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Is Antony Blinken’s Trip to Sub-Saharan Africa Destined for Failure?

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets virtually with the AFL-CIO Executive Council, from the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on July 9, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain]
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets virtually with the AFL-CIO Executive Council, from the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on July 9, 2021. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain]

The Glasgow climate conference ended today but its legacy lives on less in its impact on climate and more in the virtue-signaling that follows. For the State Department, this did not take long. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will soon embark on his first trip to sub-Saharan Africa to “advance U.S.-Africa collaboration on shared global priorities” such as climate change, COVID-19, and democracy. Highlighting such issues will not achieve them, however, but rather appears more to create an illusion of activity while covering for decades of U.S. inaction in Africa.

To be fair, Blinken is right both to consider Kenya a pivotal partner for the United States and to discuss the worsening security situation in Somalia while he is in Nairobi. Let us hope, however, he listens more than lectures. After all, the State Department’s own policy returned Somalia to the verge of civil war. While Blinken continues the State Department’s boycott of Somaliland, Somalia’s most democratic and peaceful region, for example, Kenya has exchanged consulates with the unrecognized state. Rather than punish success, a more open-minded leader would learn from it.

The real problem, however, comes when Blinken visits Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, an ironic choice with whom to celebrate democracy. After all, Buhari led the 1983 military coup d’état in Nigeria. While he today describes himself a “converted democrat,” Nigerians still refer to autocratic excesses as “Buharism.”

This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. Buhari may claim conversion, but his actions say otherwise. His true legacy for many Nigerians was crushing resistance in the southeastern state of Biafra during the 1968-70 civil war and Biafran succession struggle. His actions as president suggest cynicism rather than conversion to democracy. He pursues a policy of ethnic displacement and religious persecution against Biafra’s largely Christian population. Indeed, the greatest parallel to Buhari’s penchant for embracing democratic rhetoric while perpetrating great human rights abuses is with Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia. Simply put, Buhari sees his photo-op with Blinken as a chance to launder his image and imply endorsement of his efforts to bus in Islamist, armed Fulani militiamen into Biafra. Blinken’s photo with Buhari will become the Biden administration’s equivalent of Donald Rumsfeld’s handshake with Saddam Hussein.

More broadly, however, Blinken and his State Department miss an opportunity by approaching Africa with a one-size-fits-all policy that promotes environmental virtue signaling over the nuances of local societies. While Blinken is not visiting Liberia, for example, the State Department’s prioritization of climate change policy there undermines both democracy and stability as it pumps money into George Weah’s notoriously corrupt regime. What Liberia needs is not more money for Weah to divert, but rather direct investment in programs to train and promote the independence of the judiciary. Less money directed with pinpoint accuracy is far more beneficial to democracies and their ability to protect the environment than the effectiveness of assistance measured more on allocations than achievements. That Nigeria is more corrupt than Liberia according to Transparency International suggests Blinken’s investment in climate change mitigation there will also do more harm than good.

Both Democrats and Republicans should commend Blinken for traveling to sub-Saharan Africa that, for too long, he and President Biden have neglected. In both Nairobi and Abuja, security will trap Blinken in a security bubble. His local handlers may bypass billboards promoting the latest Chinese investments. That Blinken’s agenda does not recognize China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran’s efforts to cultivate the continent suggests his own wishful thinking may win the day. Ignoring the problem will not resolve it, nor will a single visit substitute for sustained effort.

Still, Blinken has an opportunity to celebrate democracy and promote security, and there is a solid basis for his visit to Senegal. However, if Blinken will fail if believes that photo opportunities and virtue signaling absolves the necessity for State Department introspection. He should question strategies inherited from predecessors. Inertia should not justify doubling down on failure.  Climate is important, but environmental protection seldom comes at the expense of good governance. To whitewash partners whose commitment to democracy does not extend beyond rhetoric will only breeds cynicism. Blinken may believe diplomacy is back, but substance also matters.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Written By

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).