US Vice President Kamala Harris embarked on a week-long trip to Africa on Sunday in an effort to ramp up US investment in the continent and counter growing influence from Russia and China.
When she landed at Kotoko International Airport in Accra, Ghana, greeted by a fanfare of drums and schoolchildren, she said the trip underlines “the very important relationship” between the US and Africa.
“In this journey, I intend to do work that is aimed at increasing investment here on the continent and facilitating economic growth and opportunity, particularly in the areas of economic empowerment of women and girls, empowerment of entrepreneurship through young people, digital inclusion, and to support the work that needs to be done to increase food security, including adaptation to the impacts of the climate crisis.”
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As her visit to Ghana started on Monday, the vice president announced a $100 million investment in Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin and Togo to face the threat of violent extremism and instability.
The US also announced $139 million in bilateral aid for economic, business and cultural initiatives, as well as support for an anti-malaria project. Harris’s office also outlined plans to send a special resident adviser to Ghana to help President Akufo-Addo’s government restructure its debts.
On Wednesday, Harris departs March 29-31 for Tanzania, with her final stop in Zambia, March 31-April 1.
In Zambia, Harris is seeking a meeting with President Hakainde Hichilema to discuss how the international community can support debt restructuring negotiations with China and the Paris group of creditors.
Washington’s latest charm offensive is a continuation of US President Joe Biden’s strategy to regain its role as a major player in Africa, and to counterbalance the growing influence of Russia and China, experts say.
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“In international affairs, we measure the value of a partnership between countries, between regions, in the regularity of high-level exchanges,” said Gyude Moore, a senior policy officer at the Washington DC-based Center for Global Development (CGD).
Until 2009, the United States was the continent’s largest trading partner, but has since been overtaken by Beijing, with two-way trade between the United States and Africa declining from $141 billion in 2008 to $64 billion in 2021.
In contrast, China’s trade with the continent exceeded $264 billion in 2021, growing another 11% in 2022 to $282 billion.
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“The United States is ready to claim a role it previously held,” says Moore.
One of the reasons for this sudden drop in trade between the US and Africa is a decline in African oil imports by the US, which is trying to become self-sufficient in energy.
This highlights the lack of variety in traded goods between the two countries and Africa’s inability to add value and diversity to its exports, while U.S. investment in the continent remains limited to a few sectors, Moore says.
“All of those things the Biden administration is trying to change.”
Introduced under the Trump administration, the Prosper Africa Initiative makes it easier for US capital and businesses to invest on the continent, working with the private sector and African government partners to advance deals, advance market opportunities and drive business and investment climate .
For the past 22 years, the main trade mechanism between the US and Africa has been the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA, which gives up to 1,800 African products tariff- and quota-free access to the US market. But the agreement does not give U.S. companies reciprocal access to Africa and expires in 2025.
Critical American Interests
In December, the Biden administration closed the nation’s capital for a week to roll out the red carpet for more than 40 African heads of state at the US-Africa summit.
At the summit, Biden revealed $55 billion in investments, on top of pledges made by both China and Japan at their recent Africa-focused summits.
China pledged $40 billion in African investment at the last Forum on China-African Cooperation (FOCAC) in November 2021, while Japan pledged $30 billion in African development at TICAD 8 in Tunisia last year.
A crucial reason for the rapprochement is that 30% of the essential minerals needed for the transition to net zero lie in the rich seams of Africa.
However, China dominates the supply chain of critical minerals, controlling 40% of nickel and more than 90% of rare earth metals worldwide.
With Africa poised to become a major player in the future of rare earths, it “makes perfect sense” for the US to turn its attention to the continent, Moore says.
At the same time, as the world becomes more interconnected, the US seeks to contain the spillover of threats emanating from Africa, such as terrorism, pandemics and the impacts of climate change.
All of these investments benefit US national security and economic interests, Moore says.
“As with foreign policy, there are no free lunches. Each country acts in its own national interest, regardless of the rhetoric.”