Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Africa this week on a tour that includes South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. Speaking in South Africa, Blinken vowed that Washington would “not dictate” to African countries and said that “African nations have been treated as instruments of other nations’ progress, rather than the authors of their own.” Nonetheless, it’s hard not to see the trip, and the White House’s newly released Sub-Saharan Africa strategy, in the context of the United States’ strategic goals elsewhere.
The new strategy promises to move beyond a narrow focus on security issues and terrorism. But at the same time, the U.S. is raising concerns about the growing footprint of Russia’s “Wagner Group,” a state-linked private military contracting company that has inked contracts with a number of African countries, often in exchange for concessions in gold or other minerals. The U.S. is also working to shore up its coalition as a number of African countries have been less than enthusiastic about lining up with Western countries to support Ukraine, and punish Russia. In his Congo stop in particular, Blinken’s trip will shine a light on ongoing concerns about China’s mining and infrastructure projects on the continent.
To discuss U.S. policy toward Africa, and the balancing act between “not dictating” and effecting change in these countries, Grid spoke with Elizabeth Shackelford, senior U.S. foreign policy analyst at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. As a career diplomat, Shackelford served in Somalia, Kenya, South Africa, and Poland before resigning from the State Department in 2017 in protest of the Trump administration’s policies. She believes it’s imperative that the Biden administration’s approach makes good on its promise to answer the needs of African people — and not only view the continent through the lens of global geopolitics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: This week we saw the White House release a new Africa strategy to coincide with Secretary Blinken’s trip to the continent. From what you’ve seen, what’s actually new in this administration’s approach to Africa?
Elizabeth Shackelford: This new policy has been really anticipated in the circles of Africa watchers and African foreign-policy folks for months. The word was that there was going to be a big focus on democracy and human rights and that it would reflect a recognition that our foreign policy has been really militarized and that it hasn’t really worked.
But reading through it, at best it seems like some aesthetic improvements. It almost seems like they were trying, but they just couldn’t quite get past that this focus on security. Now, if you ask folks in the White House, they’ll say, “Well, of course, insecurity is an obstacle to everything we’re trying to accomplish there,” and it is! But it just doesn’t reflect a recognition of what hasn’t been working.
My other criticism is that we’re trying to make this play that our foreign policy in Africa is not driven by broader geopolitical issues, that it’s driven by the needs of Africans and our relationships with countries in Africa. But I don’t even think we believe those talking points. Even in the little two-page executive summary of the new policy, there are references to China and Russia.
Even as Blinken is crossing the continent saying, “Absolutely, this is about our relationships in Africa. It’s not about other geopolitical issues,” they keep circling back to criticisms of countries’ relationships with China and Russia. [U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations] Linda Thomas-Greenfield was certainly making that pretty plain in her various comments across the continent. So yeah, I’m not convinced there’s much of a shift.
G: How much is concern about Chinese and Russian influence — particularly since the war in Ukraine began — influencing U.S. policy in Africa right now?
ES: I’m sure they’ve been planning this trip for a long time. But [Ukraine] is the shadow that looms right behind. [USAID Administrator] Samantha Power was making the rounds [in East Africa] recently too, and it’s hard to make the argument that this isn’t a reaction.
But you know, one of the perennial challenges with Africa policy is that you get more attention when it’s directly tied to bigger geostrategic issues. That’s what happened with international terrorism, and now it’s happening with great power competition. The problem is that greater attention has never translated into better outcomes. On the one hand, you might be happy if you are an Africa policy expert in the National Security Council that Blinken and other high-level officials care a lot about our relationship with Africa, because it matters in this bigger context. But when we try to say that our concern is about Africa itself, not about Russia or China, it comes across as very disingenuous.
G: There’s been a lot of concern lately about the growing footprint of Russia’s Wagner Group in Africa. And you’ve written about it. What is it that some governments might find appealing about security assistance from Russia, or China for that matter, that they might not when it comes to the U. S.?
ES: Well, they also like U.S. security assistance. But they like the fact that Russian assistance and Chinese assistance doesn’t come with finger-wagging or oversight. Of course, our oversight is pretty minimal. We’ve been willing to pull back support when something incredibly egregious happens, like a coup, but everything leading up to that is typically too little.
What you get with Wagner Group is quite simple. You’re basically trading commodities for security assistance. And that security assistance means actual troops and actual bodyguards. It’s pretty straightforward. U.S. assistance isn’t as transactional and that’s because we’re looking for something other than just taking raw materials out of the country.
But the problem is that we found this kind of perfectly bad medium, where we will wag our finger long enough to piss off the autocrats, but we won’t actually change our behavior enough to not continue to enable those actors. We kind of walk this middle line where we reduce our influence because we are critical, but we don’t remove the assistance that we’re providing.
