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Blinken in Africa: Bringing back old allies

Martina Schwikowski
August 4, 2022

On his second trip to Africa, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will likely push South Africa towards a more critical stance on Russia and address clashes in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken boards a US government plane
The US Secretary of State is visiting allied African nations for the second time Image: Kevin Lamarque/AP Photo/picture alliance

On Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken begins a tour of Africa and the list of countries on his itinerary appears to have been carefully selected.

It's South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and neighboring Rwanda that will receive Blinken during his second official trip to the continent since taking office last year.

One important goal during the August 7–12 visit will be to bring old allies closer to the US in times of heightened geopolitical tension, says Daniel Silke, a political analyst in South Africa.

Silke sees Blinken's visit as another example of the ongoing diplomatic war between Russia, the United States and China. 

A Congolese army pick up carrying trooops
Demonstrations against the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO have led to riots in the provincial capital of GomaImage: Arlette Bashizi/AFP/Getty Images

"The three big superpowers are all vying for Africa's attention, both from a political-diplomatic point of view and in terms of raw material exports," Silke told DW.

Influence in Africa

Blinken's visit comes on the heels of several other countries having made similar efforts to wield more influence in Africa. 

Both Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and French President Emmanuel Macron visited several African nations just a few days ago, shortly after Samantha Power, director of the US Agency for International Development, returned from the continent.

US President Joe Biden's decision to send his secretary of state to these regions could point to US concerns that Washington's Africa policy might be off track.

South Africa, the DRC and Rwanda are all allies of the United States, emphasizes Africa expert Silke.

But, "South Africa's vote in the United Nations on the war in Ukraine and the very mixed messages from the government led by the African National Congress (ANC) make South Africa look like a weak ally of the US and even the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda," Silke told DW.

Russia's war and global food security

South Africa in March abstained from voting in the United Nations General Assembly on a resolution condemning the war against Ukraine— as did 35 other countries.

The vast majority of the international community voted in favor and Silke believes that a different tone will be struck in Pretoria when Blinken arrives. 

Against the backdrop of changing geopolitics and rising tensions between the United States, China and Russia, the visit is an opportunity for the top US diplomat to encourage South Africa to take a more critical stance — especially when it comes to Russia's war on Ukraine and China's increasing saber-rattling over Taiwan, she thinks.

Antony J. Blinken
Blinken aims to convince South Africa to take a more critical stance on the war in UkraineImage: Yuki Iwamura/AP Photo/picture alliance

Tied to this is a new US government policy strategy that has been in the works for a year and will be unveiled during the South Africa visit, according to Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at London-based think tank Chatham House.

"The strategy aims to better focus US government efforts around Africa, including how to contain China and Russia on the continent," Vines told DW.

Before Blinken's departure, the State Department in Washington said the focus should be on pressing issues: A dialogue on stronger cooperation on health, law enforcement, trade, investment and energy — but also food security.

The shortfall in grain supplies from Ukraine has been felt around the world and the United Nations is warning of Africa's worst hunger crisis in decades.

US Representative to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield is currently traveling in Ghana, Uganda and Cape Verde to assess the impact of the food crisis.

'Hotel Rwanda' hero on the agenda

In Rwanda, Blinken would also raise the "wrongful detention" of US permanent resident Paul Rusesabagina, the US State Department said in a statement.

A Rwandan court last year said Paul Rusesabagina was guilty of terrorism-related charges and sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

Rusesabagina, a prominent opponent of the Rwandan government, was accused by authorities of lending his support from abroad to a rebel group in the African country.

During the 1994 genocide, the 67-year-old who is now a Belgian citizen, was credited with saving hundreds of lives. His story inspired Hollywood's "Hotel Rwanda" in 2004.

MONUSCO blue helmet deployed near Kibumba
Blue helmets are fighting M23 rebels in eastern Congo yet the UN's presence is controversialImage: Moses Sawasawa/AP Photo/picture alliance

Concern over Congo fighting  

Security issues in Congo are central to Blinken's trip, as the violence in eastern DRC threatens to escalate.

"The main objective of the visit to Kinshasa and Kigali is to address the recent armed clashes in eastern DRC and the resurgent M23 armed group," Vines told DW.

He said the administration in Washington was concerned about the spread of violence and how allies are squaring off against each other.

Recent fighting in eastern Congo has escalated tensions between the governments in Kinshasa and Kigali after the security situation in eastern Congo had already deteriorated in 2021. The Democratic Republic of Congo accuses Rwanda of supporting the M23 militia in North Kivu province.

In late July, demonstrations against the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO led to riots in the provincial capital of Goma.

At least five people were killed and blue helmets were accused of firing on demonstrators and shooting several civilians, which sparked fresh protests.

Civilians: No more blue helmets

"We don't want MONUSCO in Congo because countrymen are being killed. Still, there are armed groups here, including from abroad. Then MONUSCO comes in and kills us. We say no to that!" demonstrator Rebecca Kabuo, a member of the Lucha social movement, told the Associated Press (AP) news agency.

Reporter - The Congo: Militias and Violence

AP reports that as a result of the protests, the government in Kinshasa was considering whether to allow the presence of UN peacekeepers in the country to continue.

Since the United States is among the MONUSCO troop contributors, the issue is likely to be a topic during Blinken's visit. Reports from his ministry suggest that the diplomat will not only meet with politicians in Kinshasa, but also with representatives of civil society.

Blinken wants to pave the way for a peaceful and fair presidential election next year in the DR Congo, according to the ministry. In view of the continuing violence in the Central African country, this goal still seems a long way off.

This article was originally written in German