Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, has appealed to “governments, communities and peoples” across Africa to embrace Washington’s vision of democracy, openness and economic partnership in the first major speech of three-nation tour of sub-Saharan Africa.
Blinken was speaking in South Africa on the first stop of his tour, which will include the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda.
The new diplomatic effort comes after several years during which Washington appeared uninterested in sub-Saharan Africa. The tour has been portrayed as an attempt to counter recent efforts by Russia and China to gain influence on the continent.
Last month, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, visited four countries, rallying support for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
Blinken told reporters in Pretoria that the US does not see Africa as the “latest playing field in a competition between great powers” and said Washington was not “trying to outdo anyone else”.
Though there was no direct mention of Russia in a lengthy lecture delivered by Blinken at the University of Pretoria, the US top diplomat referred to the Wagner Group, a private military contractor active across the continent blamed for systematic human rights abuses and viewed by western officials as controlled by the Kremlin.
“History shows that the poor governance exclusion and corruption inherent in weak democracies makes them more vulnerable to extremist movements as well as to foreign interference,” Blinken said, accusing “the Kremlin backed Wagner group” of exploiting “instability to pillage resources and commit abuses with impunity”.
“The United States recognises … that countless communities are afflicted by the twin scourges of terrorism and violence but the answer to those problems is not Wagner,” Blinken said.
Building more effective and accountable African security forces and tackling the marginalisation that often drives people to criminal or extremist groups was the best solution, he argued.
In a speech that sought to counter Russian and Chinese accusations that the US is a “neo-imperialist power” that wants to dictate to African countries, Blinken repeatedly stressed that Washington wanted to act in consultation with local leaders and communities, reinforcing existing African initiatives.
South Africa has refused to condemn Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine, arguing that there were faults on both sides and that Nato expansion was one cause of the war. The ruling ANC party, in power since 1994, has said it wants to remain neutral in order to better encourage peace.
Lavrov has sought to convince African leaders and, to a much lesser extent, ordinary people that Moscow cannot be blamed either for the conflict or the rising food and oil prices caused by the conflict. Russia has blamed the blockade on Ukrainian mines.
“We really advocate for peace”, Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of international relations, said at a joint press conference.
The new US diplomatic strategy appears in part to appeal directly to ordinary people in Africa, rather than their leaders, by promising support for democracy and accountability.
China has made little secret of its preference for strongman rulers, offering assistance without pressure over human rights. Beijing has built relations with Zimbabwe’s political elite, for example. Sub-Saharan nations have also been major recipients of Chinese investment through its “belt and road initiative”, which supports infrastructure development.
The Russian strategy has been more opportunistic, and has been focused on unstable countries with significant resources such as Sudan or those where once pro-western political leaders are now seeking new allies.
A once close relationship between the US and UK and Uganda, a stop on Lavrov’s recent tour, has soured over the crushing of political dissent and western pressure to recognise LGBTQ+ rights. Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986 and the recipient of huge sums of western aid, has accused the west of interfering in domestic affairs.
“This is not our demand or insistence on democracy, it’s what people in Africa want, it’s clear in poll after poll, they want openness, they want it on an individual basis, as communities, and to choose their own path [as nations],” Blinken said in Pretoria.
In December, the US will host a summit meeting for African leaders, an Obama administration initiative that lapsed during Donald Trump’s term in office.
On Sunday, Blinken visited the Hector Pieterson Museum, which commemorates a 12-year-old shot and killed by police during protests in 1976 in the township of Soweto, once home to South Africa’s first democratic president, Nelson Mandela.
Despite the warm diplomatic welcome offered to its visitor, South Africa did not appear to shift its position on Ukraine. Instead, Pandor criticised the US and other western powers for focusing on the conflict there to the detriment of other international issues.
“We should be equally concerned at what is happening to the people of Palestine,” Pandor said in a press briefing following the meeting with Blinken.
Many South Africans, especially among the ruling party, remember how Moscow offered support to dozens of liberation movements during the cold war while many US policymakers viewed the apartheid regime as a bulwark against communism.
One study found the 27 African countries that voted for the UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine were mostly democracies and all western allies, often actively involved in joint military operations. Most of those that abstained or, like Eritrea, voted against the resolution, were authoritarian or hybrid regimes.