U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday praised Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo for his "democratic principles" during a visit with the West African leader, who's facing rising discontent over inflation and fresh concerns about regional security.
Harris is just beginning a weeklong trip to the continent that will also take her to Tanzania and Zambia, part of a concerted effort to broaden U.S. outreach at a time when China and Russia have entrenched interests of their own in Africa.
On Monday, the vice president was welcomed into the Ghanaian presidential palace, called the Jubilee House, where she promised assistance with security in the nation and increased investments there, announcing $100 million in U.S. aid to the region.
"Under your leadership, Ghana has been a beacon of democracy and a contributor to global peace and security," she told the president in remarks following their meeting.
Akufo-Addo oversaw one of the world's fast-growing economies before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the cost of food and other necessities has been skyrocketing, and the country is facing a debt crisis as it struggles to make payments.
During the meeting with Harris, Akufo-Addo called for solidarity as countries like Ghana work to get their economies "back on track." He also expressed concern that private American investors tend to overlook the nation.
"We want to be able to change that dynamic," he said. He said their meeting had been a "boost to the steadfast cooperation" between the two nations.
In addition, sporadic fighting has increased in Ghana's north, which borders the more tumultuous nation of Burkina Faso and the Sahel, a region where local offshoots of al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have been operating.
Akufo-Addo called terrorism a "poison" that was spreading across West Africa, making the region unstable.
"We're spending a lot of sleepless nights trying to make sure we're protected here," he told the vice president as the two gathered in a conference room at the palace, their delegations seated on opposite sides of a long table.
During a press conference following their meeting, Akufo-Addo said he was concerned about terror groups but said he had no formal confirmation that al-Qaida is present in the nation.
He also said he worried that the Russian mercenary force known as Wagner could expand its footprint in the region.
"It raises the very real possibility that once again our continent is going to become the playground for a great power conflict," Akufo-Addo said.
Akufo-Addo dismissed any concerns about China's influence in the region, saying his country had relationships with many nations, including the United States, and they were separate from one another.
"The relationships with America is a relationship that has been close over several decades," he said.
Some of the money pledged by Harris will require congressional approval, which could prove difficult amid sharp partisan differences over the federal budget. The Treasury Department also plans to dispatch an adviser to Accra to help manage the country's burdensome debt.
Other programs are intended to reduce child labor, improve weather forecasting, support local musicians and defend against disease outbreaks.
The United States has already sent troops to train militaries from Ghana and other countries in the hopes of bolstering their defenses. However, other countries have turned to Wagner, which has been on the front lines of Russia's war in Ukraine but also has a presence in Africa.
Wagner began operating in Mali, which ousted French troops based there, and there are concerns that it will also deploy to Burkina Faso, where France also ended its military presence. Ghana recently accused Burkina Faso's leaders, which took power in a coup last year, of already turning to Wagner for help, something Akufo-Addo said would be "unsettling."
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently visited Niger, which borders Mali and Burkina Faso, to announce more assistance for the region.
"We've seen countries find themselves weaker, poorer, more insecure, less independent as a result of the association with Wagner," he said.
Although China's influence in Africa has been a leading concern for U.S. foreign policy, Russia's own attempts to make inroads has alarmed Washington as well. Some countries have longstanding ties dating back to the Soviet era.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has made multiple trips to the continent in an effort to show that the West has failed to isolate Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine.
"The Russians are continuing to make the first move in Africa, and the U.S. is continuing to play catch-up," said Samuel Ramani, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defense and security think tank.
"It's really unclear how Russia will really be able to expand its influence in the long term," he added. "But in the short term, they're creating goodwill for themselves."
Mucahid Durmaz, a senior analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk intelligence company, said that Moscow's overall investments in Africa "are very modest" compared with Washington's but adds that it's been able to leverage anti-Western sentiment in some areas of the continent.
"The Ukraine war has boosted Africa's importance in international politics and increased geopolitical jostling among global powers for the support of its governments and nations," he said.
U.S. officials have steered clear of framing their approach in terms of global rivalries, something that could swiftly sour Africans who are wary of being caught in the middle.
"They remain cautious about becoming collateral damage to geopolitical competition by repeating the same mistakes of the Cold War era," Durmaz said.
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