Africa Neglect Could Define Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Legacy

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Africa Neglect Could Define Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Legacy

The true challenge to Biden’s foreign policy plan may come from a continent that his State Department largely ignores.


What might define President Joe Biden’s foreign policy legacy

Biden entered office with greater foreign policy credentials than any president since George H. W. Bush. His team may believe they can be proactive in shaping his priorities although already their approach appears scattershot. Certainly, fast-tracking Iran talks is one top priority, and addressing growing Chinese aggression is another. Biden made a change in immigration policy a priority on the first day of his administration. The administration has also promised to be on top of challenges emanating from North Korea, Russia, or Turkey. Former Secretary of State John Kerry’s appointment suggests greater engagement on issues surrounding climate change. 


Short of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or a Russian test of American and NATO resolve in the Baltics, much of existing Biden emphasis comes down to posturing or managing. The true challenge to Biden’s foreign policy legacy may come from a direction his State Department largely ignores: Africa. 

Consider Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s casual neglect of the continent. Just a month into the Biden presidency, representatives of the G5 Sahel met in N’Djamena, Chad, to discuss mutual economic and security concerns that impact the five constituent states—Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. The Sahel is increasingly important not only because of trade potential but because of efforts to prevent Al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates from establishing or maintaining safe-havens. Each state’s leader attended. Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov spent three days in Burkina Faso prior to the summit. French president Emmanuel Macron spoke by video conference but remained engaged throughout much of the program by videolink. Blinken, in contrast, sent five-minute, pre-recorded remarks. Often, in such circumstances, assistant secretaries fill in but Blinken dispatched no senior official in his place.

Likewise, Niger on Friday will celebrate its first peaceful transfer of power between elected presidents. Despite Biden declaring “diplomacy is back,” the fact that neither Biden nor Blinken dispatched a presidential delegation to celebrate and support the accomplishment (unlike former President Barack Obama who sent a delegation to celebrate President Mahamadou Issoufou’s inauguration five years ago) suggests the opposite. Eric Whitaker, the resident American ambassador, will represent the United States but, as per protocol, will sit with other ambassadors rather than the many presidential delegations making the trip.

Such neglect may come at a huge price. Consider the problems the Biden administration may soon face:  

  • Collapse of Ethiopia: Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed, the toast of Western diplomats after his Nobel Prize, has quickly become one of the Nobel committee’s greatest embarrassments. The former head of Ethiopia’s cyber and communications intelligence agency—who at the time bragged to visitors about implementing technology to better track dissidents—not surprisingly has revealed himself as an autocrat rather than the reformer so many Americans and Europeans imagined. The problem is not simply Abiy’s messiah complex but rather his judgment: Ethiopia will pay for decades for his decision to send the Ethiopian Army to pillage Tigray in conjunction with Eritrean forces after that province moved forward with elections that Abiy wanted postponed. He lost international credibility by denying massacres only to have videos emerge showing their truth. Abiy’s apologists say that Ethiopian ethnic federalism enshrined in the 1994 constitution is the core problem that Abiy seeks to rectify, but there is a legal process to amend or replace constitutions. Massacring political opponents is not one of them. Abiy may have thought he could get in and out of Tigray quickly but reports leaking out of Tigray and the Ethiopian government’s refusal to allow independent observers in the region suggests that Tigray is far from pacified. Violence in the western province of Benishangul-Gumuz, three hundred miles away from the fighting in Tigray raises the prospect that Africa’s second-largest country by population could descend into chaos as a patchwork of separatism movements and that Addis Ababa could lose control over much of the country.

