Blinken Begins Africa Trip as U.S. Pursues Greater Influence Over the Continent

U.S. Secretary of State Blinken began on Sunday his Africa trip, which will see him visit three sub-Saharan Africa countries: South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Rwanda until Aug. 12. Blinken aims to build on his visit of last November and build closer ties between the United States and the African nations, at a time when adversaries China and Russia also accelerate efforts to exert influence over the continent.

Blinken will announce Biden’s U.S. strategy for sub-Saharan Africa during his visits to accomplish his goals. Launching the strategy while visiting Africa sends a message of respect that African countries are geostrategic players and critical partners. A second key goal of will be to improve bilateral relations with the three countries by focusing on pressing issues. Those issues will have profound effects on the continent more broadly, as well as on relations between the U.S. and these specific countries.

This high-level visit also comes at a time when the current economic, health, and geopolitical pressures are starting to realign priorities and further actions. African countries continue to experience severe economic shocks as they attempt both to recover from COVID-19 disruptions and manage crises induced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The war in Ukraine is threatening the already fragile food security across Africa, as agriculture and food exports from Russia and Ukraine have both been halted.

Blinken’s Africa trip came just days after Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s visit to four African nations: Uganda, the Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Egypt, a trip aimed at expanding Russia’s influence over the continent and looking for support over teh war in Ukraine within Africa. Blinken’s visit also comes in the wake of the Biden administration’s announcement of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit to be held in Washington, D.C. in December 2022. Washington has been trying to reassure African countries that they are important partners.

Blinken’s first stop is South Africa, one of the United States’ most important partners in the region, particularly in terms of health, education, environment, and the digital economy.

South Africa is the United States’ largest trade partner in Africa and is home to over 600 American businesses. South Africa contributes 25% of all U.S. income from the continent and consistently receives the most foreign direct investment (FDI) from the United States. About half of African companies worth $1 billion or more are in South Africa, which is a gateway to access other African markets. South Africa also has great geopolitical importance. It is the regional dominant powerhouse of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and is—along with Nigeria and Egypt—one of the three largest economies on the continent, representing more than 50 percent of combined consumer and business spending.

South Africa has so far remained neutral regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, partly because of Russia’s support for the ANC’s liberation struggle against the apartheid regime. These relations will likely be a topic of discussion during Blinken’s visit as Western powers, nongovernmental organizations, and human rights activists are urging the country to condemn Russia.

Blinken wants to show the bilateral relationship is a priority for the U.S. and underline South Africa’s central role in the subregion and on the continent in actively promoting greater trade integration and continent wide prosperity.

Blinken will travel to the DRC after South Africa to discuss topics of mutual interest including achieving peace in the Great Lakes region, supporting future economic relations through trade and investment, promoting human rights and freedoms, and combating corruption. The DRC is the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa by land area and is home to huge resource wealth, an estimated $24 trillion of untapped mineral resources, significant hydropower potential, and great biodiversity. However, the DRC continues to be subject to political instability, violent conflict, and humanitarian crises.

The DRC’s resource wealth has fueled violence in the region as armed groups often attack mines and collaborate with smugglers.

It will be critical for the United States and the DRC to find a solution for peace and stability as the ongoing violence of rebel groups has disrupted development efforts.

The various conflicts among the nation have notably contributed to low U.S. involvement in the country’s large mineral resources, and is a missed economic opportunity. DRC is home to 70% of the world’s cobalt, 60% of its coltan and its fourth largest copper producer.  Since cobalt and coltan are key minerals for clean technologies, the DRC’s endowment of these natural resources presents a significant opportunity for U.S. investors. Thus, as the DRC works toward greater peace and stability, the U.S. should also be working toward better positioning of itself as a key player in that mining sector. However, so far, China has been dominating the clean energy technology sector, a trend that will continue if its attempts to secure access to these minerals in the DRC are successful.

Blinken’s final stop will be in Rwanda to discuss peacekeeping, Rwanda’s role in reducing tensions in the DRC, and ongoing human rights concerns. Rwanda has recently emerged as an important player at the subregional and continental level as well as the international level. After a genocide that nearly destroyed the country, Rwandans have created a successful example of recovery through the state’s capacity to effectively deliver goods and services and proactive peacekeeping diplomacy on the continent.

Despite these positive trends, Blinken’s trip to Rwanda will not be all rosy. Tensions between the DRC and Rwanda ensue as Kinshasa accuses Kigali of supporting rebel groups, something Rwanda denies.

Blinken’s visit could also highlight the great potential for expanding mutually beneficial economic opportunities between the two countries. Despite having a small market, Rwanda is an important destination for U.S. foreign investment, thanks to its successful efforts to create a conducive business environment. Rwandan President Kagame has successfully developed relationships with leaders of multinational companies wishing to invest in East Africa, leading major companies to open factories, buy commodities and invest in Rwanda’s financial growth. Investment and business opportunities are expected to grow, to the benefit of Rwanda, the United States, and Africa as a whole.

Blinken will likely aim to distinguish the strengths of Rwanda, including peacekeeping, state effectiveness, and its pro-business environment so that it can expand its reach as a critical player for other countries in the continent.

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