By Landry Signé
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and his team will be in sub-Saharan Africa from August 7 to 12, paying visits to three countries: South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Rwanda. The visit comes at a critical time given the global pandemic and the war in Ukraine, which has profoundly impacted the entire continent of Africa. Overall, Blinken’s goal is to build on his visit of last November and foster closer relations between African countries and the United States—to accelerate progress on mutual interests so that both sides can flourish together within a complex global environment. This context includes both intense competition between advanced and emerging powers and the strengthened ability of countries in Africa to contribute to solving global challenges.
To advance the relationship, Blinken will announce Biden’s U.S. strategy for sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, launching the strategy while visiting leaders in Africa is an important milestone in the U.S. relationship with African countries and sends a strong message of respect by recognizing that “African countries are geostrategic players and critical partners on the most pressing issues of our day.” A second key goal of the visit will be to improve bilateral relations by focusing on pressing issues within the three countries he is visiting, issues that will have profound effects on the continent more broadly, as well as on relations between the U.S. and these specific countries.
This high-level visit also comes at a time when the current economic, health, and geopolitical pressures are shaping into a unique moment that will likely realign priorities and further actions. African countries continue to experience severe economic shocks as they attempt both to recover from COVID-19 disruptions and manage crises induced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As agriculture and food exports from both countries have halted, the war in Ukraine is threatening the already-fragile food supply chains in Africa. The war has caused other geopolitical tensions as well: Blinken will be visiting Africa just days after Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s visit to four countries in Africa (Uganda, the Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Egypt)—a trip aimed at expanding Russia’s presence in Africa while vying for support over the war. Blinken’s visit also comes in the wake of the Biden administration’s announcement of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit to be held in Washington, D.C. in December 2022. Blinken’s visit is being shaped by Washington’s desire to reassure African countries and leaders that they are important partners, with each of the countries on the itinerary providing a unique backdrop and opportunity to transform the United States’ relationship with Africa.
Blinken’s first stop will be South Africa, one of the United States’ most important partners in the region, particularly in terms of health, education, environment, and the digital economy. During his visit, Blinken will lead the U.S. delegation to the U.S.-South Africa Strategic Dialogue, which focuses on “shared priorities, including health, infrastructure, trade and investment, and climate.”
South Africa is the United States’ largest trade partner in Africa and hosts over 600 American businesses, many of which are headquartered in the country. South Africa contributes 25 percent of all U.S. income from the continent and consistently receives the most foreign direct investment (FDI) from the United States. About half of African companies worth $1 billion or more are in South Africa, which is a gateway to access other African markets. Beyond these economic implications, South Africa has great geopolitical importance. On the continent, it is the regional dominant powerhouse of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and is—along with Nigeria and Egypt—one of the three largest economies on the continent, representing more than 50 percent of combined consumer and business spending. South Africa also plays a key role in decisionmaking related to the African Union and was one of the founding countries of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, now the African Union Development Agency.
South Africa has so far maintained relative neutrality with respect to the Ukraine war—likely due to Moscow’s support for the ANC’s liberation struggle against the apartheid government. These relations are likely to be a topic of discussion during the Blinken visit given the pressure that Western powers, nongovernmental organizations, and human rights activists are exerting on the country to condemn Russia.
Blinken’s visit, and particularly his leadership in the upcoming dialogue in South Africa, will reinforce that this bilateral relationship is a priority for the United States and reemphasize South Africa’s central role in the subregion and on the continent in actively promoting greater trade integration and continentwide prosperity.
Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
From South Africa, Blinken will travel to the DRC to discuss topics of mutual interest including achieving peace in the Great Lakes region, supporting future economic relations through trade and investment, promoting human rights and freedoms, and combating corruption. The DRC is the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa by land area and is home to immense resource wealth (an estimated $24 trillion worth of untapped mineral resources), significant hydropower potential, and great biodiversity. However, despite these advantages, the DRC has historically been, and continues to be, subject to political instability, violent conflict, and humanitarian crises.
The March 23 Movement rebel group (M23) emerged after the Second Congo War ended in 2003 and continued to terrorize communities until their defeat in 2013 by the Congolese army and U.N. peacekeepers. Other armed groups have since emerged and are causing widespread human rights violations and extreme violence. The DRC’s resource wealth has fueled violence in the region as armed groups often sustain their operations by raiding mines and collaborating with smugglers. The eastern region alone is estimated to have over 100 different active armed groups. As a result, millions have fled the violence in recent years: There are currently 4.5 million internally displaced persons in the DRC and more than 800,000 DRC refugees in other nations. Weak governance has accelerated the armed conflict, as the leadership does not have control over the entire territory.
