Blinken tours West Africa with eye on safeguarding maritime trade

The US wants to ensure that the Gulf of Guinea is shielded from the kind of piracy undertaken by the Houthis in Bab-el-Mandeb

Washington has finally woken up to the importance of developing this vital region, with Nigeria showing the greatest investment potential — in the trillions.
Washington has finally woken up to the importance of developing this vital region, with Nigeria showing the greatest investment potential — in the trillions.

Blinken tours West Africa with eye on safeguarding maritime trade

The Africa Cup of Nations finals hosted by Ivory Coast drew mass attendance. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken included the tournament on his itinerary for a four-nation tour on the continent’s Atlantic coast, including Cape Verde, Nigeria and Angola.

Turmoil in the Red Sea has underscored the strategic importance of this region, as ships diverted away from the Suez Canal amid attacks from Houthi militants instead go around the Cape of Good Hope.

And so, with the security of Atlantic Africa rising on the global agenda, Washington’s top diplomat arrived in the region amid a wider flurry of diplomatic action. It showed the extent of the struggle for geopolitical influence among its nations and from major world powers.

Blinken was warmly received in four of its capitals, which the US views as key allies as it seeks to shape a new world order at a time of global crises — from Gaza to Ukraine. Africa will be an important part of this process, with the continent’s 54 votes at the United Nations General Assembly influencing it.

Geopolitical hotspot

There has been competition from the US, alongside its Western allies, with other global powers over Africa, most significantly Russia and China, amid the political polarisation the world has seen in recent years, making Africa a political hot spot.

Moscow has used its friendly relations with some countries in the global south to avoid further economic sanctions after it invaded Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Washington has failed to win any recognition for Taiwan's independence from African and Middle Eastern countries, which remain committed to China, which views the island as a breakaway province.

Western pressures have also failed to dissuade South Africa from bringing a case against Israel in the International Criminal Court, accusing Tel Aviv of crimes against humanity and genocide against Palestinians.

Read more: South Africa’s decades-long solidarity with Palestine on display at ICJ

Africa has become a hotspot for competition between the US and other global powers mainly Russia and China.

Washington is concerned about Russia's military expansion through its Wagner mercenary group in central Africa and the landlocked Sahel countries. It is also troubled by China's economic and investment expansion through the Belt and Road Initiative, which funds infrastructure projects across the continent. 

This includes building ports on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean that may later benefit Beijing, turning them into a commercial bargaining chip in the competition for the future of maritime navigation between continents.

During Blinken's tour, several national leaders from the Sahel were in Moscow, including Chad's President Mahamat Déby and Niger's Prime Minister Ali Lamine Zeine. Beforehand, there were also visits from officials representing Mali and Burkina Faso.

The timing may have been coincidental. But it felt deliberate that it was when Blinken was in the region that Mali's minister of defence claimed the departure of French forces had made it easier for his country to make progress against terrorist groups, including killing their leaders.

The implication was that the West had been reluctant to take such decisive action when it was present in the Sahel. There were reports in the French weekly Le Point that said the US benefited from the vacuum created by France's military withdrawal from the region at the end of last year. 

US talks while China builds

When Blinken arrived in Abidjan last Monday, he attended the match between Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea at the Alassane Ouattara stadium.  He was surprised to find that China built it, as other almost identical sporting venues in many African nations.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and US Ambassador to Angola Tulinabo S. Muchinge walk in Luanda, Angola, January 25, 2024.

Blinken's realisation symbolised that Washington's long period of talking to the continent but failing to invest left a vacuum for China to come in with high-profile projects — from ports to universities and sporting venues. 

President Joe Biden promised to visit Africa at the US-Africa Summit held in Washington in December 2022 and pledged to invest $55bn in development projects.

It was seen as a move to counter the influence of China, which had committed $60bn, and the European Union, which promised €150bn in its Comprehensive Gateway plan designed to benefit all African countries. 

But Biden's visit was delayed, and the EU funding felt insufficient, leaving the West in a negative light in Africa amid a clear lack of presence there, felt by leaders and everyday citizens alike. 

