Vice President Biden’s Africa Trip

One big story I couldn’t cover while traveling last week was Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa. Biden traveled partly as Obama’s surrogate at the World Cup and other events, and partly to deliver messages urging reform and stability in different African countries, including not only Kenya but also its neighbors, particularly Sudan.

Biden traveled first to Egypt and met with President Hosni Mubarak. They discussed Gaza, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the situation in Sudan, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and next year’s elections in Egypt.

The Vice President spent the next two days in Kenya, where he gave a speech linking political reform with increased American investment. Biden also focused on Kenya’s role in East Africa. While in Kenya he met with Southern Sudanese officials and attended a discussion about Somalia.

Kenya’s East African sees regional worries trumping US concerns about Kenya’s internal politics.

US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Kenya can be seen as signaling a shift in the Obama administration’s approach to East Africa.

Comments by Mr Biden, coupled with reports of an expanding US “secret war” against Al Qaeda, suggest that Washington is now focusing more on Kenya’s strategic sub-regional role than on concerns about corruption and human rights abuses within the country.

The coalition government’s agreement on constitutional reforms represents a major reason for the marked change in Washington’s tone. But growing US trepidation over instability in the region – particularly in Somalia – has also contributed to the decision to cultivate a more co-operative relationship with Kenya.

NTV Kenya goes so far as to say that Biden “endorsed” the new Kenyan constitution, which has sparked controversy in Kenya because of provisions relating to shari’a courts.

On Thursday Biden traveled to South Africa to attend the World Cup. The South African leg of his visit, where Biden met with his counterpart Kgalema Motlanthe, seems to have focused less on substantive political discussions than on the political symbolism of an American presence at the World Cup, but in South African Biden talked Sudan, as he did elsewhere.

Biden’s trip to Africa is a clear sequel to Secretary Clinton’s seven-country journey to the continent last summer, which also included stops in Kenya and South Africa. Whereas Clinton’s approach sometimes seemed stern, Biden’s style has been called “cheerful.” But the same political issues and challenges remain in play, especially with regard to Kenya, where Washington wants to push for reforms but also preserve an alliance with a regional power. Kenya’s perceived importance to Washington has increased even more since last year, it seems, because of continued instability in Somalia but also because of the potential for serious disruption connected with the January 2011 referendum in Sudan.

At Foreign Policy, in fact, Josh Rogin writes that the trip was “all about Sudan.” Rogin says that Biden’s meetings with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and with other African leaders show that concern about Sudan is moving up the hierarchy in the Obama administration. Apparently choosing whom to send to the inauguration ceremonies in Khartoum split Obama’s Africa/foreign policy team last month. Biden’s efforts on Sudan coincided with other US diplomatic moves, including a separate meeting between Scott Gration and Egyptian officials and a stronger strain of criticism toward Sudan coming from the State Department. The absence of Nigeria and Angola from Biden’s itinerary, countries Clinton visited last summer, also suggests that the trip was primarily focused on political stability in East Africa and not on broader US economic interests on the continent.

The Brookings Institution offered a number of perspectives on the trip as it started last week. Check them out and see what you agree or disagree with. Diplomatically, it seems to me that the trip was a success in terms of its stated and presumed aims. But I still feel that Washington’s approach to Africa is narrowly focused on attempts to engineer political outcomes, a strategy that often backfires and also distracts from other kinds of engagement, particularly economic partnership (the language is there, but is always tied to reform, and always overshadowed by politics) and cultural dialogue. In any case, Biden seems to have been a hit, though of course many African leaders are hoping for a visit by the Big Man himself.

France and Africa Summit

This week African leaders are attending a summit in Nice, France. Press coverage of the event so far has mostly emphasized political and economic themes, with a little World Cup joshing mixed in. Interestingly for me, several outlets featured photos of French President Sarkozy and Nigerian President Jonathan shaking hands. I’ve heard a lot of conversations in recent months about how Nigeria lost some of its regional influence during the long illness of late President Yar’Adua. If Jonathan is the “face of Africa” for this summit, that could indicate that Nigeria is “back on top” in the eyes of the international community.

Nice, France

Nice, France

Reuters covers the main political news coming out of the summit:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Monday Africa should be represented on the U.N. Security Council, promising to back reforms when France takes the helm of the G8 and G20 groups of big economies next year…African nations have asked for two rotating permanent seats since 2005, given the continent has about 27 percent of members at the United Nations, its size and the involvement of global powers on its territory.

And the BBC describes the economic interests at stake in the meeting:

France aims to give a new push to business ties with Africa at a two-day summit opening in the Mediterranean city of Nice…The military junta leaders of two former French colonies – Guinea and Niger – are among those attending. France is vying with China and other emerging powers for markets in Africa.

Vanguard/All Africa have a little more on Jonathan’s participation in the summit:

The Nigerian Ambassador to France, Mr Gordon Harry Bristol said there could not have been a better time for Nigeria to make maximum impact as the giant of Africa by putting up the best outing at the Summit. The Nigeria Embassy in Paris has temporarily relocated to Nice, to give the visiting President the very best of reception and preparation for the talks.

And finally, Sanou Mbaye offers a less-than-enthusiastic take on the France-Africa relationship, past and present.

