Can Harris’s Visit Shore Up U.S. Relations With Africa?

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: Protests erupt in Kenya, Uganda passes a virulently anti-gay bill, and Iran’s clerical regime arrests girls for performing a viral Nigerian dance routine.

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Can the U.S. Push Back China in Africa? 

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris began her three-nation Africa tour on Saturday landing in Accra, Ghana, as part of a visit that includes stops in Tanzania and Zambia. She is the 18th and most senior U.S. official to visit Africa this year as the United States looks to loosen Russia’s and China’s alliances with African nations. Since January, U.S. officials have visited 11 African countries.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and first lady Jill Biden made trips to the continent in January and February. And Harris’s visit comes mere weeks after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Ethiopia and Niger—the new hub for Western counterinsurgency since Mali ousted most Western militaries.

Despite the heavy charm offensive, Harris and others face a barrier in undoing years of what many Africans perceived as previous U.S. administrations’ undervaluing of the strategic relationship that African states can offer.

But the message now from Washington’s diplomats is that U.S. foreign policy is committed to moving away from what has traditionally been a relationship more focused on national security partnerships to one with a focus on grassroots development. There is a certain amount of skepticism from African governments and citizens. Many are aware that the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war is behind the renewed interest.

The official stance from these countries is that they are not aligned with either Russia or the West on the war. Others such as South Africa have appeared on friendlier terms with Russia, controversially hosting joint naval exercises that coincided with the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Historical issues beyond the war complicate matters. While the Soviet Union had supported independence movements and the anti-apartheid struggle, the U.S. government designated today’s ruling African National Congress a terrorist organization during the Cold War.

Last month, African nations still accounted for nearly half of all abstentions on a U.N. General Assembly resolution that condemned Russia. Blinken suggested this history was making it difficult to change African countries’ decades-long relationships with Moscow.

“Unfortunately, more than unfortunately, the United States was much too sympathetic to the apartheid regime, so that history also doesn’t get erased, you know, overnight. It’s a process,” Blinken said in an interview with the Atlantic.

U.S. rivals have not held back in courting African leaders. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has visited the continent twice in six months, with a Russia-Africa summit slated for July in Moscow. As is customary for Beijing’s diplomats, China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, began his term in office with a five-nation tour of Africa in January.

Fred M’membe, the leader of Zambia’s Socialist Party, has said his country is playing a key role in the United States’ “anti-China crusade.”

“It’s not democracy and human rights they are pursuing in Africa. They are pursuing their geopolitical interests. They are pursuing their own economic interests. It is not for us—it is for them,” M’membe said.

Historically, the United States and Europe led their engagements through the prism of Africa as a problem to fix, whereas China focused on trade, becoming the region’s largest partner.

Many of the meetings between Harris and African leaders will focus on debt and Beijing’s role in it. Ghana and Zambia, two economies that until recently could have been held up as showpieces of Chinese-driven development, are sinking in debt in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic and shocks from the Russia-Ukraine war.

To unlock an International Monetary Fund program, Ghanaian Finance Minister Ken Ofori-Atta was recently in Beijing seeking to restructure debt, as inflation in the country surges past 50 percent. “So far had very positive and encouraging meetings in China!” he tweeted on Friday.

“There may be an obsession in America about Chinese activity on the continent, but there is no such obsession here,” Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo said at a joint media briefing with Harris.

Meanwhile, the United States has accused Beijing of stalling over Zambia’s debt restructuring negotiations under the G-20’s Common Framework agreement. China, the largest individual creditor, wants the World Bank and other multilateral lenders included in whatever deal is agreed.

On top of this is a geopolitical scramble for rare-earth minerals to power the world’s green revolution—cobalt, copper, and nickel—which several African nations have in abundance and are critical to electrical vehicles and renewable technologies. Chinese miners control most commercial exports in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, and Tanzania.

According to a 2022 report by the Brookings Institution and Results for Development, China refines 59 percent of the world’s lithium, 40 percent of copper, and 73 percent of cobalt.

The West’s new posture toward the African continent will also have to take into account the valuable tech infrastructure under the sea in the form of subsea data cables. “Global reliance on subsea cable systems accompanies heightened demand and the growth of cloud computing, extending the power of Beijing’s hegemonic foothold on the continent (thanks to Chinese debt financing and infrastructure construction) and providing Moscow a target for spying, tapping, or cyberattacks,” Joseph B. Keller writes in Foreign Policy.

At the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit last December, the aim was that through its private sector the United States could attempt to dislodge China’s hegemony. At the summit, the United States committed $55 billion to the continent over the next three years. A memorandum of understanding signed by the United States, Congo, and Zambia in January will help the two African nations move from exporting their raw copper and cobalt minerals and instead build supply chains to process the minerals into a usable element for electric vehicles.

Harris announced $139 million in U.S. assistance to Ghana in fiscal 2024, as well as $100 million for Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Togo to tackle Islamist militants. She is expected to announce a series of further investment opportunities aimed at the economic empowerment of women. Going forward, however, as Beijing’s diplomats realized decades ago, trade—not aid—is the surest way to build stronger ties with African nations.

Wednesday, March 29, to Saturday, April 1: U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris continues her three-nation Africa tour, visiting Tanzania and Zambia.

The East African Community sectoral council meets to discuss defense cooperation in Bujumbura, Burundi.

Wednesday, March 29 to Thursday, March 30: Zambia to co-host the second virtual Summit for Democracy along with the U.S., Costa Rica, the Netherlands and South Korea.

Friday, March 31: Kenya and Uganda release inflation data for March.

Sudan deal. Sudanese coup leader and army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), are negotiating plans to bring the RSF under a unified army as part of a political framework for Sudan’s democratic transition.

