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U.S. envoy says Africa trip isn’t to compete with Russia, China

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US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield during a news conference at United Nations headquarters, on March 1, 2021. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

UNITED NATIONS - The U.S. ambassador to the UN headed to Africa today, saying she was going to focus on how the United States can help Uganda, Ghana and Cape Verde deal with the food crisis that has hit the continent particularly hard — not to compete with China and Russia.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the long-planned trip is not part of global competition with either of America’s rivals, but it is part of a series of high-level U.S. engagements “that aim to affirm and strengthen our partnerships and relationships with African leaders and peoples.”

Her trip from Aug. 4-7 will be followed immediately by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visits to South Africa, Congo, and Rwanda from Aug. 7-11. It also comes on the heels of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit last week to Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, and the Republic of Congo where he accused the U.S. and European countries of driving up food prices.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi began 2022 with a four-day visit to Eritrea, Kenya, and Comoros, keeping a 32-year tradition that the country’s top diplomat made his first trip of the year to Africa.

“We’re not catching up. They are catching up,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “We have been engaging with this continent for decades, and even my own career is very much evidence of that.”

Thomas-Greenfield first went to Africa as a student in the 1970s, and in her career as a U.S. diplomat, she rose to be assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 2013 to 2017.

She said high energy prices, climate change, COVID-19, and increasing conflict have pushed millions of Africans “to the brink,” and that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 has added to the crisis, “especially since some countries in Africa once got up to 75% of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine.”

The U.S. ambassador said the three countries she is visiting — Uganda first followed by Ghana and Cape Verde — all face serious food security situations because of the significant rise in the cost of food and energy. But she said Ghana has been a leader in dealing with it and she will be visiting a market, meeting farmers, and going to a grain factory in the country “to see how we can help them improve on their production.”

In an interview and at a news conference ahead of her three-nation visit, Thomas-Greenfield said her trip happens to come on the heels of Lavrov’s visit.

Refusing to call Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a war, Lavrov said: “The situation in Ukraine did additionally negatively affect food markets, but not due to the Russian special operation, rather due to the absolutely inadequate reaction of the West, which announced sanctions.”

Thomas-Greenfield countered: “Russia is there to defend what they know they have to defend — that they took actions that are hurting Africans, and they’re trying to somehow defend their actions and blame somebody else for the impact that their actions are having on the African continent.”

“They can try to do that. But my question to them is, how are you helping Africans to address the food insecurity issue, not whom you’re blaming for the food insecurity issues,” she said. “We’re here to help Africans address those issues. Russia can deal with its own problems.”

As for China, while its trade with Africa last year was dramatically higher than U.S. trade, Thomas-Greenfield said “if you look at our figures, and how far back our engagement has been with the Africans, then we really are far above those numbers.”

“As you look at what China’s doing in Africa, you need to look at the debt trap that African countries, many of them, have faced because of those relationships with China,” she said.

China has become one of the biggest lenders to developing countries through its Belt and Road initiative to expand trade by building ports, railways, and other infrastructure across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.

Wang, China’s foreign minister, insisted during his visit to Kenya in January that there is no “debt trap.”

“The so-called `debt trap’ in Africa is not a fact, but a malicious hype-up,” he said. “It is an ‘utterance trap’ created by those external forces that do not want to see Africa accelerate development. If there is any `trap’ in Africa, it is the `poverty trap.’”

Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. is “not telling African countries they can’t engage with China.”

“What we are engaged in is the vision for economic development that promotes democracy and that promotes respect for human rights and transparency and strengthening the capacity for Africans to create jobs for their own citizens,” she said. “We respect the ability of countries to decide for themselves whether they want to partner with China or not.”

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