The Biden administration’s Africa strategy: Key implications

August 2022

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On 8 August 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken proudly proclaimed that the US has a new strategy for Africa. Blinken made the announcement while delivering a speech in Pretoria, South Africa, on the first stop of a three-country tour which also included the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. The announcement came just under a year after Blinken visited Dakar, Senegal, and promised that Africa was, and will continue to be, a US priority. Amid current global challenges, the US’s top diplomat stressed that sub-Saharan Africa is a “major geopolitical force” that “is shaping our present and will shape our future.”

In Africa Matters Limited’s view, there are four main takeaways from the strategy. First, China and Russia will continue to impact how US policy is implemented in Africa. Second, the emphasis on partnerships is prominent, capturing the dynamism of how world leaders have come to view the continent. Third, the green transition and the need to diversify sources of energy and critical minerals are framing the US-approach to Africa, in a way in which it did not under past administrations. Fourth, while the Africa strategy is broad and far-reaching, the private sector will be a key part of delivering it. Fundamentally, the Biden administration’s new Africa policy, by revitalising American strategy in Africa, is a step in the right direction to improving US-Africa relations. However, one key question remains: will Biden’s strategy represent a distinct break from previous US engagement on the continent in practice? 

China and Russia loom at the forefront

Countering Russian and Chinese influence on the continent is a clear aim of the strategy. The first point of the policy explicitly mentions countering “harmful activities by the People’s Republic of China, Russia, and other actors”. In the past decade, both Russia and China have been actively engaged on the continent. Russia’s support has predominantly been in the realm of security and defence, whilst China’s has been framed around unequitable economic engagement.

The new US strategy builds upon a raft of initiatives that have occurred over the last year. In June 2021, the Biden administration and G7 countries launched Build Back Better World, an economic initiative to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Furthermore, in 2021, American companies including Bechtel Corp. and Cubic Transportation Systems, signed USD 1 billion worth of infrastructure investments with the Senegalese government. US policymakers characterised these investments as examples of sustainable debt. The US has also stepped-up military engagement. The newly appointed US Africa Command General, Micheal Langley, visited Somalia at the end of August to meet with Somalia’s defence minister, Abdulkadir Mohamed Noor, to discuss the US strategy to defeat the terrorist group Al-Shabaab.

The increased engagement is occurring against the backdrop of African countries increasingly neutral stance towards western actors. This was especially apparent in a recent emergency UN vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Only 28 African countries voted in favour of condemning Moscow, while 17 African countries voted to abstain. With 54-members, Africa represents the largest voting bloc at the UN.

Emphasis on partnerships

In recognising that African leaders are increasingly pushing back against traditional western influence; the US’s new Africa strategy puts a renewed focus on partnerships. In his speech in Pretoria, Blinken emphasised that partnerships will be needed to achieve shared priorities. Historically, American policy in Africa has been very much US-led, but there is now a recognition that African leaders want to have more agency. Furthermore, the emphasis on partnerships is a recognition that domestic challenges are fundamentally global challenges. Instability in the Sahel, droughts in east Africa, or the well-being of forest resources in the DRC are all issues that directly impact US economic and political interests. The partnerships focused approach also highlights not only a change in US policy, but global perceptions towards Africa in recent years.

In December, the White House will host the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit for the first time since 2014. This event will be critical for the US to deliver on the notion of partnership, which also plays prominently in the framing of democracy. Blinken vowed to recognise that both the US and African countries face common challenges and can work together to tackle threats to democratic governance, including misinformation and digital surveillance. The strategy was careful to not phrase democratic governance as a system that needs to be imposed. Rather, it stresses working with local communities and governments to foster open societies.

The green transition and critical minerals shape the policy

The green transition and the need to diversify energy and supply chains has become more important in the US-Africa relationship. Another point in the US’s new Africa strategy is support for conservation, climate adaptation, and a just transition. This year, countries around the world have experienced record-breaking temperatures, and extreme weather events from floods to droughts. Furthermore, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted that an overreliance on certain countries or regions for energy and minerals can have monumental effects. Therefore, key among the strategic points is the need to work with African governments to secure critical minerals and achieve a sustainable, low-carbon future.

These sentiments were further echoed when Blinken made his second stop in the DRC. The DRC is home to nearly 70 percent of the world’s cobalt supply – a critical mineral and crucial input in fuelling the green transition. The DRC is also home to the Congo rainforest, the largest rainforest in Africa, and second biggest in the world. The rainforest has massive potential to be a huge source for carbon credits. Earlier this year, the US lent its support to Congolese president Felix Tshisekedi to help review mining contracts, many of which are primarily owned by Chinese entities. Where US policy in Africa has previously been dominated by security concerns, under Biden, the administration is more focused on economic concerns beyond development.

Where does the private sector enter?

While US-Africa strategy was formulated in the White House, the private sector will continue to be a key player in US-Africa relations. This was evident in July when Biden appointed 24 new private sector members to his advisory council on doing business in Africa. The Biden administration is intent on increasing US investment in, and trade with, Africa through both existing and new policy measures. Notably, initiatives such as Prosper Africa have been at the forefront of informing and advancing US-Africa trade. Prosper Africa is able to pool existing US agencies and resources to highlight investments in particular sectors. For example, the creatives industry has been a key US private sector interest – this year, Netflix announced that it is increasing its investments across Africa, targeting growth markets including South Africa and Nigeria. To further supplement interest in the sector, Prosper Africa led a delegation to Fame Week Africa this month. Earlier this year, Prosper Africa also led a delegation to Namibia to explore opportunities for investment in the digital economy and entertainment.

Furthermore, government agencies such as the US Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and the African Development Foundation are increasingly mobilising resources to this end. In August, the US DFC announced that it was disbursing USD 83 million in loans to Africa Data Centres. Biden’s strategy highlights that the private sector should invest in Africa for both its current and future economic potential. However, more private sector investment is needed for lasting sustainable growth.

Is this time different?

Former US president Barrack Obama declared that his administration’s policy towards Africa was “trade not aid”. From 2008 to 2014, US trade and investment with Africa steadily increased, reaching a peak in 2014, but then declined through the last remaining years of Obama’s presidency. What could be seen as a strong start lost momentum, while during Donald Trump’s presidency, Africa was a lower priority for US foreign policy. The Biden administration should be careful not to fall into the same trap. As Blinken said in November last year, US policy needs to be judged on “what we do, not simply on what I say”. Africa is used to US policy announcements; the proof will be in the delivery.