American and African minds meet on pressing matters

United States (US) Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda in early August. The PSC Report asked Judd Devermont, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for African Affairs at the National Security Council in Washington, why these three countries were selected?

This trip was a long time in the making. The Biden-Harris administration recognises that South Africa is an influential partner in the region and international community. We have shared values and history, and there is unlimited potential to partner on the most pressing issues facing our world. That’s why we wanted to launch our new strategy in South Africa and revive the US-South Africa strategic dialogue.

Moreover, we wanted to build on the very positive phone call between presidents Biden and Ramaphosa on 8 April 2022. The two leaders have set the tone for a warm and productive bilateral relationship, and we wanted to deepen our partnership on trade and investment, climate, health and infrastructure.

The Secretary travelled to the DRC to discuss several priorities. These included ensuring free, fair and timely elections in 2023, promoting respect for human rights, addressing the climate crisis, combating corruption, and attracting greater US trade and investment. As Secretary Blinken noted, ‘the DRC is central to the pursuit of peace and prosperity in Africa and beyond.’

‘We have shared values and history, and there is unlimited potential to partner on pressing issues’

Secretary Blinken and Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who had travelled to Uganda a few days before, engaged the Congolese, Rwandans and Ugandans about insecurity in eastern DRC. We felt it important to talk to all three leaders, government officials and civil society to identify pathways to reduce tensions and advance peace and stability in this troubled region. In Rwanda, the Secretary talked about our longstanding partnership while raising democracy and human rights issues, including our concerns about Paul Rusesabagina’s trial and conviction.

Secretary Blinken met with South Africa’s minister of international relations, Naledi Pandor, who rejected the call by western countries to support Ukraine in the war against Russia. How does the US view this stance by South Africa and many African countries?

Secretary Blinken and Minister Pandor have developed a very close working relationship during the past year and a half. In fact, they have talked in person or on the phone at least eight times, including at the strategic dialogue in South Africa. These conversations have been open and candid, discussing many global and regional issues, including Russia's war against Ukraine and its effects on countries around the world, including African countries.

Because President Joe Biden, Secretary Blinken and US officials engage their South African counterparts on the basis of mutual respect, we didn’t hear the criticism against the US that other foreign governments sometimes attract.

Secretary Blinken stressed that respect for a neighbour's territorial integrity is as important in Central Africa as in Ukraine

Indeed, Minister Pandor publicly shared that she was ‘glad that Secretary Blinken has confirmed that America is not asking us to choose. I don't recall any attempt by the United States to do that.’ That's a testament to the approach we have adopted – engage our African counterparts as equal partners whether discussing global priorities or issues affecting regional security and development.

During his visit to the DRC, there were renewed calls for the international community to condemn Rwandan support for rebels in the eastern DRC. What role can the US play in solving this crisis?

Secretary Blinken travelled to Kinshasa and Kigali to support regional efforts to address the crisis. These include the Nairobi Process led by President Kenyatta and International Conference for the Great Lakes Region mediation by President Lourenco. The Secretary publicly and privately expressed his concern over credible reports that Rwanda has provided support to M23 rebels in neighbouring DRC.

He also acknowledged reports of cooperation between Congolese forces and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda. He stressed that respect for a neighbour's territorial integrity and sovereignty is as important in Central Africa as in Ukraine. Following these discussions, presidents Tshisekedi and Kagame agreed to direct talks. We are ready to support those efforts.

The new US strategy for sub-Saharan Africa supports democracy and open African societies ‘to counter harmful activities by China, Russia and other foreign actors.’ What are these harmful activities?

The strategy seeks to promote partnerships based on transparency, accountability and openness. We support individuals, communities and nations to choose their own partners and shape our world. Our African partners are not shy to expound on what they see as harmful activities by external actors.

African government ministries, legislatures, courts, labour unions, businesses, media outlets and civil society regularly call out what they dislike or deem inconsistent with their laws and values. These range from environmental degradation to abusive labour practices and unsavoury business conduct.

We believe in consultation and collaboration with the AU ahead of the upcoming US-Africa leaders’ summit

When reading local newspapers, some of their criticism is evidently directed towards People’s Republic of China-linked actors, but that's not the objective of our commitment to ‘foster openness and open society.’ In our view, when Africans clearly state their expectations for partnerships, there are better outcomes for the continent and for the global community.

According to the strategy, the US aims to partner with African governments and regional bodies to ‘address public dissatisfaction’ that could lead to coups and undermine democracy. How could the US and the African Union (AU) work together on this issue?

We share with Africans the same values with respect to democracy. According to Afrobarometer, 69% of Africans support democracy, more than 70% reject military rule and more than 80% oppose one-man rule. A stated goal of the AU's Agenda 2063 is ‘an Africa of good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and the rule of law.’ We have worked closely on these topics with the AU and the Economic Community of West African States, for example.

We have followed their lead on suspensions and sanctions following coups d'etat in several countries. We also applaud ongoing efforts to develop benchmarks for current political transitions back to civilian rule. That said, we believe there's more we can do together. This includes leveraging our early warning systems to identify countries at risk of a coup and pooling our diplomatic and other resources to address the underlying drivers of public dissatisfaction.

How do you see US support to the AU going forward?

We have excellent relations with AU Chair, Senegalese President Sall, AU Commission Chair Faki and other commission officials. Our administration has made it a priority to include AU leadership in its summits, often as co-chair, as we did at our Second Global COVID-19 Summit in May.

We believe in consultation and collaboration with the AU, which is a hallmark of our preparation for the upcoming US-Africa leaders’ summit. We envision a prominent role for the AU, as well as high-level focus on key AU documents, including Agenda 2063.

Image: © State Department Photo by Freddie Everett/ Public Domain

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