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Biden's new US-Africa policy

Philipp Sandner
April 29, 2021

After Trump's tumultuous four-year presidency, Joe Biden is returning US-Africa relations to old shared values. With a focus on mutual respect, the new partnership will not be about competing with China.

US President Joe Biden:
US President Joe Biden is keen on improving relations with AfricaImage: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

For many Africans, relations between the US and Africa have were never at a lower point than during Donald Trump's 2016-2020 presidency.

The continent will never forget his referring to some African states as "s******* countries." In November, the Cameroonian intellectual Achille Mbembe told DW that Trump's Africa policy was a marriage of convenience."I have to say that Trump was, in fact, not at all interested in Africa," he said. "He considered Africa as a burden. He might have shown some interest, but only in terms of the overall fight against so-called Islamic terrorism."

Observers might paint a different picture of the first 100 days of the Biden administration. Christian von Soest, from the GIGA Institute for African Studies, told DW that Biden has promised a "mutually respectful relationship".

For example, his administration immediately lifted what it called "discriminatory entry restrictions" for people from some Muslim or African countries. "America is back," Biden proclaimed after his election victory — and already there are signs of renewed relations with Africa.

Crisis diplomacy and military aid for the Horn of Africa

Unlike during the Trump era, Biden's administration has made its presence in Africa's troubled spots visible in a bid to reclaim its lost glory and influence. For example, last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken appointed veteran diplomat Jeffrey Feltman as a special envoy to the Horn of Africa. Then on Monday, in a phone call with Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Blinken urged Abiy to address the "humanitarian disaster" in Tigray. The US top envoy promised a visit by Feltman in the coming days.

US top envoy Antony Blinken.
US Secretary of State Blinken is urging Ethiopia to order Eritrean troops out of TigrayImage: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The new US administration had already made several firm statements about Ethiopia's Tigray conflict, which Trump had more or less endorsed. "US Africa policy faces a dilemma with regard to Ethiopia," von Soest said. On the one hand, Ethiopia is a very important partner for US foreign policy, an "anchor of stability" on the Horn of Africa, he said. "On the other hand, the new government increasingly sees the crisis in Tigray as a threat to stability."

Blinken has criticized the grave human rights violations in the region and referred to them as "ethnic cleansing." It remains unclear whether Biden will carry out the withdrawal of most American troops from Somalia ordered by Trump after he was voted out of office. It was only in mid-April that he confirmed Trump's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, but at the same time pointed out the dangers of global terrorism.

"At my direction, my team is refining our national strategy to monitor and disrupt significant terrorist threats not only in Afghanistan, but anywhere they may arise — and they're in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere," Biden said.

Women refugees cook outside as children look on.
Secretary of State Blinken has described Ethiopia's Tigray conflict as "ethnic cleansing"Image: Mahmoud Hjaj/AA/picture alliance

Not just security anymore

Von Soest said security had been the constant in US Africa policy in recent decades, regardless of who was in office. "To understand this continuity," he said, "one has to look at the August 7, 1998 attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania."

At that time, more than 220 people were killed and several thousand injured, some seriously. Von Soest called that the US's "African 9/11", three years before the attacks on the New York World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Regardless of a possible reduction in troops, von Soest said, "key features of the program will remain in Africa".

US soldiers in a forest
The US is likely to continue focusing on counterterrorism training in AfricaImage: Getty Images/AFP/Seyllou

The deployment of so-called military advisers and training missions to support the African armies is also an option. In Mozambique, for instance, President Biden recently promised military trainers to help in the fight against Islamic militants in the north. Security expert Vanda Felbab-Brown from the US think tank Brookings, considers Biden's decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and his approach to Mozambique, as signs of a shift in US policy in favor of the fight against terrorism in Africa.

"In fact, it's significant that, as the US announced its military withdrawal from Afghanistan, it emphasized repeatedly and strongly that counterterrorism issues in Africa were of greater significance and a greater threat to the United States than terrorism emanating from Afghanistan," Felbab-Brown told DW. "Just a few weeks ago, the Biden administration also designated two new groups as global terrorist groups, the so-called al-Shabab group in Mozambique, and also a group in the DRC."

Felbab-Brown said the Biden administration would foster a multifaceted collaboration that tries to strengthen the security sectors of African countries to combat terrorism and focus on infrastructure development and health matters. "One mistake to avoid is to see everything through the prism of counterterrorism," Felbab-Brown added.

US Navy officers training Mozambican coas guard.
President Biden has pledged to send military advisors to MozambiqueImage: Emidio Josine/AFP/Getty Images

Competition with China at a glance

Von Soest said economic relations with the African continent played a central role. Biden's administration has two options. Either to support the new African Continental Free Trade Area  the largest in the world in terms of the number of countries  or to resume competition with China for economic support for the continent.

African observers do not want to give the new US president any advance praise. Gnaka Lagoke, an Ivorian lecturer at Lincoln University in Philadelphia, was very skeptical about Biden's inauguration in January.  "Despite all that we can blame him for, that the racists supported him, that he indeed took quite unpopular decisions, Donald Trump did not engage in a particular policy to increase American imperialism in Africa.

"Trump did not seek to enter a war in Africa as did Barack Obama, whose vice-president was Joe Biden, who is now the United States president," Lagoke told DW.

"With Biden, we risk returning to normal, which America has always demonstrated, this imperialist America which can cause wars for its sake, as happened in the case of Libya." Biden has yet to prove himself.

Sandrine Blanchard, Adrian Kriesch, Uta Steinwehr contributed to this article first written in German.