Meanwhile, about 60 million Congolese—about 73 percent of the population—lived on less than $1.90 a day in 2018. It will be critical for the United States and the DRC alike to find a solution for peace and stability as the ongoing violence of rebel groups has managed to stunt development efforts. Despite these obstacles, recent efforts by the state such as public sector reforms and free primary education indicate potential for a new relationship between the state and its citizens. The U.S. should recognize these changes and work to scale up the state’s capacity while also ensuring that the election slated for 2023 will be democratic and safe.
Notably, the conflicts discussed above are factors contributing to low U.S. involvement in the country’s large mining industry—which is a missed economic opportunity. Home to 70 percent of the world’s cobalt, 60 percent of the world’s coltan, and as the fourth-largest producer of copper, the DRC is in a position to achieve prosperity for its people and the continent more broadly. Since cobalt and coltan are key minerals for clean technologies, the DRC’s endowment of these natural resources presents a significant opportunity for U.S. investors. Thus, as the DRC works toward greater peace and stability, the U.S. should also be working toward better positioning of itself as a key player in that mining sector. However, so far, China has been dominating the clean energy technology sector, a trend that will continue if its attempts to secure access to these minerals in the DRC are successful. In fact, according to The New York Times, “Americans failed to safeguard decades of diplomatic and financial investments in Congo, where the world’s largest supply of cobalt is controlled by Chinese companies backed by Beijing.” China’s current dominance in this sector should not lead the U.S. to concede, but rather more aggressively create and implement a model for accelerating investment in the DRC in the mining sector and beyond.
During his trip, Blinken should take the opportunity to start a conversation around how the United States might encourage mining companies to also create value locally in the DRC, thus supporting sustainable development in the long term. Such partnerships would be beneficial for both sides, as creating value locally will help the DRC diversify its exports and economy, providing even greater investment opportunities in other key areas and leading to a competitive edge that will outperform purely extractive models of investment from competitors. Blinken should also take the opportunity to discuss the DRC’s main challenges to overall investment, which include corruption, poor infrastructure, and an arbitrary taxation system.
Blinken’s final stop will be in Rwanda to discuss peacekeeping, Rwanda’s role in reducing tensions in the DRC, and ongoing human rights concerns. Rwanda has evolved as an important player at the subregional and continental level as well as the international level. After a genocide that nearly destroyed the country, and in the context of the international community’s failure to protect them, Rwandans have created a successful example of recovery through the state’s capacity to effectively deliver goods and services and proactive peacekeeping diplomacy on the continent. President Paul Kagame was seen as a stable ally for the United States when he was first appointed in 2000 and he has been successful in easing barriers to doing business, leading to greater U.S. foreign investment. He has also been willing to increase peacekeeping missions, which complements recent U.S. reluctance to be directly involved in such activities, preferring instead to offer countries such as Rwanda support in return for their peacekeeping efforts (especially given Rwanda provides extensive personnel for these missions).
Despite these positive trends, not all of Blinken’s trip to Kigali will be easy: Tensions between Rwanda and the DRC over increased activity of the DRC-based rebel group M23 (which Kinshasa claims is backed by Kigali—something Kigali denies) has been bubbling over in recent months, with about 170,000 people displaced in the violence as of early July. Related, Blinken will likely have a number of other sensitive issues to discuss with Kagame. In fact, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who chairs the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote a letter last month calling for a review of the U.S. approach in Rwanda, raising recent human rights concerns. Blinken himself has mentioned that he will be discussing these concerns, including the “wrongful detention of U.S. Lawful Permanent Resident Paul Rusesabagina,” along with shared priorities such as peacekeeping.
Blinken’s visit could also highlight the great potential for expanding mutually beneficial economic opportunities between the U.S. and Rwanda. Despite having a small market, Rwanda is an important destination for U.S. foreign investment, thanks to its successful efforts to create a conducive business environment. Kagame has developed relationships with leaders of multinational companies wishing to invest in East Africa, leading major companies such as Volkswagen, Starbucks, and Visa to open factories, buy commodities, and invest in financial growth in Rwanda. Investment and business opportunities will likely grow, to the benefit of both Rwanda and the United States (and, of course, the continent), with a successful implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
Thus, during his visit, Blinken will likely aim to harmonize the strengths of Rwanda—peacekeeping, state effectiveness, its pro-business environment—and work to overcome its accountability and human rights challenges, so that it can expand its reach as a critical player for other countries on the continent.
All in all, while Blinken will be visiting just three countries and the focus will be on advancing U.S. bilateral relations with South Africa, DRC, and Rwanda, these visits are part of the administration’s effort to revitalize U.S.-Africa relations. What ultimately matters, beyond the announcement of the U.S. strategy for sub-Saharan Africa, is that the United States tangibly align the goals, ways, and means to take action and implement this strategy for the mutual, long-term benefits of Africa and the United States.