When Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi toured eastern and southern Africa last week, his schedule was not surprising. He tried to escape isolation by strengthening relations with Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe. signature a flurry of agreements aimed at improving cooperation and trade, although whether these agreements produce much result remains to be seen. He attorney at the chance to align with the Ugandan leadership in support of their draconian new laws targeting the LGBTQ+ community, finding common ground in a toxic and hateful campaign. In Zimbabwe’s president, Mnangagwa, he found a particularly eager host to embrace a help narrative of determined solidarity in the face of Western sanctions. All the “highlights” were predictable.
But the absence of surprises should not prevent the United States from seizing two important lessons that Raisi’s tour helped underscore. First, African states will continue to welcome a diverse range of potential partners as governments struggle to meet the demands of their populations. For example, the relationship between the United States and Kenya is strong. But Kenyan President Ruto is under pressure to provide new opportunities for young Kenyans eager for employment and socio-economic mobility, while operating with very little fiscal space. For leaders tasked with fulfilling Kenya’s ambitions, a potential new trading partner or market for Kenyan products is an opportunity to seize, even if that partner is Iran. Washington will need to keep these commitments in perspective as it grapples with a more serious problem.
How Raisi demonizes the West and how the BRICS diplomatic bloc look for African expansion plans, it should be clear that allowing others to present the United States as the main architect and implementer of the status quo in African states is a massive strategic mistake. For all the region’s diversity, a reliable crosscutting thread in African public opinion is an appetite for change. From Kenyans and Angolans whose lives are costing the rising cost of living, to Malians and Congolese frustrated by persistent and often terrifying insecurity, populations across the continent are rejecting old formulas and looking for new answers. Other outside powers like Russia and Iran may have little to offer in the way of sustainable solutions to persistent problems. But they can create real problems by offering scapegoats ready to blame for what is going wrong, that is, the Western powers that occupy privileged positions of leadership and influence in the international architecture that fails so many African populations.
Whenever a security crisis in Europe becomes a top priority, while one in Africa generates little high-level commitment, America’s adversaries can capitalize on the disparity to gain traction. Every time debt relief is negotiated continue at a snail’s pace, it is easier for others to claim that Washington wants to keep African states impoverished and dependent, even when the delay does not come from Washington. When Africans pay a premium for capital to meet critical infrastructure needs, the message that the system is intentionally against them Profits badge. Whenever the management of global crises like COVID-19 or climate change leaves Africans at the back of the line for vaccines or facing the devastating consequences of others’ emissions, non-African powers at odds with the United States will capitalize on the resulting outrage and suffering. Frustration with all the structural challenges facing African populations is a short distance away from blaming the most powerful actor on the international stage for upholding these structures, and there are many actors ready to encourage that journey.
Washington has to find meaningful ways to show that it, too, is interested in reforming the rules-based international order that was designed without regard to African actions. This has to be about more than G20 membership or support for reform of the totally dysfunctional United Nations Security Council. It requires listening more closely to the many African proposals to change the way international systems work and taking action to bring about real and substantive change. It also requires recognizing what is not working in our policies, or where our efforts to forge partnerships do not align with the priorities of African peoples. The African appetite for trying something new is undeniable, and outside players of all stripes have taken notice. America needs to find the will to face the moment, or risk becoming a perennial scapegoat.