The most senior-ranking delegation from President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to come in person to Africa since inauguration on January 20, 2021, has concluded its first four-country, four-day trip to the continent with one message borrowed from his campaign slogan: let’s build back better.
The delegation, led by U.S. State Department Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland traveled to South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, and Niger from July 31 to August 6 to strengthen bilateral ties with the four African nations.
Nuland and her delegation were scheduled to meet with the presidents of Botswana, Tanzania and Niger and top officials in South Africa where the United States has just delivered 5.66 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to save lives amid a raging Delta variant.
As the Delta variant rages, new data from the World Health Organization (WHO) released on Thursday showed that weekly COVID-19 deaths in Africa reached a record peak in the week that ended on August 1, marking the highest seven-day toll since the onset of the pandemic in the continent.
Over 6400 deaths were recorded, a 2% rise compared with the previous week, with South Africa and Tunisia accounting for over 55% of the fatalities.
Death trends are on the rise in 15 countries, and 12 have reported higher case fatality rates than the African average of 2.5% over the last month, WHO said.
Nuland, who was accompanied by an interagency team, including deputy assistant secretaries for the different parts of Africa from the U.S. State Department, and a one-star general from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as Africanists from the White House National Security Council, discussed a range of issues in each of the four countries she visited, from COVID-19 to trade and development as well as human rights and democracy.
“We are the most senior-ranking delegation to come in person to Africa, and the countries that we chose are democracies where we are already doing a lot but we think we can do even more together. And this is embedded in not only President Biden’s commitment to deepen and strengthen relationships across the continent and subcontinent, but also to do it multilaterally and to address African challenges with Africans, and to do in Africa what we are hoping to do at home, which is to build back better,” Nuland told reporters at a U.S. Africa Media Hub press briefing on Thursday. “So as we recover from COVID, we’re looking to invest at home in infrastructure, in strengthening our democracy, and in taking that next leap into good-paying, middle-class, green, high-tech jobs. We want to see our African partners do the same, so a lot of our conversation was about that on these four stops.”
Speaking via teleconference from Niger, the last stop of her four-country trip, Nuland said investing in infrastructure, strengthening democracy and taking steps for good-paying, green, high-tech jobs is part of President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Secretary Blinken’s commitment “to reengage strongly with Africa, and particularly with the African democracies, across all of the lines that we work on together – security, prosperity, returning to good health and beating COVID, and, of course, strengthening democracy, human rights across the continent.”
In South Africa on Monday, Nuland co-hosted WGAGI, a once regular dialogue with South Africa on African and global issues, which had not taken place since 2019 during the Trump administration when U.S.-Africa interactions hit their lowest point in decades.
“I also had the honor of being present when the United States delivered 5.66 million doses of COVID vaccine from the American people to the South African people with no strings attached,” she said. “We obviously talked about lots of the regional challenges that we work on together: Mozambique, Eswatini, Ethiopia. We also talked about our longer-term efforts in health security, including our investment through our Development Finance Corporation along with some of our allies in Aspen Pharma, which is an entity that is going to finish and fill vaccine in South Africa that’ll be available both for that country and for all of Southern Africa.”
The initiative is expected to help not just beat COVID-19 in South Africa but also assist regional centers with vaccine manufacture in Africa.
From South Africa, Nuland and her delegation traveled to Botswana, where they also talked about health security, she said.
“We talked about the Mozambique challenge as well. We talked about economic recovery and COVID recovery. And we also dug in on another major project that we have with Botswana and Namibia called Mega Solar, where we are investing. Botswana is blessed with some of the best sunshine in the world, and we are working to support a Botswanan-Namibian project to bring that sun down in the form of solar power and turn those countries into net energy exporters, including to South Africa and other parts of the continent.”
From Botswana, the Biden delegation traveled to Tanzania, where discussions centered around “the full range of security, economic, and democracy challenges, including the opportunities to deepen and broaden trade and investment between the U.S. and Tanzania,” Nuland said, adding that the U.S. also raised concerns about the arrest and detention of opposition leader Freeman Mbowe.
Mbowe and other officials from Tanzania’s main opposition party, Chadema, were arrested last month ahead of a planned conference to demand constitutional reforms.
The 59-year-old has been charged with terrorism financing and conspiracy and is being held in prison in Dar es Salaam.
At her press briefing on Thursday, President Biden’s top diplomat, Nuland, said the delegation was “quite frank about our concerns there.”
Nuland, who described Niger as “a plucky democracy in a very, very rough Sahel neighborhood, where we have deep, longstanding security partnership” said the United States has supported development, food security, women’s education and empowerment there,
“But we want to take this relationship as well to the next level, including moving from aid to trade and improving the climate for business,” she said, adding that the United States was also working with local leaders on issues ranging from women, peace, and security and counteracting terrorist violence against women.
In Africa, Nuland and her delegation also discussed “Prosper Africa”, which is a U.S. investment program across the continent.
She said President and the Vice President want to reorient Prosper Africa towards “investing in small and medium-sized businesses, women-owned businesses, and diaspora-owned businesses.”
“So we talked about all of those things, and the bottom line of this is, as President Biden likes to say, it is now time as we come out of COVID for the democracies to demonstrate to their citizens and across the planet that they can deliver. That’s what we’re trying to do at home as we strengthen our own systems, and it’s what we want to do together with our African partners and our multinational partners in Africa,” she said.