Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff landed midday today in Accra, the capital of Ghana, a country of about 33 million people slightly larger than Michigan on Africa’s west coast.
The 54 countries in Africa vary widely in language, religion, and culture, and Harris will visit three countries which initially seem unrelated. During her week on the African continent, in addition to Ghana, Harris will also visit Tanzania, a country bigger than Texas of about 62 million people on the east coast that is known for its natural wonders—Mount Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti plain are both on the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List. She will then visit neighboring Zambia, a landlocked country slightly larger than Texas with about 20 million people, where about one third of the country is game management areas or national parks, including one that protects the famous waterfall Mosi-oa-Tunya, or Smoke that Thunders—also known as Victoria Falls.
Harris’s visit is part of the Biden administration’s plan to counter Chinese and Russian influence on the African continent. That continent is rich in natural resources, and other countries want access to them. Between 2000 and 2016, China invested heavily in a number of African nations, sometimes in exchange for resources, sometimes for political alliances. It has become Africa’s second most important trading partner with about $250 billion in trade in 2021, just slightly behind the European Union, while U.S.-Africa trade in 2021 was about $64 billion.
Russia’s interests in Africa have tended toward support for authoritarian regimes. Russia focused on Africa after its 2014 invasion of Ukraine began to isolate it from other nations and their resources. The Russian Wagner Group of mercenary fighters has been a key player in Africa since then, often called in by authoritarian leaders to suppress political opposition in exchange for access to mines or other valuable resources.
The Wagner Group has supported anti-democratic movements across the semi-arid Sahel region, which stretches across the northern part of the continent in a band above Ghana. After recent failures in Ukraine, the leader of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, says he will turn his attention back to Africa, although it is unclear that he will be able to raise the necessary forces to make a major push.
African nations have historical reasons to be leery of European governments, who have tended to want to exploit the continent’s resources for themselves at the expense—often the deadly expense—of Africa’s inhabitants. They are also leery of the U.S., for when African nations began to throw off colonial rule, the Soviet Union tended to support those movements while the U.S. tended instead to support right-wing forces. More recently, the Trump years continued to weaken ties between the U.S and Africa as the United States withdrew from engagement with what the former president allegedly called “sh*thole countries.”
The Biden administration has worked to repair relations between the U.S. and Africa on the stated principle that Africans must have control over their own countries and their own future. The administration hosted the U.S.-Africa leaders summit in December 2022, where it announced that it backed the admission of the African Union to the Group of 20, welcoming the 55 member states of the African Union to the intergovernmental forum that focuses on global issues. The African Union has wanted admission to the G20 for years, noting that they are currently left out of discussions that affect them—most recently, the plans to address the coronavirus—and the administration’s promise that it would back the African Union’s admission was an important sign of the administration’s focus on strengthening ties between the continent and the U.S.
Since then, the Biden administration has pledged more than $6.5 billion to the continent to aid security, support democratic institutions, and advance civil rights and the rule of law. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, First Lady Jill Biden, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have all visited the continent.
Harris is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit and will emphasize the deep connections between Africa and the spread of Africans around the world, a process known as the African diaspora. In Ghana, Harris will visit the Cape Coast slave castle, used to hold enslaved Africans before they were shipped across the Atlantic for sale, primarily in the Caribbean. But the connections between Africa and the Americas reach far beyond the legacy of enslavement: Accra is the burial place of early twentieth-century U.S. writer and intellectual W. E. B. DuBois, for example. Harris will also visit Lusaka, Zambia, where as a child she visited her maternal grandfather when he worked there as a civil engineer.
The administration’s outreach to Africa is not simply a way to counter China and Russia on the continent. The White House explained that Harris is visiting these three countries specifically because their governments are investing in their democracies at a time when democracies around the globe are under siege.
Harris will launch her meeting with Ghana’s president Nana Akufo-Addo. When the two leaders met before, in September 2021, Akufo-Addo identified the key issue facing Africa and the world, saying: “[O]ur big challenge—and it is a challenge of all those who want to develop democratic institutions on our continent—is to ensure and reassure our people that democratic institutions can be a vehicle for the resolution of their big problem—that is economic development as the means to eradicate poverty on the continent.”
This is a great summary of the central issue for democracy today.
In Africa the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, alongside a rise in interest rates, has made it hard for a number of nations to pay their international debts, which quintupled between 2000 and 2020. At the same time, the Russian blockade of Ukraine has cut food supplies while international sanctions against Russia for its 2022 invasion of Ukraine has cut fertilizer supplies to the continent, increasing food shortages.
Those crises offer possibilities for international cooperation to invest in the African continent, especially as the new African Continental Free Trade Area agreement smooths trade across the continent and, with luck, brings rural regions into better contact with more urban areas.
But those same crises also open the way for strongmen to take over by promising to solve their country’s shortages. Russian disinformation in Africa drives pro-Russian and anti-European sentiment; a new Russian social media network launched on the continent in February 2022. Last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed to have written off $20 billion of African debt and blamed the West for his inability to deliver the fertilizer he had promised.
But while democracy is under siege around the world, Freedom House, the non-profit organization that tracks the health of democracy worldwide, noted last September that African countries have shown important efforts to expand the rule of law and strong democratic institutions. Ghana, for example, has become more democratic but is threatened by the instability to its north.
Still, in August, the pan-African, nonpartisan research network Afrobarometer found that African voters want democratic institutions. According to a report from Chatham House that reviewed the polling, Africans “believe that the military should stay out of politics, that political parties should freely compete for power, that elections are an imperfect but essential tool for choosing their leaders, and that it is time for the old men who cling to power to step aside.” Seventy percent of Africans say they prefer democracy to any other form of government, 82% reject “strongman” rule, 77% reject one-party rule, and 75% reject military rule (even in countries that have recently experienced military coups).
Those impressive numbers in a continent of very young people—the median age is just 19—are an obvious reason for the U.S. to want better relations at a time when both President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken have been very clear that they believe democracy at home depends at least in part on democracy overseas.
And the danger to democracy at home was crystal clear last night, as former president Trump held a rally in Waco, Texas, where in 1993 a 51-day government siege of the headquarters of a religious cult gave birth to the modern anti-government militia movement. Since then, Waco has been a touchstone for violent attacks on the government. There, last night, Trump stood on stage with his hand over his heart while loudspeakers played not the national anthem but a song recorded by January 6 insurrectionists. Footage from the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol played on a screen behind him.