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Opinion Vice President Harris goes to Africa. Color me unimpressed.

Vice President Harris delivers a speech at Kotoka International Airport on March 26 in Accra, Ghana. (Ernest Ankomah/Getty Images)
7 min

In July 2009, I had the privilege of being in Accra during Barack Obama’s first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as president. I was a young, idealistic Fulbright scholar studying in Ghana, and I was asked by the U.S. Embassy to be on-site during Obama’s visit to a hospital.

The historic trip was rich with symbolism: Obama, the first Black U.S. president, the son of a Kenyan man, visiting the first sub-Saharan African nation to gain its independence. I remember the electricity across the country ahead of his arrival. People were on a democratic high, in a sense, proud that their closely watched 2008 presidential election had unfolded without violence or political unrest.

There were posters of Obama all over Accra, and local textile artists made ceremonial cloth in his honor. In a rousing speech to the Ghanaian parliament, he spoke of Africa being a vital part of an interconnected world. “The 21st century will be shaped by what happens not just in Rome or Moscow or Washington,” he said, “but by what happens in Accra, as well.”

This week, we saw another historic first: Vice President Harris became the first Black, female vice president from the United States to visit Africa, on a nine-day journey with stops in Ghana, Zambia and Tanzania.

But symbolic firsts go only so far. When it comes to Harris, to borrow words from the great B.B. King: The thrill feels gone. Read on, and I’ll explain why.

Global Radar, Part 1: In Africa, the U.S. doesn’t walk the walk

After Obama visited Africa, he presided over a strategy toward the continent heavily dominated by military concerns. Under his administration, the United States Africa Command expanded at a lightning pace. Between 2008 and 2014, the journalist Nick Turse reported back then, the number of operations, programs and exercises carried out by the U.S. military increased more than 200 percent. And although Obama claimed he did not want American military boots on the ground to deal with threats in far-flung parts of the world, the president increasingly relied on U.S. Special Operations forces to handle security operations; he sent nearly 300 such troops to Cameroon, for instance, and used them in Somalia in the fight against the terrorist group al-Shabab.

Cut to 2016, and the world watched as the United States elected Donald Trump president, a man who later called African nations “shitholes,” imposed nonsensical travel bans on a number of countries, and went on to virtually ignore the continent when it came to foreign policy priorities.

So much for all that hope, huh?

On top of Trump’s anti-Africanness, a long-standing complaint about U.S. policy relations in the past two decades has been that Washington has largely seen the continent not as a true partner, but as an arena full of threats to be contained. The United States has poured billions of dollars into counterterrorism efforts, which have included assistance to militaries fighting extremist groups such as Boko Haram, in West Africa, or al-Shabab, in the Horn of Africa region.

During Harris’s trip to Ghana, she continued this trend, signaling that the United States would invest $100 million for stabilization and defense in West Africa, with an emphasis on supporting fights against extremist groups in the Sahel.

Governance, development and human progress cannot happen without peace and security. But the problem with an Africa policy dominated by the interests of the U.S. national security apparatus is that money, training and weapons often go to militaries accused of egregious human rights abuses, including rape, torture and murder. Still, the United States pours money into counterterrorism and military initiatives, drowning out other types of investment.

As Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.) wrote in Foreign Policy in December, “only a small fraction of U.S. government investment on the continent focuses on cultivating good governance,” such as “reforms that seek to foster an independent judiciary, expand access to justice, make government transparent, counter corruption, and improve civil service.” In 2020, she noted, “U.S. investments in democracy, rights, and governance were around 5 percent of the government’s overall investment in sub-Saharan Africa.”

So, Harris’s announcement of major support for defense initiatives is no different from the arguably questionable security priorities of her political predecessors. This is one of those instances when it feels hard to cheer on the symbolism of a Black female first, when all that Black female is doing is carrying out national security priorities set by a bunch of (mostly) White men.

Global Radar, Part 2: The dark side of U.S. influence

Harris did at least address LGBTQ rights during her stop in Ghana. “I feel very strongly,” she said, “about the importance of supporting the freedom and supporting the fighting for equality among all people, and that all people be treated equally.”

Yet although she praised Ghana for its democratic progress, the country has backslid on the social rights front — as have other African nations.

Last year I wrote about how a horrible anti-LGBTQ bill was introduced into the Ghanaian parliament, alarming the human rights community. And last week, ahead of Harris’s trip, Uganda passed a draconian anti-LGBTQ bill, under which certain acts of “aggravated homosexuality” can be punished with the death penalty. The bill is a resurrected version of the infamous “Kill the Gays” bill, which was first introduced in 2009, later revised to remove the death penalty, and signed into law by President Yoweri Museveni in 2014, before it died in court on a technicality. Museveni is expected to sign the new bill into law.

The horrifying thing is that in both countries, the threat is coming from us — namely, American evangelical groups that have been pushing homophobic agendas in African nations for years.

That is not a new revelation. I wrote about this influence while I was in Ghana last year, specifically how the U.S.-based Christian group the World Congress of Families had helped stoke anti-LGBTQ efforts in the country. The 2013 film “God Loves Uganda” also explored U.S. evangelical connections there.

According to Borgen Magazine, evangelical nongovernmental organizations in 2014 made up one-fifth of the nonprofits in Uganda and held about $2 billion in wealth — making the country incredibly vulnerable to those evangelical agendas that do God’s will by advancing an anti-LGBTQ agenda. These numbers might be old, but they come from around the same period the “Kill the Gays” bill was being developed and debated — and they speak to the relationship between evangelical influence and the legal climate in Uganda.

When it comes to “countering threats” to Africans’ lives and African democracy, it’s high time for the United States to respond to more than terrorism and economic maneuvering by China. Homophobia is also a dangerous threat — one the United States has been quite adept at exporting.

For the Culture: A bit of personal news …

For those who don’t know, for the past two years or so, I’ve been a contributor to the podcast “Our Body Politic,” which focuses on politics and culture through the lens of BIPOC women. It was created by longtime journalist and host Farai Chideya.

Well, I’m happy to share that I’ll be part of the show’s rotating lineup of guest hosts, starting this spring. I’m excited to get back into the world of current affairs radio, which is how I started my journalism career. You can find Our Body Politic wherever you get your podcasts — and we’re heard on numerous NPR member stations across the country. (Check your local listings.) I hope you’ll tune in!

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