The new chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee has pledged to put sub-Saharan Africa “on the front burner” of United States foreign policy, including through an expansion of diplomatic, humanitarian and commercial activities in the region.
Congressman Gregory Meeks, who was elected as head of the influential committee in December, said on Monday that the US Foreign Service must be bolstered during President Joe Biden’s administration.
Former President Donald Trump’s tenure in the White House saw a depletion of diplomatic staff across the continent – and perhaps most notably, the top ambassador post to Africa, assistant secretary of African affairs, remained vacant for nearly two years under Trump.
“We have an opportunity to redefine America’s foreign policy and to do so in a way that makes it clear that America is back at the table,” Meeks said during an online event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“This is especially true in Africa, which the previous administration spent the last four years viewing only through the prism of competition with China and Russia.”
Meeks, the first Black legislator to fill the committee role, is considered a longtime supporter of Africa engagement and will join Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, the soon-to-be minted chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, in shaping US foreign policy legislation.
Beyond influencing which bills move forward in the two US legislative chambers, the committees oversee investigations and programmes related to US foreign policy. Their mandates include foreign aid, treaties, military deployments, international trade, arms control, and war powers.
“The previous administration’s focus on great power competition reduced Africa to a pawn in a great game,” Meeks said. “And frankly, this approach was insulting because it assumed that Africans lacked any agency for how they affected, and were affected by, foreign affairs.”
Meeks was pushed on Monday to lay out his plan on two pressing issues: the Ugandan presidential election, which saw Yoweri Museveni win a sixth term amid claims of voter fraud and a crackdown on opposition leader Bobi Wine, and a crisis in Ethiopia’s conflict-hit Tigray region.
Museveni has long been a close military ally of the US in its fight against “terrorism” in the region and receives hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance every year. The US State Department recently told the New York Times it is considering “a range of targeted options, including the imposition of visa restrictions” against Museveni for the handling of the vote.
But Ugandan activist Rosebell Kagumire told Meeks the US needs to work to assure a peaceful transfer of power.
“I think that looking at [Museveni] as [a US] partner must come with this hard conversation that asks, ‘Where is your country going? Your people need an election, not a ritual,’” she said during Monday’s event.
Meeks said the US “is rapidly approaching an inflection point at which we need to think critically about how we can support the will of the Ugandan citizens for an inclusive democracy and partner on good governance and accountability”, but he did not elaborate on any concrete steps.
Tsedale Lemma, an Ethiopian journalist, urged Meeks to use “every leverage available” to ensure an end to hostilities in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and the distribution of humanitarian assistance to civilians.
A government crackdown on the Tigray Liberation Liberation Front (TPLF) has led to the displacement of about two million people from the region, the reported deaths of hundreds of civilians killed, and allegations of widespread human rights abuses.
In a statement on Monday, Norwegian Refugee Council Secretary General Jan Egeland said meaningful humanitarian operations have still not begun in the region. “In all my years as an aid worker, I have rarely seen a humanitarian response so impeded and unable to deliver in response for so long, to so many with such pressing needs,” Egeland said.
Lemma told Meeks the US must push for the Eritrean military’s withdrawal from Tigray. The Department of State has called on Eritrean soldiers to leave, with both Eritrea and Ethiopia denying they are working in coordination in the region.
Lemma also called for a “UN-mandated, politically insulated and independent investigation into the atrocities that took place”.
Meeks said the US must use its “bully pulpit” to get countries to push for a ceasefire that would grant humanitarian access, while saying that “an independent investigation has to occur”. He also promised to use his committee to “put a spotlight” on the conflict.
Political analysts said many questions remain about how the Biden administration will approach Africa, however.
Some were optimistic the continent will gain some benefit from Washington’s re-engagement with international organisations, while others believe Africa will not be a priority amid other more pressing issues, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some of Biden’s early presidential actions have included the end of Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries – which included Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan, Eritrea, Egypt, Libya and Tanzania – and the lifting of the Global Gag rule, which limited aid to organisations that provide abortion counselling or literature and which disproportionately affected Africa.
But it will be a break from the Trump administration, which ended a period of increased US-Africa engagement that began under the administration of former President Bill Clinton.
While US aid remained relatively stable, trade dropped considerably, Francis Owusu, a professor at Iowa State University, and Padraig Carmody, a professor at Trinity College Dublin, wrote on The Conversation news website. They dubbed Trump’s approach “malign neglect”.
Instead, Meeks said he hoped the US would expand its reach beyond urban centres and called for opening consulates in Mombasa, Kenya, Cairo, Egypt, and Goma. He also said he is exploring “establishing dedicated US Embassy country teams for the regional economic communities, separate from the bilateral missions “.