ACCRA – With fears of terrorism and Russian mercenaries rippling through West Africa, Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday opened her weeklong trip to the continent by vowing support for Ghana, a democratic pillar in the region that’s being squeezed by an economic crisis and security concerns.
The visit was a high-profile show of support for Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, who faces rising discontent over inflation after previously overseeing one of the world’s fast-growing economies.
“Under your leadership, Ghana has been a beacon of democracy and a contributor to global peace and security,” Harris said during a joint press conference at the Jubilee House, the presidential palace in Accra.
Harris announced $100 million in assistance for the region and pledged that the United States would be “strengthening our partnerships across the continent of Africa.” The administration also is requesting another $139 million from Congress to help Ghana reduce child labor, improve weather forecasting, support local musicians and defend against disease outbreaks.
The vice president is the most notable member of President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Africa this year, and she’ll be continuing on to Tanzania and Zambia later this week. The trip is part of a concerted effort to broaden U.S. outreach at a time when China and Russia have entrenched interests of their own in Africa.
Ghana and some other African countries are suffering ripple effects from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, such as higher costs for food and fuel.
The war has also become a dividing line at the United Nations, where some African leaders have condemned the invasion and others have refused. The situation has sparked alarm about the potential for a new Cold War dynamic, where global competition leaves Africa caught in the middle.
Harris was careful to emphasize that the U.S. outreach was independent of geopolitical rivalries.
“Yes, we are concerned with security. We are concerned with what is happening on the globe as a whole. We are clear-eyed about that,” she said. “But this trip is motivated by the importance of the direct relationship between the United States and Ghana, and as I travel the continent, with those countries as well.”
Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who has worked extensively on African issues and joined Harris for the trip to Ghana, said that it “would be a tragic error to disrespect the legitimate hopes and interests of African people.”
The United States has sent troops to train militaries from Ghana and other countries in the hopes of bolstering their defenses against local offshoots of al-Qaida and the Islamic State. However, other countries have turned to the Russian mercenary force known as Wagner, which has been on the front lines of Russia’s war in Ukraine but also has a presence in Africa.
Wagner began operating in Mali, which ousted French troops based there, and there are concerns that it will also deploy to Burkina Faso, where France also ended its military presence. Ghana recently accused Burkina Faso’s leaders, which took power in a coup last year, of already seeking help from Wagner.
Akufo-Addo called terrorism a “poison” and said “we’re spending a lot of sleepless nights trying to make sure we’re protected here.” Sporadic fighting has already increased in Ghana’s north, which borders Burkina Faso.
Akufo-Addo also expressed concern that Wagner could expand its footprint in the region.
“It raises the very real possibility that once again our continent is going to become the playground for a great power conflict,” he said.
Akufo-Addo’s desire for autonomy on the global stage was evident when he rebuffed a question about Chinese influence in Africa. His country reached a $2 billion deal a few years ago with a Chinese company to develop roads and other projects in return for access to a key mineral for producing aluminum.
“There may be an obsession in America about Chinese influence on the continent. But there’s no such obsession here,” Akufo-Addo said.
Although China has been a leading concern in U.S. foreign policy, Russia’s own attempts to make inroads in Africa have alarmed Washington as well. Some countries have longstanding ties dating back to the Soviet era.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has made multiple trips to the continent in an effort to show that the West has failed to isolate Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine.
“The Russians are continuing to make the first move in Africa, and the U.S. is continuing to play catch-up,” said Samuel Ramani, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defense and security think tank.
“It’s really unclear how Russia will really be able to expand its influence in the long term,” he added. “But in the short term, they’re creating good will for themselves.”
Mucahid Durmaz, a senior analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk intelligence company, said that Moscow’s overall investments in Africa “are very modest” compared with Washington’s but he added that it has been able to leverage anti-Western sentiment in some areas of the continent.
“The Ukraine war has boosted Africa’s importance in international politics and increased geopolitical jostling among global powers for the support of its governments and nations,” he said.
U.S. officials have steered clear of framing their approach in terms of global rivalries, something that could swiftly sour Africans who are wary of being caught in the middle.
“They remain cautious about becoming collateral damage to geopolitical competition by repeating the same mistakes of the Cold War era,” Durmaz said.
___ Mednick reported from Dakar, Senegal.