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Africa is getting a lot of attention this month from the U.S., China and Russia

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Global superpowers are paying lots of attention to the African continent lately.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, just arrived in Ghana for a five-day tour. And Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is in South Africa today. Yellen just missed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was there a day earlier. And China's new foreign minister wrapped up his five-nation African tour last week.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So what could all this diplomatic activity mean? We're going to get into that with NPR West Africa correspondent, Emmanuel Akinwotu.

Emmanuel, President Biden has said his administration wants to step up its commitment to Africa. So does that explain all those visits from U.S. officials?

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Yes, it does. You know, U.S. policy in Africa was relatively disengaged for years, particularly under President Trump. So all of this is part of a major reset by U.S. officials. You know, the African Leaders Summit in D.C. last month was key. The summit was actually light on policy and focused more on bridge building and reinvigorating those ties. And these visits are an extension of that. There are also plans for President Biden and Vice President Harris to visit this year. You know, when you talk to U.S. officials, they see Africa as a priority because of the cultural prominence of the continent in the U.S., because of art, music, Africa's rapid population growth and economic potential.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So the U.S. then wants to ramp up their presence in Africa, clearly. So how much catching up does it have to do to China?

AKINWOTU: You know, Chinese trade in Africa is about four times that of the U.S. I'm in Lagos right now. And yesterday, the president opened a new billion-dollar seaport, largely funded by China, who own a majority stake - new trains, new roads, new airport terminals. You know, all of this is - are largely built with Chinese funding. The U.S. has been a vocal critic of a lot of these development loans across Africa because countries have racked up huge debts to China. But the underlying question here is, what does the U.S. have to offer African countries that would be better? And that said, the U.S. is still a vital trading partner in Africa. And there's the ongoing U.S. trade agreement called AGOA, which is really important. And the U.S. is important in a host of areas. But at the same time, it's also playing diplomatic catch-up, and not just with China.

MARTÍNEZ: So how does Russia figure into all this?

AKINWOTU: Russia has long-established ties here going back to the Soviet Union and upped engagement during the Ukraine war. You know, many African countries have tried to resist pressure by the West to halt trade or ties with Russia because of their invasion of Ukraine. But African countries on the whole don't want to have to choose. And in fact, South Africa are taking part in joint naval exercises with Russia and China off its east coast next month.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So how are all these visits being perceived on the continent?

AKINWOTU: I think overall, there's a mixture of welcome because the investment and benefits are important, but there's also caution. You know, many people resent the idea of Africa being this arena of competition between outside powers, you know, like, with African countries seeming like pawns in a chessboard. But there's also a question of, how does the continent not be an arena for great power competition when they're relying on outside help? But for the U.S., I think we'll have to see whether these trips and engagement leads to genuinely closer economic and political ties.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR West Africa correspondent Emmanuel Akinwotu in Lagos, Nigeria.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCRIMSHIRE'S "LOVE IN DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Emmanuel Akinwotu