I’m still learning about the dynamics of how France and Africa interact, but within my limited base of knowledge it’s interesting to me to compare France’s approach with the approaches of the US and China to Africa. Maybe this is simplistic, but it seems to me that

  • the US makes its political concerns about Africa very explicit while giving less emphasis to its economic interests in Africa;
  • China has clear economic interests in Africa but downplays its political involvement there;
  • and France acknowledges both political and economic interests on the continent.

Again, those statements might be too broad. Still, at the very least we can all likely agree that the “West” is not monolithic when it comes to Africa policies. What do you think? And how does Britain fit into the equation?

Quick Thoughts: Kenya’s Islamic Courts, Arab Approval of US Leadership, Brain Gain

A few quick items:

  • The Christian Science Monitor looks at Kenya’s Islamic Courts controversy. Also at stake as Kenya moves toward approving a new constitution are issues related to abortion and land reform. Background here.
  • Gallup reports that Arab approval of US leadership is slipping. Especially sharp drops occurred in Egypt and Algeria.
  • The BBC reports on Africa’s “Brain Gain”: “Any number of Africans seek to cross the ocean and make their fortunes, never to be seen again. But when our team travelled around Africa recently to film a new TV documentary series, we found a different story. Many of the Africans I met had worked or been educated in the West and come back. Across nine African countries and a journey of 7,000 miles from Mali to South Africa, from Ghana to Ethiopia, the story was often the same. Africans were returning from working or studying abroad either for patriotic reasons or because of the growing opportunities back home.”

Feel free to treat this as an open thread for Africa news.

A Sahel-Wide Famine?

Millions in Niger are facing hunger, but the UN now says Chad is also experiencing a food crisis. This is looking like a regional famine, and there aren’t enough resources to go around.N'Djamena area, Chad by afcone

Relief efforts for two million people facing food shortages in Chad are suffering because donors are concentrating aid on neighbouring Niger, a United Nations agency warned on Tuesday.

Niger is seen at the centre of a looming food crisis in the Sahel, the strip of land stretching across the south of the Sahara where some 10 million people are facing hunger in coming months because of poor rains last year.

But the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) sounded an alarm that Chad, which along with its neighbour is one of the world’s poorest nations, was being overlooked.

Some aid agencies (French) are also starting to talk of a Sahelian famine that affects Mauritania and Mali as well as Chad and Niger.

Meanwhile, after last year’s experience, the approach of the rainy season is bringing anxiety, not hope, in some places:

Devastating floods swept through West Africa in 2009, killing more than 100 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more in 16 countries.

As this year’s rainy season draws closer, efforts are being stepped up to prepare for the worst.  The International Federation of the Red Cross is leading the preparation effort.

A Red Cross’ spokesman, Moustapha Diallo, attended flood preparation talks earlier this month in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde.

Famines have occurred periodically in the Sahel for decades, but in recent years crises have occurred frequently. Climate change and desertification are taking a toll on people and agriculture. That in turn puts pressure on Sahelian governments, some of which have other huge political problems, such as rebellions in Chad or last year’s referendum debacle in Niger. A spirit of generosity exists in the region, and governments have often helped each other in times of need, but when everyone is suffering no one is in a position to give much help.

Sunday Africa Blog Roundup: Niger Junta, Algerian Cabinet, US Somalia Policy, African Poverty

Tommy Miles looks at the regional military governors appointed by the junta in Niger.

I have hammered on about the ecumenical nature and continuity represented in the Niger Junta so far, evidence that they may well live up to their word and leave politics after a quick transition. They clearly wish to project an image as a “national” institution “above” politics. What they believe in their hearts, I can’t pretend to know, but a close look at the replacement of rater venial Regional Governors with a broad group of officers shows that the junta is at least consistently “on message”.

My buddy was telling me on Friday night that charts get links. To prove his point, I am linking to Kal’s interesting charts on the makeup of the Algerian cabinet. (The ministers are old! But the same is true of the US Senate.)

Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson talks US policy toward Somalia.

Speaking of the State Department, they recently apologized to Qaddhafi.

Global Voices: “Kenya, and specifically Nairobi, has in recent months become the technology heartbeat of Africa with conferences, launches, meet ups, summits and unconferences all running in quick succession.”

Isolationism and unilateralism reaching new highs in public opinion polling in the US.

Three perspectives on poverty in Africa, inspired by a recent study: Reuters Africa Blog, Chris Blattman, and Texas in Africa.

And here’s the IMF on governance and economic policy in Africa.

What blogs are you checking out?

Iran and Africa

Deutsche Welle has an interesting piece on Iran’s outreach to Africa:

Tehran, Iran

[In] the last decade, Iran has improved relations with African countries by turning to them for investment and trade as it has become more isolated by the West.

In Africa, Iran has engaged in economic and development projects in a number of countries: in Senegal where Khodro, Iran’s largest car manufacturer, opened an assembly line in 2007; Nigeria with which it has agreed to share nuclear technology for the production of electricity; and it enjoys good relations with South Africa (a regional leader) where its support of the ANC during the apartheid era has meant that South Africa has remained a true friend.

However, nowhere is the success of Iran’s investment quite as clear as in Sudan. “Iran has been successful in strengthening ties with Sudan because the two countries have an ideological link. They are standing up against the West and imperialism,” Sanam Vakil, an expert on Iran at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC, told Deutsche Welle.

Check out the whole thing.