The framework agreement calls for the RSF’s absorption into the army; the forces are estimated to number anywhere between 30,000 and 100,000 fighters. In talks that began Sunday, Burhan said he wanted to build a professional army “that will not participate in politics in the future.” The two leaders have been vying to consolidate their respective powers as they ostensibly seek to hand over control to a civilian government.

Placing the military under civilian authority is a key demand of pro-democracy groups. The two sides are expected to reach a finalized agreement later this week, with a target of having a new civilian government in place by April 11.

Congo regional force. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has agreed to extend the mandate of a regional force deployed last August by the East African Community (EAC) that was initially meant to last six months. However, it’s expected that the terms of the mission will be renegotiated.

Congolese authorities want the regional force, made up of troops from the EAC’s seven member countries (except Rwanda), to target the M23 rebel group as its primary focus, but EAC leaders aim to target all armed rebel groups operating out of eastern Congo, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, which Rwanda accuses the Congolese government of supporting.

Nearly 70 percent of Congolese people believe the EAC force to be ineffective, according to a survey by the Congo Research Group at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and its Kinshasa-based research partners, Ebuteli and BERCI. Instead, about 61 percent would prefer that Russian troops tackle the M23 crisis.

Police officers prepare to block a road during a rally called by Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga, who claims the last presidential election was stolen from him and blames the government for the hike in living costs, in Nairobi on March 27.

Police officers prepare to block a road during a rally called by Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga, who claims the last presidential election was stolen from him and blames the government for the hike in living costs, in Nairobi on March 27.

Police officers prepare to block a road during a rally called by Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga, who claims the last presidential election was stolen from him and blames the government for the hike in living costs, in Nairobi on March 27. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

Kenya protests. In a second week of protests, police in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi used water cannons and tear gas to disperse thousands of people who demonstrated on Monday over the high cost of living, defying a government ban on rallies. Opposition leader Raila Odinga—whose party, the Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya Coalition Party, is leading the protests—joined demonstrators in one area of the city.

Crowds looted and set fire to parts of a farm belonging to the family of former Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. The majority leader in parliament, Kimani Ichung’wah, had said over the weekend that if any Kenyan property were attacked, “we will also invade your farms. … And that is my message to none other than Uhuru Kenyatta, the sponsor, sole sponsor, singular financier, of Azimio and mercenary that is Raila Odinga.” Kenyatta had backed Odinga during Kenya’s election campaign, and Odinga blamed the attack on “hired” government thugs.

Uganda’s anti-gay bill. On March 21, Uganda’s parliament passed a harsher anti-gay law, which includes the death penalty for what authorities call “aggravated homosexuality.” The law makes it illegal for LGBTQ people to identify as such and prohibits the promotion of homosexuality or “conspiring” to engage in homosexuality.

In a recent Foreign Policy article, Caleb Okereke argued that evangelical movements backed by ultra-conservative Christian groups in the United States have succeeded in “polarizing African countries and harming and endangering LGBTQ+ people.”

Arrests in Iran over Nigerian dance. Nigerian music has for a long time defined resistance movements inside the country, most notably during marches against police brutality in 2020. But the use of Nigerian music in defying authority went global this month, when five Iranian girls uploaded a video of themselves re-creating a viral dance routine used for the hit song “Calm Down” by Nigerian singer Rema, later remixed by American singer Selena Gomez.

The five teenagers were arrested by authorities and forced to apologize. The country has seen mass protests since the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd who had been arrested for an alleged breach of the country’s strict dress code for women.

The 40-second clip uploaded to TikTok was filmed in western Tehran and coincided with International Women’s Day on March 8. It showed the teenagers dressed in Western clothing and without headscarves performing the “Calm Down challenge.” Women are banned from dancing in public in Iran, and the video was largely seen as an act of defiance.

The girls’ video eventually reached Rema, who posted a message of support to “women who are fighting for a better world.” The “Calm Down challenge” started in early 2022, becoming popular among young Nigerians and the diaspora on TikTok. It has since spread globally, from South Africa to Pakistan and Australia. Nigeria’s biggest export after oil is music and film.

African nations have some of the largest deposits of critical metals; however, Beijing dominates the supply chain. China produces or controls some 70 percent of the world’s mined rare earths.

FP’s Most Read This Week

• Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing by Winthrop Rodgers

• A Coup Would Put Pakistan Squarely in China’s Bloc by Azeem Ibrahim

• Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World by Graham Allison

Being gay in Tunisia. In Inkyfada, Linda Kaboudi and Nesrine Zribi report on the use of plainclothes police officers in nightclubs to crack down on LGBTQ safe spaces in Tunisia. Homosexuality is criminalized in Tunisia and punishable by a prison sentence of between one and three years. Extortion of individuals visiting LGBTQ-friendly bars is also common. In 2021, following a wave of arrests and harassment, the photos, names, and personal information of some LGBTQIA+ activists were posted on social networks by police unions. LGBTQ-friendly nightclubs that once offered communities a safe space are becoming increasingly dangerous, Kaboudi and Zribi write.

Zimbabwe’s lithium. In Semafor, Tawanda Karombo examines why a decision by the Zimbabwean government to ban raw lithium exports and encourage local processing has put Chinese and Western companies at an advantage over locals.

Zimbabwe is keen to capitalize on the growing market for electric vehicle batteries by moving away from simply producing raw exports and instead encouraging domestic battery plants. But the companies in a position to move up the value chain are Chinese; China already controls 60 percent of the world’s lithium processing capacity. “Zimbabwean companies will have much less control over the lithium processing that takes place here,” Karombo writes.

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