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After a four-year near absence, Washington's officials get serious about Africa again

The US's top diplomats return to the continent with shuttle diplomacy, infrastructure funding and a democracy campaign

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the United States' top diplomat, spent much of his three-stop tour of Africa last week fighting the headlines. That diluted the bold aims of his trip which was to re-establish Washington as a leading foreign power in the region after four years of what many African officials saw as the 'calculated indifference' of the Trump administration.

'I believe Africa will shape the future, and not just the future of the African people, but of the world. And that's why I'm here this week, visiting three countries [Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal] that are democracies, engines of economic growth, climate leaders, drivers of innovation,' Blinken announced on the US's National Public Radio.

He arrived in Nairobi to meet President Uhuru Kenyatta's government on 17 November, the same day that Sudan's military shot dead more than 15 civilian protestors in Khartoum.

Molly Phee, US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, was in the Sudanese capital, and many on the ground argued that Blinken should have joined her to increase pressure on the recalcitrant generals. Or he could, argued others, have added his voice to the criticism of Egypt's government for helping the Sudanese military derail the transition to civil rule.

While in Nairobi, Blinken referred to Ethiopia as being in a perilous state and threatening the stability of the region. In private, he is said to have encouraged the efforts of President Kenyatta, who has been trying to mediate between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigrayan opposition.

So far, neither Kenyatta nor African Union envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, have had much success in nudging Abiy and the Tigrayans into talks. Given Abiy's reclusive state, it's unlikely that Blinken's efforts would have been better starred than the others.

Then, Blinken flew to Nigeria on 18 November, shortly after a report accused the military of massacring peaceful protestors in Lagos a year ago. It is a critical matter for the US administration as its military aid to Nigeria is premised on adherence to human rights.

One of the aims of Blinken's visit was to talk up US-Nigeria cooperation on regional security. It was also to promote the US plan for a democracy summit next month. The world is in a democratic recession, lamented Blinken, and that includes the US, with incidents such as the attack on the Capitol in Washington DC in January.

Blinken's easier moments on the trip were when he was spelling out US proposals to boost funding for infrastructure projects, then looking as sincere as he could when insisting there was no competition with China in this area. 'Our Africa policy is about Africa, not China.'

His final stopover in Senegal, which he lauded in fluent French as a key democracy in the region, included a visit to the Pasteur Institute, which is pioneering anti-Covid vaccine production in Africa and to which the US has promised more funding. That is part of the Biden administration's response to demands that it endorse the campaign to lift patents, temporarily on Covid-19 vaccines.

Blinken's escale in Dakar was also boosted by his overseeing a signing ceremony on a $1 billion infrastructure deal involving four US companies. That pointed to the return of a better climate for US financing in Africa after two years of pandemic economic recession.

Last week was the easy part. Finding a US role and using its leverage on the multiple security crises in the Sahel and the Horn, amid the new geopolitics of the region, is proving far more demanding for Blinken and his team than channelling finance.



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