PRETORIA, South Africa — On his tour of African nations this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has a recurring message for the continent’s leaders: Washington won’t push you to choose between America and its global rivals, even as Russia and China make inroads across the continent.
“The United States will not dictate Africa’s choices, and neither should anyone else,” Blinken said in an address at the University of Pretoria. “The right to make these choices belongs to Africans, and Africans alone.”
Blinken’s declaration lands at a challenging moment, as Russia’s protracted war in Ukraine, now in its sixth month, tests the resolve of even Kyiv’s biggest backers. His visit to three African nations comes days after Blinken’s Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, completed his own regional tour, blaming Western sanctions for a severe global food crisis and courting local leaders with the prospect of military aid with few strings attached.
African nations’ increasingly complex set of economic and political ties was apparent from Blinken’s first stop, where South African officials underscored their right to pursue their country’s core interests rather than following cues from larger, more prosperous states. And in Rwanda, ahead of his visit later this week, the government is preemptively pushing back against U.S. pressure over a high-profile detainee.
Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister for international relations and cooperation, dismissed the importance of Russian influence in South Africa but blasted what she said was a “patronizing” attempt by some European and other nations to bring African nations in line on Ukraine.
“One thing I definitely dislike is being told either you choose this — or else,” she told reporters alongside Blinken following bilateral talks. “I definitely will not be bullied in that way, nor would I expect any African country worth its salt to agree.”
Pandor said the United States was not guilty of such an offense. But she did push back against what she described as the inconsistent application of the principles that Western powers have championed in Ukraine, making an implicit criticism of U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as she called for the equal defense of Palestinians’ and Ukrainians’ right to self-determination.
“We’ve not seen an evenhanded approach in utilization of the prescripts of international law,” she said. “This is what at times leads to cynicism about international bodies and a lack of belief in their ability to protect the weakest and most marginalized.”
South Africa was among more than a dozen African nations that abstained from a key vote at the United Nations in March, when the United States and other backers of Ukraine sought global support for a resolution condemning Russia’s role in starting the war. Another group of African nations chose not to be present for that vote.
The divisions apparent in New York in the early weeks of the war were a reminder of the limits of Western influence across the vast continent as China expands its role as financier of major infrastructure projects coveted by some African leaders.
While Russia has far less clout, it now ranks as the continent’s biggest arms supplier, selling its weapons without the onerous vetting involved in the U.S. process. Russia is a major source of grain and fertilizer to African nations. U.S. officials meanwhile have accused Wagner mercenaries of human rights abuses in the African countries where they operate, which have included Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mozambique.
Blinken’s visit comes as Africa struggles with the punishing economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic and experiences a democratic crisis, with a series of coups over the last 18 months in countries including Mali, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Chad.
Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group, said a flurry of Western-backed U.N. resolutions that sought to isolate Russia following President Vladimir Putin’s invasion had left African countries resentful of what they saw as Western pressure. “This is drawing out a real strategic dilemma for a lot of African countries,” he said.
He said the United States had responded to those concerns more quickly than other nations. In May, when Washington held the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council, Blinken convened a summit on food insecurity, a phenomenon that has hurt African nations more than most.
Analysts say the Biden administration faces an extra challenge in dealing with Africa after four years in which the Trump administration paid little heed to the region, allowing Russia and China to further build influence.
Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the expectation of automatic allegiance overlooked the determination of African nations, despite myriad problems including corruption and poverty, to set their own course.
“It fails to recognize the fundamentals of realpolitik, which is: ‘What have you done for me lately?’” he said.
Describing the Biden administration’s new blueprint, Blinken said the United States would support democracy and help combat climate change in Africa. But he acknowledged the United States’ own governance challenges and developed nations’ oversize role in causing the warming crisis.
Blinken said Washington instead would protect civil society and spur innovation including on vaccines. “The U.S. is there for African countries in this unprecedented crisis, because that’s what partners do for each other,” he said.
U.S. officials are quick to point out that China, unlike the United States, can direct state funds to roads and other projects. The United States cannot order private companies in the same way.
African nations however say that recent U.S.- and European-backed steps to loosen licensing of vital medicines are inadequate. Pandor also condemned a bill recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, which she said would punish African nations for failing to exhibit sufficient deference with the West over Russia. She called on the Senate to reject it.
Ebenezer Obadare, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that while many African leaders seek gain in playing China or Russia against the West, most Africans remain drawn to Western values and lifestyles. He cited U.S. soft power, including music and the allure of the U.S. economic model.
“To the extent there’s a struggle, that’s taking place at the level of leadership,” he said. “And there’s a lot of cynicism associated with it.”
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.