At the end of a whistle-stop tour of three African countries, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has issued a thinly-veiled swipe towards China – by far Africa’s largest trading partner – as he pitched Washington’s ability to boost growth on the continent.
“Countries should be wary of authoritarian regimes with empty promises. They breed corruption, dependency,” Pompeo said in a speech on Wednesday in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
“They run the risk that the prosperity and sovereignty and progress that Africa so needs and desperately wants won’t happen.”
In his comments, Pompeo, who later left for Saudi Arabia, did not explicitly mention China – but analysts predicted before his trip to Senegal, Angola and Ethiopia that he would attempt to talk up the United States as an alternative source of investment.
Hailing the free market, Pompeo encouraged African countries to liberalise their economies after “failed socialist experiments of years past” in countries such as Zimbabwe and Tanzania. He also blasted as “disastrous” a proposed constitutional amendment in South Africa that would allow private property to be expropriated without compensation – a plan that seeks to overcome inequalities set down in the apartheid era.
Pompeo’s trip came at a time of growing confusion over Washington’s strategy on the continent, according to observers, who say his attempt to lay out a positive vision for US cooperation with African countries has been undermined by President Donald Trump’s Africa policy so far.
Critics point to Trump’s widely-reported remarks in 2018 when he used a profanity to describe African and poorer western hemisphere nations whose citizens migrate to the US. Meanwhile, Washington is currently discussing military cuts in Africa, and it recently announced tightened visa rules targeting the continent’s most populous country, Nigeria, as well as Tanzania, Sudan and Eritrea.
“Pompeo is unlikely to undo the damage from the Trump administration’s travel bans, the proposed budget cuts, or the president’s disparaging comments about the region,” said Judd Devermont, Africa director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Washington, DC.
But African leaders would nonetheless “welcome his long-overdue engagement and focus on the positives as much as possible”, Devermont said.
Even so, countries such as Ethiopia have benefitted from Chinese engagement, rendering Pompeo’s message less effective, said Abel Abate Demissie, an Ethiopian political analyst.
“It is undeniable that Chinese investment was quite crucial in keeping Ethiopia on track as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies for many years,” Abel said.
He added that much Chinese money has gone towards tangible projects such as roads and buildings, while US money is more often funnelled to “less visible” fields like education and health.
“The fact that Chinese loans and sometimes grants have less bureaucracy also makes it quite convenient for Ethiopia and Africa at large,” Abel said.
China has funnelled cash and loans into infrastructure projects across the continent.
However, Beijing has faced accusations, which it denies, of saddling poor nations with debt, siphoning off mineral resources and leaving environmental damage.
In his speech on Wednesday, Pompeo insisted that Trump was eager to play a bigger role on the continent.
“If there’s one thing you should know about our president – my boss – you should know that he loves deals,” he said, drawing laughs from the audience. “He wants more to happen between the United States and nations all across Africa.”
Pompeo touted US companies, such as Chevron, Coca-Cola and Bechtel, as long-standing investors in the region.
He confirmed the US was seeking a free trade agreement with Kenya, but offered no new information about negotiations that began earlier this month in Washington, DC.
While Pompeo was visiting Senegal, the first stop on his Africa tour, he announced US firms had signed five new memorandums of understanding for infrastructure projects.
Beijing surpassed Washington as Africa’s largest trading partner more than 10 years ago, forming a relationship worth about $204bn in trade, according to China’s Ministry of Commerce.
Several African states have also signed on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has seen Beijing finance power plants, roads and other infrastructure projects across the continent.
As a result of the billions of dollars in loans provided by China towards such projects, the country has become Africa’s largest debt holder.
“The US is realising that they were playing games with Africa but China came in – and came in fairly big with minimum, if any, conditions,” Joseph Ochieno, a political analyst, told Al Jazeera. “Africa is up for grabs, unfortunately.”