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Blinken’s Visit to Africa: Is US Counterterrorism Counterproductive?

The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, with CAF President, Dr Patrice Motsepe while on tour in Africa. Some commentators have questioned the effectiveness of US foreign policy in Africa. Credit: CAF media

The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, with CAF President, Dr Patrice Motsepe while on tour in Africa. Some commentators have questioned the effectiveness of US foreign policy in Africa. Credit: CAF media

ABUJA, Jan 30 2024 (IPS) - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s week-long tour across four African countries was aimed at strengthening the US-Africa relationship—a relationship, according to some commentators, already waning as China and Russia are increasing their influence.

Blinken made his first stop in Cape Verde, a small island in West Africa, where he engaged Prime Minister Ulisses Correia e Silva in discussions and reiterated the US dedication to deepening and expanding its collaborations with Africa. Continuing his diplomatic journey, he then proceeded to Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and concluded his tour in Angola.

While Blicken, on his tour, touted the US as a crucial economic and security ally for Africa, particularly during times of regional and global challenges, analysts say that US foreign policy towards Africa has suggested that the continent may have been “pushed to the back burner.” Their assertions are not baseless.

At the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington in November 2022, President Joe Biden made commitments to support democracy in Africa and announced his endorsement for a permanent seat for the African Union at the Group of 20. Biden also promised to visit the continent but that dream never materialised as Washington was preoccupied with a host of global challenges, such as the war in Gaza and the Russia-Ukraine war.

Addressing questions about Biden’s unsuccessful visit during an interview in Nigeria, Blinken defended the president by saying, “It is just the opposite. The President very much wants to come to Africa. We have [had] 17 cabinet-level or department-level officials come since the Africa Leaders Summit.”

US Counterproductive Counter-terrorism Fight

In Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged USD 45 million to bolster security along the West African coast. This commitment extends the funding for an ongoing program in the region, bringing the total to USD 300 million. Blinken commended the Ivorian military for their counterinsurgency efforts in combating armed groups, acknowledging the difficulty of the region’s location between Mali and Burkina Faso and recognizing hotspots for violence in the Sahel.

For over two decades, the US has made consistent efforts to enhance security and promote democracy, particularly in the Sahel. However, despite these investments, terrorism persists, leading to frequent coups that pose a continuous threat to the stability of the continent.

Last year saw President Mohamed Bazoum of the Niger Republic—a crucial US ally—forcibly ousted from power by disgruntled US–trained military officers. This coup dealt a significant blow to Niger’s sprouting democracy, as President Bazoum had ascended to power through the country’s first democratic elections. Moreover, it marked a setback to the longstanding US endeavours to foster democracy in the Sahel.

Facing international pressure, the coup plotters justified their actions by pointing to President Bazoum’s perceived inability to effectively address the threat of insurgency in the country, despite substantial investments by the US in regional security.

Since 2012, the US has allocated more than USD 500 million in security assistance to Niger, positioning it as the leading recipient of US military aid in West Africa and the second-highest in sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition to having troops on the ground, the US currently operates a drone base in sub-Saharan Africa, a USD 100 million facility based in Agadez. However, despite these advancements, counterinsurgency operations funded by taxpayers have given rise to splinter groups associated with jihadist militancy, causing distress in villages and towns.

Experts attribute the insurgency in Sub-Saharan Africa to the US-led invasion of Libya, which failed to bring stability to the country and resulted in the proliferation of arms and violent groups across the region when foreign fighters, especially the Turareg rebels loyal to Libya’s dictator, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, fled the country after his death.

A recent report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a US defense department research institution, indicates that the Sahel experienced the largest increase in violent events linked to militant Islamists in the past year compared to any other region in Africa, with 2,737 violent events. The report notes that attacks linked to militant Islamist groups in the Sahel have surged by 3,500% since 2016.

“If the US had not destabilised Libya, there is no way Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso would have been in chaos,” argues Zainab Dabo, a Nigerian-based political analyst.

“With military takeovers in [West Africa], along with a general distrust for the West, Blinken is here to offer an irresistible package of promises in a bid to remain relevant, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, where Russia is gaining influence,’’ she added.

For the US, Russia’s expanding influence in Africa is a cause for worry. The rivalry between the two nations intensified significantly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Russia justified its actions by citing the US-led NATO expansion in Ukraine, which it deemed a threat. Although the US has refrained from direct involvement in the conflict, it has provided substantial financial and military assistance to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, tensions between the US and Russia are escalating in Africa. This is evident as coup plotters, many of whom have undergone military training in the US, are now ditching the West to seek military support from the Russian-backed private military Wagner group in their efforts to combat terrorism. Russia is also actively seeking to gain influence in Africa and challenge the dominance of the dollar through the BRICS.

However, while the Biden administration is considering designating the Wagner Group, a Russian group, as a terrorist organisation for its human rights violations, the US has always shied away from its own misdeeds in Africa.

US military partnerships on the continent have been marred by a record of human rights abuses, fostering distrust of Western influence.

In Nigeria, where Blicken promised support for improved security, a US-Nigerian airstrike in 2017 hit a refugee camp in Raan, near the Cameroon border, killing at least 115.  Until today, no one has been held accountable for the massacre, and the victims have not gotten justice.

In Somalia, where the US military has conducted numerous airstrikes against the Islamic Jihad group Al-Shabaab for more than a decade, civilian casualties have become inevitable, many leaving family members in agony and with no hope of justice.

In 2020, Amnesty International slammed the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) for killing a woman and a young child in an airstrike in Somalia. Despite the families of the victims of this strike contacting the US Mission to Somalia, Amnesty International reported that neither US diplomatic staff nor AFRICOM had reached out to them to offer reparation.

US, China, Russia and the Scramble for Africa

According to Frank Tietie, a lawyer and human rights activist in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, Blinken’s visit coincides with a period when America’s influence is perceived to be at a low point in the recent scramble for Africa. Tietie maintains that the US needs to go beyond merely advocating for democracy and should actively match China and Russia’s efforts by deploying both financial and developmental resources.

Since 2003, Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) in Africa has experienced a substantial increase, rising from a modest USD 74.8 million in 2003 to USD 5.4 billion in 2018. Although it saw a decline to USD 2.7 billion in 2019, the trend reversed, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, with a resurgence to USD 4.2 billion in 2020. However, concerns arise regarding China’s infrastructural investments and over USD 170 billion worth of loans in Africa, which are perceived as exploitative, given the expectation of natural resources in exchange.

During a meeting with President João Lourenço of Angola, Blinken praised the advancements in one of the US’s most significant investments in Africa: the construction of the Lobito Corridor, a crucial rail link for metals exports from the central African Copper Belt. However, for Tietie, who holds that the US is bent on containing the influence of Russia and China in Africa, such developments are insufficient.

“The gospel of democracy by the Americans [in Africa] has not been able to match the alluring and tantalising presence of the Chinese with their loans and offer to exploit natural resources in exchange for cash. The Americans must do more than ordinary promises, many of which we have had in the past that have not translated to growth and development for African countries,” Tietie told IPS.

For Dabo, Africa, which she described as “the land of opportunities,” will keep being exploited for its natural resources by the US and China if the US does not put its capacities to good use.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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