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Harris, in Ghana, promises support for Africa but faces skepticism

VP assures African leaders the U.S. is interested in them, not just in countering China

Vice President Harris and Ghana's President Nana Akufo-Addo talk to reporters Monday. (Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
8 min

ACCRA, Ghana — Vice President Harris began a week-long tour of Africa on Monday by announcing the United States plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the continent, but she found herself fighting a perception that Africa was simply the latest arena for America’s geopolitical game of chess with China and Russia.

Harris told reporters she had discussed that concern by some African leaders with Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, assuring him that the Biden administration was sincere in its desire to stimulate economic development and bolster relations in Ghana — as well as with Tanzania and Zambia, where Harris travels next.

America’s interest in Ghana is not a case of global behemoths elbowing for position, she said. “The relationship between the United States and this continent and African leaders is an important one,” Harris said. “There’s a historical basis for this relationship — not to mention as we look forward, as all governments should, and recognize the unachieved as-of-yet opportunities that exist going forward.”

Still, the White House has made little secret of its concern that China is aggressively extending its military, economic and social influence throughout the globe, forcing the United States to respond. While numerous Biden officials are visiting Africa this year, the United States, in a sense, is playing catch-up, as Beijing has forged numerous connections in the continent in recent years, helping fund numerous roads, ports and other projects.

Harris heads to Africa amid Biden's courtship of the continent

Harris is the highest-ranking Biden administration official to come to Africa so far, as the White House seeks to reset relations following the administration of former president Donald Trump, who never visited the continent and derided its nations with a vulgar epithet. Five Biden Cabinet secretaries have visited Africa, including Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

First lady Jill Biden crossed the Atlantic last month and President Biden has said he plans to come later this year. The United States also hosted an U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in December, where Harris met with several heads of state.

At that summit, Biden announced a $55 billion commitment to the continent over the next three years. He also announced his support for the African Union, which represents 55 states, to become a permanent member of the Group of 20, a long-sought prize on the continent.

On Monday, Harris announced that the administration plans to provide $139 million worth of bilateral assistance to Ghana in fiscal 2024, although that proposal needs the approval of Congress, which could be a tough ask given the parties’ sharp partisan divides over spending and foreign aid.

Separately, Harris said the administration would also seek more than $100 million in regional conflict prevention funds for Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Togo to help the nations address regional security, governance and development issues.

The vice president also announced U.S. support for programs intended to reduce child labor, improve weather forecasting, support local musicians and defend against disease outbreaks.

Harris called on foreign lenders to restructure Ghana’s debt, a far-reaching problem that has engulfed many countries throughout Africa. Both Ghana and Zambia are in the grips of a debt crisis, spurred in part by the soaring prices of food and other goods during the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. Treasury Department plans to dispatch a full-time adviser to Ghana to help its finance ministry develop a debt plan.

Akufo-Addo said his nation would need patience from lenders as it gets “back on track” with its debt repayment. He expressed gratitude for the U.S. investments, but emphasized that Ghana’s leaders do not see themselves as facing a choice between the U.S. and China.

“There may be an obsession in America about Chinese activity on the continent, but there is no such obsession here,” Akufo-Addo told reporters. “China is one of the many countries with whom Ghana is engaged. All the countries of the world are friends of Ghana and we have relationships of various intensity.”

The U.S.-Ghanaian connection, he said, “is a relationship that has its own dynamic. It is nothing to do with any other country.”

The Ghanaian president did express concern about the presence of troops in the region from Wagner, a Russian mercenary force. Wagner, which has also sent troops to fight against Ukraine, has begun operating in Mali, and African leaders worry it will soon send personnel to Burkina Faso, which borders Ghana.

The United States has also sent troops to Africa to help countries train their military forces.

That prompted Akkufo-Addo to express concern that the continent, repeating a role it has played for centuries, will begin to serve as a battleground for more powerful countries fighting for military and economic advantage.

“It raises the very real possibility of foreign influence in regional conflicts — and once again our continent is going to become the playground for bigger countries,” he said. “Because one group of people is coming, it’s not very difficult for another group of people to say, ‘Then we’ll come in.’ And before you know it, the issues and concern of us [not] keeping our country and continent free of great-power rivalry will be a reality.”

He added, “We want to be in a position to resolve our own security concerns ourselves, without the intervening of foreign troops.”

Harris said she chose Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia as destinations during her week-long trip because all three nations are striving to maintain democracy despite the economic turmoil that has gripped Africa in the aftermath of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. She sees her visits as an opportunity to continue the dialogues that she held with national leaders at the U.S.-Africa summit in Washington in December.

On Monday, Harris also visited Vibrate Space, a recording studio attached to a skateboard park, where she stressed the importance of the cultural bonds of music.

“For me to be able to come here during this trip on my first full day really is symbolic of the connection that we have as people and a nation,” she said. “The creative work that is happening on this continent, as represented by the work happening in Ghana, is extraordinary.”

Harris — accompanied by several artists and musicians, including Idris Elba and Sheryl Lee Ralph — lauded Ghana’s efforts to connect with members of the African diaspora, including a music festival that encouraged Black people from across the world to gather and celebrate on the continent of their origin.

Harris and Akkufo-Addo also discussed the intermittent conflicts in the northern part of Ghana and fears that cells of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda may be active there. “We’re spending a lot of sleepless nights trying to make sure we’re protected here,” Akkufo-Addo told the vice president before their bilateral meeting.

While Monday was largely policy-focused, the rest of the week may carry greater emotional resonance for the vice president. Harris on Tuesday will travel to Cape Coast Castle, one of dozens of large forts built along Africa’s Gold Coast that was a hub for the transatlantic slave trade.

Both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton visited slave forts during their time in the White House, as did former president Barack Obama, the first Black commander in chief. Harris, the first woman to win a nationally-elected office in the United States, is of Jamaican and Indian descent.

Harris’s final stop this week will be in Lusaka, Zambia, where her maternal grandfather worked as a civil engineer and where she visited as a child.

For his part, Akufo-Addo tried to balance a message of welcome for U.S. investment and comity with an assertion that Ghana does not want to be bandied about by global powers.

“We always thought somehow or other we don’t feature too strongly in the area of private investment in America. More and more American companies are interested in Ghana, and we want that to be accepted,” he said during the news conference. “We’re looking forward to using this visit of yours as a springboard to renew these relationships and expand them.”

But later, during a toast to U.S. friendship and its historic vice president, he struck a more cautionary tone.

“Great powers of whatever ilk, even friendly ones, trampling on small nations is not something we welcome,” he said. “And in our modest methods, we will register our disapproval of it.”

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