Blinken heads to Africa ‘to counter Russian influence’ on the continent
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in South Africa on Sunday to kick off a three-country tour that will also take him to DR Congo and Rwanda, aimed at “developing a strategy to counter Russian efforts to undermine democracy in Africa”, according to a France-based political scientist.
Russia, France, and now the US. “It’s like a new Cold War is playing out in Africa,” William Gumede, director of Democracy Works, told AP, ahead of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken‘s three-nation African tour.
It follows the tours of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who visited Egypt, Uganda, Ethiopia and the Republic of Congo to rally support for Russia amid its ongoing war in Ukraine, and of French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau with the aim of renewing France’s relations with the African continent. US Agency for International Development head Samantha Power and US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield also embarked on Africa tours of their own.
The trip is Blinken’s second to Africa since being appointed secretary of state. His first visit in November 2021 was aimed at “resetting US-African relations following Donald Trump’s presidency, demonstrating the US’ commitment to democracy and showing that the US cares about its relationship with African countries”, according to Douglas Yates, a political scientist specialised in African politics who teaches at the American Graduate School in Paris.
Blinken visited Kenya, Senegal and Nigeria during his 2021 tour, three countries that “meet the minimum requirements for democracies and have all come out of military rule,” Yates said.
Since Trump’s presidential term, during which the US pulled out from a number of initiatives important to South Africa, including the Paris Climate Agreement and the Green Climate Fund, South Africa has seen the US as an “unreliable partner”, Yates said.
As such, the US, South Africa’s second-largest trading partner in 2021, is “trying to get South Africa back in the fold”, he said.
Countering ‘malign’ Russian activities
According to Yates, the purpose of Blinken’s second trip to Africa, however, is to “develop a strategy with African partners to counter Russian efforts to undermine democracy” on the continent.
Blinken has been given authorisation for such a mission by H.R. 7311, the “Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act”, which the US House of Representatives passed on April 27, 2022. So-called malign Russian activities include the use of hard and soft power to expand Moscow’s influence on the continent.
Russian hard power includes the Wagner Group, a mercenary group with apparent links to Moscow that is present in many countries including the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali. The group has been sanctioned by the EU for fuelling violence, looting natural resources and intimidating civilians. Russian soft power includes the use of social and official media to disseminate anti-Western and anti-democracy propaganda.
Blinken has carefully selected the three countries he will visit, “as, excepting South Africa, they [DR Congo and Rwanda] are not considered models of democracy and the US wants to make sure these countries are on their side, as they have military capacity, which they can use to counter Moscow’s influence”, Yates said.
South Africa, like 16 other African countries, abstained from voting on the UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while DR Congo and Rwanda voted for it. Furthermore, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa refused to condemn Russia’s invasion. South Africa is part of the BRICS group, composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, countries that are seen as the world’s leading emerging market economies. While Russia’s February 24 invasion resulted in widespread condemnation from G7 countries and their allies, the only BRICS country to support the UN resolution was Brazil, with South Africa, China and India abstaining.
Will South Africa now condemn Russia?
Blinken will be in South Africa from August 7-9, when he will launch what the State Department calls the US Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa, which “reinforces the US view that African countries are geostrategic players and critical partners on the most pressing issues of our day, from promoting an open and stable international system, to tackling the effects of climate change, food insecurity and global pandemics, to shaping our technological and economic futures”.
South African Minister of International Relations Naledi Pandor, who is scheduled to meet with Blinken on Monday, said that the bill H.R. 7311 is “intended to punish countries in Africa that have not towed the line on the Russia-Ukraine war” in an opinion piece for The Daily Maverick, a South African newspaper.
The South Africa visit and the Africa trip as a whole “would be a major success for Blinken if he managed to get a statement from Ramaphosa condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine and ensure that South Africa does not migrate to the Russian camp”, Yates said.
“This is not just a shaking hands with different officials trip, but rather a policy-oriented one,” he said.
Ensuring Russia influence ‘doesn’t spread south’
After his visit to South Africa, Blinken will head to DR Congo from August 9 to 10, when he is expected to state US support for regional efforts, led by Kenya and Angola, to advance peace in eastern DR Congo and the broader Great Lakes region.
Blinken’s last stop will be in Rwanda from August 10 to 11, where he will meet for the first time with President Paul Kagame, whom DR Congo has accused of supporting the M23 rebel group in eastern DR Congo. “In both the DRC and Rwanda, the secretary will highlight the need for respect for territorial integrity and explore how the United States can support efforts to reduce tensions,” US assistant secretary of state for African affairs Molly Phee, who will be accompanying Blinken on his tour, told The Africa Report.
Yates said that in addition to these official reasons for visiting DR Congo and Rwanda, “behind the scenes, this is about developing a strategy to counter Russian influence in Africa and its efforts to undermine democracy. If Rwanda, DR Congo and South Africa are stable allies, they will be able to contain Russian influence and ensure it doesn’t spread south of the equator, to countries like Madagascar and Mozambique.”
“Despite Rwanda’s small size, it has the most impactful military in the region,” he added.
One of the many reasons some African countries have not taken a stance on the war in Ukraine is the continent’s historical relationship with the former Soviet Union, which supported several independence movements in Africa – diplomatically, and eventually, financially and militarily – against European colonial masters.
Theodore Murphy, director of the Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote a piece in which he stated that the West made a strategic error “by asking African countries to choose a side over Ukraine”, as it allows Russia to adopt an anticolonial posture even as it sends unofficial military support and has strong economic ties with the continent.
According to Russia’s TASS news agency, Lavrov, in an article “for the African media” published on the foreign ministry’s website, said that Russia “does not impose anything on anyone or [tell] others how to live. We treat with great respect the sovereignty of the States of Africa, and their inalienable right to determine the path of their development for themselves”.
The challenge that Blinken, along with other Western powers, seems to be facing is that many African countries simply do not want to get entangled in what appears to be a new cold war between the US and Russia and have to adopt a definite position.