What John Kerry Accomplished (and What He Did Not) in Africa

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrapped up his four-nation tour of the African continent. During his visit, a few months ahead of a U.S.-African heads of state summit hosted by President Obama in Washington, Kerry made stops in Ethiopia, South Sudan (albeit briefly), the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola. Throughout his trip, Kerry emphasized both a shared security and economic agenda. During remarks in Addis Abbaba, the Secretary of State laid out the American vision for the path forward with its African partners: “[…] for too long the ties between the United States and Africa were largely rooted in meeting the challenges and the crises of a particular moment. But we’re discovering that, at the beginning of the 21st century, we both want a lasting and more grounded relationship, one that is not reflective, but visionary and strategic.”

Security was a key item on Kerry’s agenda, with a particular focus on the conflict in South Sudan. Initially, as PBS reported, Kerry’s announcement of tentative peace talks between the opposing factions in South Sudan was “the biggest flop of his trip.” Indeed, as Kerry called for peace talks to take place between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar, violence in South Sudan continued unabated. And while Kiir and Machar recently agreed to a month of tranquility, Machar made it clear that he believes the peace talks suggested by the U.S. are premature. Nevertheless, the U.S. kept up the pressure, warning that if the two sides they didn’t take bold steps, there would be consequences. Acting on this promise, on Tuesday, the U.S. imposed sanctions on individuals on both sides of the conflict. And, today, Machar arrived in Addis Abbaba to meet with President Kiir – the first time talks are being held since December 2013

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kerry also praised the efforts to end the conflict in the eastern part of the country, and noted U.S. support for the upcoming national elections. However, Kerry touched a nerve in the political leadership in the context of remarks on respect for the country’s constitution. He was not directly saying – but clearly implying – that the U.S would consider increasing its financial support if Kabila did not seek to run for a third term, which is currently prohibited under the country’s constitution.  A spokesman for the DRC government responded Why all this noise just about Congo, when there are more than 15 countries that are going to organize elections in the next year?” 

On the economic front, Kerry emphasized the opportunities ahead for the United States in Africa. With growing American private sector investments in the continent, the U.S. is positioning itself to reap the benefits of an emerging African middle class, in spite of lagging behind Africa’s primary trading partner, China, which currently pours 5% of its annual foreign direct investment into the African continent, compared to 1% for the U.S. With companies like General ElectricIBM, Microsoft and Google making fresh investments in Africa, and new commercial representation offices opening on the continent – in Luanda, for example – the U.S. is vying for a piece of the African economic pie, with natural resources and technology as key areas of potential growth for U.S.-Africa trade.

In Angola, Kerry praised the president for his leadership as the chair of the International Conference of Great Lakes Region, and the two countries promised to deepen their cooperation, economically and politically. Kerry toured a General Electric facility in Luanda, and had meetings with key economic players already present in Angola such as Chevron, ConocoPhilips and ExxonMobil. In 2013, U.S. imports from Angola totaled $8.7 billion, with all but $25 million of that mineral fuel and oil

Finally, last week, we asked whether Kerry would make human rights a priority during his trip, particularly in Ethiopia, in the context of the arrest and imprisonment of several bloggers and journalists who have been critical of their  government. The Secretary of State did indeed specifically raise the issue of the jailed journalists, but the effect of his remarks has yet to be seen – the Zone 9 bloggers and the other journalists are still in jail, facing court dates based on the charges brought against by the government.

If a US policy concern falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, is it a policy?“, asks Bill Easterly in the context of the lack of impact of Kerry’s remarks on press freedom in Ethiopia. The progress on South Sudan shows that the U.S. – which was instrumental in helping establish the sovereign state in the first place – has the ability to influence key players in the conflict. But Easterly’s comment also speaks to a broader truth the American human rights and democracy agenda in the region. The response to Kerry’s comments on respecting the constitution in the DRC, as well as the Ethiopian government’s lack of action on the question of the jailed bloggers and journalists, suggest that there is still a deficit of influence in the region on certain issues, despite a security agenda with many common threads, and growing economic ties.

As 37 African nations head to the polls over the next three years, there will be a significant opportunity for the U.S. to advance democracy in the region – it remains to be seen whether this will be a genuine priority for the U.S., or if economic and geopolitical interests will be the driving forces of the “visionary and strategic” U.S.-Africa relationship of the 21st century.

Photo credit: State Department