G: Blinken has expressed concerns about recent reports that Rwanda is backing the M23 rebels fighting in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, and he’s visiting both of those two countries this week. The U.S. has been such a staunch supporter of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s government for such a long time. Is there a way it could be taking a more productive stance toward that conflict?
ES: Rwanda is such a terribly difficult example. It’s such a bad actor, and we have propped [Kagame] up for so long. It’s kind of too little, too late that we come around to the finger wagging which Kagame just does not care for at all. But we still feel like we need Rwanda to be this source of stability even if they’re creating instability next door.
Rwanda supporting rebels in Congo is nothing new. There’s this new report out, but this is not something that should surprise anybody. What’s surprising is that we think that Rwanda is a great country to use to commit peacekeeping troops in some of the same areas where it is fostering conflict. One of the things that keeps it in the good graces of the West is that Rwanda is one of the major contributors to peacekeeping troops and U.N. missions. And countries that don’t want to risk their own troops by contributing them as peacekeepers to missions around the world, but want to keep these missions open, are willing to forgive a lot of ills for that.
G: You’ve raised concerns about the staffing shortages of many of the U.S. embassies in Africa. The U.S. embassy in Niger has over half its positions vacant, according to a recent Foreign Policy report, and others in the region are almost as bad. How much is this hampering U.S. goals on the continent?
ES: I would love to say that if we fully staffed these embassies, and if they were considered career-advancing places to serve, that this would improve our policy. I think it would to a certain extent, but the bigger issue, and the reason we have this symptom of poorly staffed embassies there, is that Africa is just not a priority for Washington. It never has been. Blinken and Biden can say what they want, but when they have to choose and prioritize, Africa always gets the short end of the stick.
Now, if you combined better staffing in these embassies with better respect for the information coming in from the field, I think we would have a better and more nuanced policy toward different countries in Africa. But you’d have to have that combined effort.
We had people who were doing great and really heroic work in the various countries that I served in. But at the end of the day, you could do the most persuasive reporting, but when it gets back to Washington, what we end up doing and executing on the continent is still going to be driven by the White House’s priorities. I was kind of amazed at how little our reporting seemed to shape the decisions being made back in Washington.
G: Kenya is holding a closely-fought presidential election this week, which is being closely watched given the serious postelection violence that has taken place there in the past. Nigeria is holding elections in a few months. Elections in these big countries are often held up as kind of a test for the overall trajectory of democracy on the continent. Is that fair? Does the vote in Kenya tell us something about trends continentwide?
ES: It’s a good question. On the one hand, if Kenya’s elections come out looking really good, it’s not necessarily going to mean that Uganda is going to become more democratic, but it does tell you some things about stability in the broader region. If you’re looking at Kenya, for example, the rest of the region is hair on fire and has all sorts of conflicts, and even Kenya is dealing with a really terrible drought and hunger issues. So, it’s very important for the region that the election goes peacefully.
In terms of the influence on democracy, I think that’s more long-term and generational, but I do think it matters to a country like Uganda that they can look next door and say, “Hey, Kenya is having an election and we don’t know who the president is going to be after that. Isn’t that novel?” It’s not going to change things overnight, in particular because [Ugandan President Yoweri] Museveni has such a lock on power. But I do think that it changes the expectations of the generations coming up.
Going back to U.S. policy in Africa, Washington’s always freaking about out about the next big emergency. But if Kenya, fingers crossed, continues to follow a more democratic path and, you know, fingers crossed, it says something for democracy.
Democracy is not something that Russia and China are championing. They’re trying to show that democracy is this messy, unstable thing that can’t deliver for its people. So to the extent that democracy shows some dividends, that Kenyans are doing better off than Ugandans or Sudanese or others living under more authoritarian regimes, that does bode well for the larger argument for democracy.
G: Finally, is there any way that competition between “great powers” could work to Africa’s advantage? The last Cold War did not work out so well for many of these countries. Are there lessons for how African governments could handle things differently this time?
ES: I have cautious hope that that can happen. For one thing, you have a lot more countries in Africa that are a lot more independent and more politically mature. They’re not newly independent and not quite as reliant. I think some of these countries are really appreciating now that they don’t have to bow down to whatever a great power says because they need the sponsor.
So that level of kind of greater independence and ability to choose could benefit a number of countries, if they play it well. That could mean playing the great powers off against each other in order to gain better infrastructure and better trade agreements and the types of thing that could benefit people.
Instead of wagging our finger at countries working with Wagner or having infrastructure projects built by the Chinese, we could offer them something better. If we don’t raise the stakes to where it’s such a competition, maybe these countries can act independently and navigate their own way.
Unfortunately, what’s more likely to happen in a lot of these countries is that leaders will exploit [foreign competition] for personal gain and their political dynasties and the people will never benefit at all. But let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.