There is, instead, a feeling of grievance towards Europe. It was neatly summed up by an immigrant from Guinea-Conakry living in Morocco, who accused France of stealing the continent's wealth and natural resources, saying: "Local development has stalled, while transcontinental companies have thrived. A bitter experience for more than six decades."

During his tour, Blinken was surprised at the scale of Chinese development projects in Africa. It was a realisation that US failure to invest in the continent left a vacuum for China to fill.

Nigeria, ECOWAS and the Sahel

Blinken's tour covered much of Nigeria. It is the most populous African country at 230 million and has the continent's biggest economy, with a gross domestic product of $450bn. 

Nigeria leads the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which includes 15 countries, four of which are located in the landlocked Sahel region and have faced a series of military coups, threats from extremist terrorist groups, and challenges from human trafficking, arms smuggling, drug trade, and transnational crimes. These countries are currently at the centre of focus competition between major neighbouring nations.

The US aims to enhance economic development and security in the Atlantic region. It wants to protect the Gulf of Guinea from any terrorist threats to prevent the kind of piracy undertaken by the Houthis in the Gulf of Aden and the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. 

Nigeria has a strong military and shares borders with several Sahel countries, including Niger and Burkina Faso, which face security challenges, from extremist groups like Boko Haram in the north. At the same time, Nigeria overlooks the Atlantic Gulf of Guinea, where French naval forces have been stationed since 1990 to protect trade flows and ensure freedom of navigation.

Moving a military base

During his last tour of sub-Saharan Africa in March 2023, Blinken visited Niger, home to the largest US military base in the region is located. 

Since then, Washington has been trying to fill the vacuum left by France's withdrawal from the country. There is talk of transferring part of the military base to the Atlantic coast to protect the sea from terrorists and deploy drone and missile platforms. 

Blinken delivers a speech at the Luanda Science Center in Luanda, Angola, on January 25, 2024.

Read more: Did US pragmatism in Niger underpin France's decision to end its military presence?

The US allocated an additional $45mn to Ivory Coast to enhance security along the seaboard. It pledges additional developmental support in exchange for regional stability, promoting democracy and governance, combating corruption, empowering women, improving education and healthcare, developing intracontinental trade, and expanding the African Continental Free Trade Area.

Meanwhile, there has been high-level contact between Morocco and Nigeria, also coinciding with Blinken's tour.

King Mohammed VI spoke by telephone to Nigeria's President Bola Tinubu about developing bilateral relations and also the African-Atlantic Gas Pipeline project between the countries.  It will be another strategic means for regional integration and socio-economic development in West Africa.

Read more: Atlantic Africa: The new economic bloc on the block

The US aims to boost economic development and security in the Atlantic region. It wants to protect the Gulf of Guinea from the kind of piracy undertaken by the Houthis in Bab-el-Mandeb.

South Atlantic trade area

Three years ago, Morocco proposed the establishment of a regional grouping. This South Atlantic Bloc of 23 countries would offer a framework for economic development, trade, and security cooperation, covering all the countries bordering the Atlantic Ocean. 

Other landlocked Sahel African countries — namely Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad — agreed to join during a meeting in Marrakech at the end of last year in a plan that would open up access to the sea for them. 

A second round of meeting between foreign ministers in the South Atlantic Bloc was held in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Several countries backed the idea, including Germany, the US, Spain, Portugal, and other Arab and African nations. But it is opposed by Algeria, which has also pressured Mauritania to reject the Moroccan initiative. 

This is important because while Algeria is not located on the Atlantic, any land or rail route to connect Morocco to the Sahel and end its geographical isolation for economic development must pass through Mauritanian territory. 

Read more: Leaked directive reveals depths of Algeria and Morocco's 'port war'

The strategically vital nation has dismissed the calls for it to stand against the plans. Speaking in Morocco's capital, Rabat, Mauritania's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohamed Salem Ould Merzoug said: "There is an interest for both peoples, and we praise the wisdom of Morocco and the development and progress that the Kingdom is experiencing. The message I carry today confirms our desire to continue cooperation."

In the African Cup of Nations two days before the statement, Mauritania beat Algeria, knocking it out of the tournament. Once again, sport mirrored political and economic events but also overshadowed them, just as it did with Blinken's tour of Atlantic Africa. 

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