US-Africa relationship sputters to a start

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will make his first trip to the African continent on Tuesday, meeting first with a cohort of African youth leaders at a YALI event before traveling virtually to meet with government leaders and officials in Nigeria and Kenya.

After President Biden attended the 34th African Union (AU) Summit in February, the Voice of America (VOA) wrote that Biden’s speech “signals a new tone.” In terms of high-level engagement, U.S.-Africa policy since then appeared to be just that: a difference in tone from the previous administration.

That was until April 16 when Biden announced that he will be nominating Mary Catherine Phee to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and Chair of the Board of Foreign Service. Last week, the administration also appointed former Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman to serve as Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa.

But on a broader policy basis, why prioritize these two countries? Although there are “a lot of countries in Africa,” “We had to start somewhere,” said Acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Robert F. Godec at a State Department preview of Blinken’s upcoming trip.

He also said Kenya and Nigeria are “important partners” of the U.S. in security and trade and investment, among other areas.

Godec added that throughout the past several months, the Biden administration has been engaged through “speaking” and “video meetings” across the African continent.

Beyond this “deep engagement,” in Price’s words, Godec said that the Secretary’s trip marks “an important step” in Biden’s “reengagement” with the African continent, and a chance to see the “important initiatives” the Biden administration will focus on in Africa.  

With a continent of 1.3 billion people and a median age of about 19, “youth are one of the most important resources on the continent,” said Price.

Indeed, the Biden administration, in part, is prioritizing youth engagement, specifically through the Young African Leaders Initiative, for which Blinken and the program’s alumni will celebrate its ten-year anniversary.

“Africa is a continent of strategic importance and it is vital for the United States to support strong and enduring partnerships with the next generation of African leaders,” for which YALI “is a signature effort to invest in the next generation of African leaders,” reads a recently passed U.S. House bill on the program – the bill has since been referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.

The Administration, in its message on the trip also cited a goal of “people-to-people connections, underpinned by the dynamic Nigerian diaspora in the United States.” While the YALI program supports the entrepreneurship and leadership of youth on the African continent, it’s not yet clear how the Biden administration intends to strengthen relations between youth and others in the U.S. and the African continent.  

Concerning Blinken’s virtual visits to Nigeria and Kenya, Godec emphasized Blinken’s engagement with people outside of government.

In Nigeria, Blinken will meet with a PEPFAR (U.S. Emergency Plans for AIDs Relief) recipient and a healthcare worker. In Kenya, he is expected to meet with representatives of a renewable energy company that received U.S. support. The U.S. will also be donating a “Mobile Field Hospital” to Kenya.

At a higher level, Blinken is to discuss “shared goals of strengthening democratic governance, building lasting security, and promoting economic ties and diversification,” with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Foreign Minister Onyeama.

President Buhari, at Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate last week highlighted Nigerian initiatives to diversify the economy and reduce emissions from its oil and gas sector, though he also stressed the need for international financial support for mitigation as well as adaptation efforts in the country.

Blinken with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Cabinet Secretary Omamo, are expected to discuss the U.S-Kenya “strategic partnership,” democracy, trade, climate change, and the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a February call with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, his first with an African leader, President Biden had “applauded” Kenya’s security efforts in the Horn of Africa region – Kenya is currently serving a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council – among other economic and climate change initiatives, and the two had also discussed the worsening humanitarian and human rights crisis in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

Asked today about Kenya’s decision to close refugee camps, Godec said the topic has come up in conversations with Kenyatta, but was otherwise circumspect.

For the U.S., “Human rights are always on the agenda,” said Price. It remains to be seen if this is simply a change in rhetoric.

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