US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo aims to promote US cooperation in Senegal, Angola and Ethiopia amid Chinese influence and a growing Russian presence in Africa.
Arriving in Senegal on Saturday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is making his first trip to Africa after 22 months in office as the world's soon-to-be most populous continent has become a battlefield for competing global powers.
Pompeo is expected to lay out a positive vision for US cooperation with the continent amid strong Chinese involvement and growing Russian presence in different corners of Africa.
After Senegal, Pompeo will be visiting Angola and Ethiopia, as part of his visit to “three countries in various stages of development in their transition to democracy and their stability”.
In Senegal, Pompeo said he will highlight the rule of law, good governance and an assertive American economic involvement to counter the Chinese influence in African countries.
His visit comes at a tense time in US-Africa relations, however. The Trump administration has shown little to no interest in improving ties with African nations.
With growing confusion among leaders in light of the US' dubious Africa policy, Pompeo will convince them that the US has a clear and promising plan towards the continent.
After the long absence of an Africa policy from the US administration, former national security adviser John Bolton unveiled the Trump administration’s strategy for the continent in December 2018.
The plan Bolton announced largely focused on countering China’s economic expansion and Russia’s growing military presence in the continent, with almost no mention of what policies the US would implement to improve its relations with African countries.
Since then the US relations have been limited.
Apart from Pompeo, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited the continent once before getting fired the day after returning from Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Chad and Nigeria.
As for US President Donald Trump, since 1978 he is the only US president who has not stepped foot in Africa, except Ronald Reagan.
Apart from the lack of US engagement with African countries, the Trump administration expanded its travel ban to include Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania and Eritrea, nearly a quarter of the continent’s population, just weeks before Pompeo’s visit.
Even though US officials claim that the countries need to resolve technical issues related to security, critics recalled Trump’s widely reported remarks in 2018 when he used a profanity to describe African and Western Hemisphere nations which the US receives immigrants from.
"The challenge that Pompeo's facing in Africa is explaining the contradictory messages coming from Washington," said Witney Schneidman, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Africa Growth Initiative.
"It is the fact that Bolton rolled out this Africa strategy 14 months ago, and since then, very little has been accomplished where many other nations have moved forward.”
Against this backdrop, the Pentagon also announced this week that it will start reducing its military presence in Africa, an issue that Ahmadou Aly Mbaye, a professor at Senegal’s Cheikh Anta Diop University called “very important talking point during Pompeo’s visit”.
It is “very, very worrisome in Senegal and in the Sahelian countries”, Mbaye said.
The Pentagon’s decision struck a blow against France which is desperately lobbying for military support from Nato and Europe for its 4,500 strong-operation in the Sahel region against militant groups.
When he was asked in the Senegalese capital Dakar, Pompeo said the Trump administration is working to determine what level of American military forces is needed in West Africa.
Pompeo said: “I’m convinced that when our review is done, we will have a conversation with not just Senegal but all the countries in the region… We will deliver an outcome that works for all of us.”
Senegal’s Foreign Minister Amadou Ba said that the US administration had informed them of its “wish to withdraw combat troops”.
Expressing his concerns that terrorism might spread to Senegal from its neighbours Mali and Mauritania, the minister Ba said that Senegal is “under threat”.
After Senegal, Pompeo will visit Angola and Ethiopia to counter what he called China’s “dangerous influence” on Africa, which he says spreads corruption and undermines the rule of law.
China exceeded the US as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009, creating a trade network worth more than $204bn, according to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce.
Many African countries have partnered with China on its Belt and Road Initiative as the Asian power launches mega power plants and other infrastructure projects across the continent.
However, the projects have become too costly for Africans. As a result of the huge amount of cash loans given by China in which critics called “debt-trap diplomacy”, major countries, like Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya have struggled to pay the money back.
Before his visit to Senegal, Pompeo said that economic reforms to increase market access and promote good governance will attract more American investments in the continent.
His message might echo well in Ethiopia and Angola.
Ethiopia, a key US ally in the Horn of Africa, has undergone breakthrough political reforms under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed since 2018, who pushes for the privatisation of state monopolies and liberalisation of the national economy.
As long-held grievances lead to violent ethnic tensions, the country is trying to attract foreign investment.
In Angola, an oil-rich but impoverished country, President Joao Lourenco is making strides against massive corruption scandals and trying to shift the country’s dependence on its oil exports.
Witney Schneidman, who worked on Africa in the State Department under President Bill Clinton, seems optimistic about Pompeo’s trip.
Schneidman said the trip showed the Trump administration trying belatedly to set “a positive tone on the continent”.
But he also warned that amid military budget cuts and visa ban, Pompeo would have his hands full explaining the mixed messages from Washington.
“I think that he risks getting caught up in a sort of China-China-China dynamic and really needs to convey to African leaders that Africa is genuinely a priority for the United Nations,” said Schneidman.
“If they can cut through and promote those messages clearly, then I think his trip will be successful.”
However, a former US diplomat speaking aunomoısly to AFP expressed the widespread confusion over the goals of Pompeo’s trip.
“It is not clear why he is going now and whether this is part of any broader US strategy on Africa, especially when the administration has indicated in just the last few weeks that it intends to exponentially reduce its security and aid investments,” the former diplomat said.
“You can just check the box of having an Africa policy by stopping in a few countries on a big continent and then call that a strategy.”