ABUJA, Nigeria – As Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken entered the Nigerian capital Abuja from the airport on Thursday, his motorcade flew past the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Nigeria, a domed, almost palace structure along the expressway.
A similar story happened a day earlier in Nairobi, where Mr. Blinken drove to the airport next to a giant expressway under construction – part of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, which funds huge infrastructure projects in Asia and Africa. Chinese characters could be seen on tractors and other heavy equipment along the way. Just in case, there was a meeting of the Sino-Kenyan business group at Mr. Blinken’s hotel in Nairobi.
The reality of Washington’s global struggle with Beijing, the organizing principle of President Biden’s foreign policy, darkened Blinken’s debut trip to sub-Saharan Africa this week. The first three days of his trip were filled with reminders of Beijing’s growing influence on the continent, as well as some indicators of a waning American influence.
In his speech in Abuja on Friday, Mr Blinken outlined the Biden administration’s vision for Africa, which he said should include close cooperation to advance democracy, prevent pandemics and slow climate change.
But in a message that both reflected and tried to play down the regional power game with China, he also said the US would no longer view Africa as a mere pawn in global competition with other powers.
“Too often, African countries have been viewed as junior partners – or worse, not as equals,” he said. The United States “strongly believes that it is time to stop treating Africa as a subject of geopolitics – and start treating it as the main geopolitical player that they have become.”
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday with his Nigerian counterpart, Foreign Minister Jeffrey Onyama, Mr. Blinken, in response to a question about Beijing’s influence, said that US involvement “does not concern China or any other third party. It’s about Africa. “
But Mr. Oneama didn’t seem to mind the competition.
“When it comes to the US-China rivalry in Africa, I mean, I don’t want to sound almost – well, almost cynical,” he said. “But sometimes it’s good for you if you’re an attractive bride and everyone offers you wonderful things,” he added.
“So, you take whatever you can from each of them,” he said.
Beijing has made major infrastructure investments in Nigeria, including $ 7.5 billion since 2018, according to the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. Last month, China’s ambassador to Nigeria said Beijing plans to begin opening banks in the country soon, in what analysts have described as an attempt to further integrate China into the country’s financial system.
Mr Blinken at least partially endorsed Mr Onyama’s view of lucrative competition, saying that US investment in infrastructure on the continent could contribute to a “race to the top.”
US officials have long feared that Chinese investments in Africa, Asia and Europe are instead lowering standards. And Mr. Blinken indirectly pointed to the risks of Africa’s growing dependence on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese investment, much of it in the form of massive debt.
He insisted that US dollars come with labor, environmental, and anti-corruption protections – all of which are often missing from Chinese projects.
According to him, it is not only the resources provided that are important, but also how these resources are actually used.
Blinken took a lighter approach to China than his predecessor Mike Pompeo, who, on his only visit to Africa in February 2020, based his only visit to Africa on competing with Beijing, urging African countries to “be wary of authoritarian regimes and their emptiness. promises “. He argued that an economic partnership with the United States would bring “true liberation.”
This is consistent with a constant refrain from Biden administration officials, which is also being offered to European and other Asian countries. They say the US is not asking other countries to choose sides between Washington and Beijing in an effort to avoid inflammatory rhetoric that could thwart delicate efforts to defuse tensions with China.
Nigerian officials warmly welcomed Mr Blinken, and on Thursday praised the country’s “living democracy”, noting on Friday that its government plans to attend a global democracy summit due to be held by President Biden next month.
But there were also a few points of friction visible.
In several remarks, Mr Blinken called for accountability for what the independent commission found last week was the killing of protesters against police brutality in Lagos by the Nigerian army last fall. Nigeria’s military denies firing live ammunition at protesters who have demonstrated tens of thousands of demonstrations against a government that has been criticized by human rights groups as increasingly repressive and corrupt.
Mr Blinken also indirectly referred to fears that US military aid to Nigeria, mainly aimed at helping the government fight Islamist extremist groups such as Boko Haram, was instead being used to commit human rights abuses. Mr Blinken said Thursday that the US is working to ensure that “the assistance we provide is used in a manner that fully respects the human rights of every Nigerian.”
And while Mr Blinken’s speech Friday highlighted that Africa can play an important role in slowing climate change, Mr Oneama cautioned about the implications for his country, which is a major energy producer.
“We have noticed that a number of large industrialized countries and financial institutions are currently stopping funding for projects as well as gas projects,” he said. “And, of course, this will indeed be a huge blow to countries like ours, which really want to see gas as a transitional fuel and have time to work towards ‘clean zero’.”
Mr Oneama said he hoped the US would persuade the World Bank and other financial institutions “to soften measures for some of these countries that need a transition period to use this fuel.”
Blinken arrived in Abuja after a two-day stopover in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, where he renewed calls for talks to prevent a full-scale civil war in Ethiopia and reiterated the American demand for the Sudanese military to reverse the October coup and restore power to the country. Prime Minister of the country Abdullah Hamdok.
But crises in these two East African countries flared up during Mr Blinken’s visit. At least 15 people in the Sudanese capital Khartoum were killed on Wednesday protesting against the military regime.
On Thursday, Mr Blinken said the US was “deeply concerned” about the violence and reiterated his call to reinstate Mr Hamdok, who led the transitional government that followed the popular overthrow of the country’s longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019. …
The lack of visible progress in either Sudan or Ethiopia reflects America’s limited diplomatic influence on the continent. But US officials are still hoping for breakthroughs.
A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that during a recent visit to Khartoum by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phi, Sudanese generals said they were ready for Mr. Hamdock’s return. But those same generals, shortly before the coup last month, left the US envoy in Khartoum with the false impression that they would not seize power by force.
The official also said that Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta told Mr Blinken in Nairobi that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whom he has met on numerous occasions, is beginning to realize that his country is at risk of plunging into catastrophic violence as a result. about his ongoing military campaign against the Tigrayan rebels.