As Vice President Harris on Saturday launches her first trip to Africa since taking office — part of an all-out push by the Biden administration to show African leaders it is committed to bolstering ties — she will confront widespread suspicions on the continent that the effort reflects a drive to counter China and Russia, not a deeper desire to improve relations with Africans for their own sake.
Harris’s week-long trip includes stops in Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia, chosen because they are striving to maintain democracy in the face of economic pressures roiling the continent, White House officials said. Harris met with the leaders of all three countries during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in December, and she sees the nine-day journey as an extension of those dialogues, the officials said.
“The message is the same that the president delivered when we had the African leaders summit here in December,” White House spokesman John Kirby said. “And that’s that Africa matters, the continent matters, and our relationships across the continent all matter. So this is very much about Africa — African leaders, African nations — and not about anybody else.”
That’s not how everyone on the continent sees it. “We have a saying in Swahili: ‘When the elephants fight, it’s always the grass that gets trampled.’ We don’t want to get trampled,” said Fatma Karume, a prominent attorney in Tanzania and former president of its Law Society. “Tanzania needs to think about its own national security and its own national interest. It doesn’t bode well for Tanzania not to have China, Russia or the U.S. as a friend — we need to be friends with all of them.”
Harris’s trip is the latest step in an intensive courtship after U.S. relations with Africa deteriorated badly under President Donald Trump, who never visited the continent and whose reference to “shithole countries,” at a closed-door meeting in 2018, was seen by many Africans as directed at them. Beyond hosting the Africa summit — the first time the United States had done so in eight years — President Biden has announced support for the long-sought effort of the African Union, which represents 55 states, to become a permanent member of the Group of 20.
First lady Jill Biden visited Namibia and Kenya in February, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Niger and Ethiopia this month. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield have also visited, while the president himself is expected to go this year, capping a remarkable charm offensive.
For Harris, however, the trip is suffused with particular significance. She is the first Black woman to win a nationally elected office in the United States and is of Indian and Jamaican descent. A senior official said she will touch on the human connections between Africa and its diaspora throughout her trip.
Perhaps the starkest example will be a visit to Cape Coast Castle, one of dozens of large forts built along Africa’s Gold Coast that was a hub for the transatlantic slave trade. Harris also is making a return trip to Lusaka, Zambia, where her maternal grandfather worked as a civil engineer and where she visited as a child.
Although the rhetoric and engagement have ramped up, questions remain about how much U.S. policy toward Africa will actually shift under Biden. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dominated the administration’s foreign policy, and the president has repeatedly suggested that the effort to counter China’s economic and military influence is at the center of his global strategy.
More broadly, Biden has said this moment in world history is about the battle between democracies and autocracies. That has left many countries — including the ones Harris plans to visit — wondering where they stand as the globe’s behemoths jockey for position.
“If you asked an average Zambian what the U.S. has done for the country, they will struggle to point at anything,” Sishuwa Sishuwa, a history professor at Stellenbosch University, wrote in an email. “But the same person will quickly note that China has in recent years built a top-class international conference centre, a major public hospital, and a national stadium — all constructed at no financial cost to Zambia.”
Many African nations were hit hard by the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic and felt left behind by the distribution of vaccines and treatments, often receiving them just before they expired and without the storage or distribution capacity needed to vaccinate as many people as possible.
The war in Ukraine has posed another challenge to African nations. Many countries in the Global South have borne the brunt of the war’s economic turmoil and faced shortages of fertilizers, fuel and food — often blaming Western sanctions for that and making it harder to secure their support for U.N. resolutions condemning Russia. Biden has argued that Russian aggression, not Western sanctions, are at fault, with mixed success.
During her trip, Harris plans to announce U.S. investments in Africa overall, as well as specific projects in the trio of countries she’s visiting, administration officials said. They will aim not just to funnel American aid, but also to spur additional investments by private business. The strategy in many ways resembles the administration’s efforts in the Northern Triangle countries of Latin America, where Harris has been tasked with helping to reduce the root causes of migration.
“We anticipate this private-sector collaboration will be a major component of our trip,” a senior administration official told reporters on a call previewing the trip. “She’s a big believer in the power of public-private partnerships around the world, and throughout her engagements she will be making the case that to unlock growth and opportunity on the continent, we all need to come together and collaborate.”
This effort comes after China, under its Belt and Road Initiative, has lent billions of dollars in Africa to build ports, railways, power stations and other projects throughout the continent.
Biden administration officials concede that it will be hard to counter the long, mixed history of U.S. engagement in Africa and the continent’s strong historic ties to Russia and China. Many African liberation movements that ultimately rose to power were backed by the former Soviet Union, while the United States has at times supported right-wing forces with scant regard for human rights.
Both Zambia and Tanzania, for example, practiced socialism after colonial rule ended, offering refuge and aid to South African anti-apartheid forces at a time when President Ronald Reagan was vetoing anti-apartheid legislation in favor of “constructive engagement.”
Such memories are still very much alive for some Africans. “Our relationship with Russia is a historic relationship,” Karume said. “They were there during the anti-colonial drive, and we don’t forget our friends. … A lot of people in power at the moment went to school in Russia.”
Some of that sentiment may be overcome if Harris offers true economic support in coming days, experts on the continent said.
“When African leaders attended the last US-Africa Summit, Joe Biden announced that there was $U.S. 55 billion available for immediate investment in Africa. Many are now asking: where is the money?” Sishuwa wrote in the email. “If Harris comes empty-handed, Zambia may not be swayed by her childhood ties to the country.”
China has dramatically increased its investment and lending in Africa over the past 20 years, becoming its biggest trading partner. And it’s not just China and Russia — Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and India, among others, are all stepping up their engagement in Africa.
But a senior administration official said that the United States and Africa have notable common interests, and that the United States is still recognized as the powerful leader of the world’s democratic forces, as evidenced by its support for a vulnerable Ukraine.
“We understand that many African countries have a historical relationship with the Soviet Union, which supported their liberation movements, and countries have current relationships with Russia,” the senior administration official said. “But we believe that it’s important to have a conversation to identify shared points of agreement, particularly on how to have a just end to this [Ukraine] war and how to address the negative consequences and just stand up for shared principles.”
Yet many African countries resist the idea that they have to choose one side or another. The continent has seen the reemergence of a strong unaligned movement, as national leaders strive for neutrality in the antagonism between the West and an authoritarian bloc led by China and Russia.
Harris’s advisers stressed that, unlike during the Cold War, the United States is not presuming to tell African nations whom their allies should be. “We’re not asking our partners in Africa to choose,” the administration official said. “We want to expand African options, not limit them.”
But the official said Harris would nonetheless bring up the aggressive actions of Russia and China.
“Obviously, we can’t ignore the current geopolitical moment,” the official said. “Russia’s war is not only hurting the people of Ukraine and Europe, but it’s hurting Africans and others around the world by generating rising commodity prices that are actually having a disproportionate impact on African countries.”