to brace yourself for your appointed fate, to wait and be claimed or get lucky and be spared,” Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik writes.
Nostalgia for pre-pandemic Nairobi. “We all swarm in the comments to recall when boys jacked their parent’s cars, picked up the girls, and cruised to Bubbles, Choices, Visions and Madhouse nightclubs; clubs that no longer exist in modern day Nairobi but held our secrets for over decades.” A year into the pandemic and life under lockdown Mercy Mkhana Simiyu longs for Nairobi’s nightlife in Lolwe.
That’s it for this week.