Blinken showcases democracy's benefits on Senegal visit

He says there's no need for African states to choose partners amid US-China competition

DAKAR • US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has promised new investment in Senegal in a bid to showcase democracy's benefits as he wrapped up his first visit to Africa on Saturday.

The top US diplomat has sought to offer a more nuanced take on the growing US rivalry with China, by showing how Washington can offer partnerships without overtly pressing African leaders to shun their ever-growing commercial links with the Asian power.

On his Senegal visit, Mr Blinken took part in the signing of contracts worth US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion - with US firms. They included a technology contract with public security services and a project to reduce traffic jams through better road development.

He visited the Institut Pasteur where he promised support to help Africans make their own vaccines. President Joe Biden has vowed to donate over one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines worldwide.

"The United States is committed to strengthening our partnerships across the continent in ways that serve the interests of people here - serve our own interests," Mr Blinken said. "We firmly believe it is long past time to start treating African countries and institutions as the major geopolitical players that they've become."

In a speech in Nigeria last Friday, Mr Blinken had said there was no need for Africans to choose partners, a sentiment welcomed by Senegalese Foreign Minister Aissata Tall Sall.

"There isn't a choice, there are only choices," she said.

"Africa is an opportunity. Our diplomacy is about sovereignty and not excluding anyone. But also, we have traditional friends and historic partnerships and we're not throwing away the old ones for the new ones," she added.

Senegal has long been one of Africa's most stable nations, with successful peaceful transitions of power. But tensions have flared up between President Macky Sall's government and the opposition this year, with riots erupting in March after a leading opposition figure was arrested.

Days after the latest detention of an opposition leader, Mr Blinken weighed in: "Senegal has long served as a democratic model in sub-Saharan Africa.

"Like all democracies, the United States included, we can't take for granted - Senegal can't take for granted - democratic norms and institutions.

Mr Blinken, on each stop of his Africa tour, has acknowledged the recent political violence in the US.

While in Senegal, the last stop, he also took time to warn Moscow that Washington was closely monitoring the activities of the shadowy Russian mercenary group Wagner in Mali.

He backed the recent sanctions imposed by the West African economic bloc Ecowas against key members of Mali's military junta to try to force them to hold promised elections early next year.

"I would only add that I think it would be especially unfortunate if outside actors engage in making things even more difficult and more complicated, and I'm thinking particularly of groups like the Wagner Group in Mali," he said.

While Mr Blinken's praise and promises of assistance found a welcome response in Senegal, Mr Biden's emphasis on climate change has prompted mixed reactions on Mr Blinken's three-nation trip which also included Kenya.

At the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow, the Biden administration backed calls to transition from fossil fuels responsible for the severe worsening of the global climate.

Mr Blinken vowed that the US would support developing nations with the transition.

But while Kenya has moved aggressively on the environment, Nigeria and Senegal both see fossil fuels as vital money makers, with Senegal getting ready to become a major gas producer.

Ms Tall Sall questioned whether the world could switch entirely to renewable energies such as solar and wind. "We don't think that's enough," she said. "Today we have to support gas as a transitional energy, and we expect the support and understanding of the United States."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2021, with the headline 'Blinken showcases democracy's benefits on Senegal visit'. Subscribe