The ramifications of the Ethiopian collapse would be huge. Genocide in Darfur two decades ago led to the dispatch of a UN force, an American special envoy, and ultimately then-dictator Omar Bashir’s indictment at the International Criminal Court; Ethiopia has more than ten times the population of Darfur. And, while the Darfur genocide sent refugees into Chad, an Ethiopian collapse could flood the entire Horn and Red Sea region with migrants, many of whom would make the journey north toward the Mediterranean. Many states have, over the past few decades, failed but none as populous as Ethiopia. That Ethiopia’s ethnic groups span international borders would invariably bring other countries into the dispute. Biden’s dispatch of Senator Chris Coons to meet with Abiy suggests the White House recognizes the ramifications of the Tigray crisis. Whether Biden sustains such diplomacy or has a Plan B should Abiy simply ignore him is unclear. 

  • Egypt-Sudan War: As Ethiopia has moved forward with filling the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), tension between Ethiopia and downstream neighbors over Nile waters is increasing. Because Egypt relies so heavily on Nile waters, the Egyptian government looks at Ethiopian damming, especially absent any prior agreement, as an existential threat to the ninety million Egyptians who live in the Nile River Valley or are dependent upon its waters. Some have speculated that the dispute could lead to war between two of Africa’s most populous countries, and others suggest such a war has already covertly begun. That truly would be a nightmare scenario, although not a likely one. A more realistic scenario might be a border war between Ethiopia and Sudan.  


Under dictator Omar al-Bashir, Sudan oriented itself first toward Iran and then Turkey’s Islamist government. After Bashir’s 2019 ouster, Sudan reoriented itself more toward the West and Egypt. Because GERD lies just a few miles from the Sudanese current frontier, Egypt might instigate Sudanese action on a long-dormant dispute over the border region. In 1902, at a time when the British colonized Sudan, the British and Ethiopian Empires signed a treaty setting the Ethiopian-Sudanese frontier. Charles Gwynn, a British engineer single-handedly demarcated the border without the presence of any Ethiopian counterpart. Even if both sides agreed to accept Gwynn’s work, controversies would remain given Gwynn’s tendency to mark the border to trees and features no longer there. There are two major disputes that the Gwynn demarcation has left. The first involves the Baro salient, but this secession of South Sudan diminishes its relevance. It is over the second latent dispute, the Fashaqa Triangle, that war could erupt.


Both countries claimed Sudanese farmers cultivated Fashaqa farmland until the Ethiopian military pushed them out to enable Ethiopian farmers to take over in the mid-1990s. Former Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi dispatched Ethiopian militias to the disputed territory. While Sudan opposed Ethiopian forces on territory it believed the 1902 Treaty and 1972 exchange of letters awarded Sudan, it did nothing to expel them. In 2008, the two sides did reach an understanding in which Ethiopia acknowledged Sudanese sovereignty over Fashaqa while Sudan allowed the Ethiopian farmers to continue working the land. This did not stop the occasional clash. After the 2018 fall of the Tigrayan Peoples Liberation Front from power in Ethiopia, however, Amhara leaders argued that the deal awarding Sudan the region had been negotiated illegally and should not hold. Some have called for a new demarcation. While GERD is south of the Fashaqa, its proximity and strategic value would make it a prize target in any border conflict.


  • Somalia Collapse. The fall of Siad Barre’s dictatorial regime in 1991 led quickly to Somalia’s descent into state failure. After several false starts, there was broad international optimism—and corollary investment—that Mogadishu had turned the corner. Alas, a combination of President Mohammad Farmaajo’s ambition, the State Department’s decision to channel all funds through him, and an obsequious ambassador who prioritizes his personal relations with Farmaajo above protecting Somalia’s fragile federal structure have contributed to a crisis of legitimacy and security. Somalia is already a tinderbox and Farmaajo’s tendency to prioritize the fight against political opponents above the fight against al-Shabaab terrorists throws fuel onto the embers. The irony of State Department policy is that it embraces failure while blackballing both Somaliland, a former British protectorate that re-asserted its independence three decades ago and has remained largely peaceful and democratic ever since, and Puntland which has transformed itself from a center of piracy into a business hub under current President Said Deni. Should Biden neglect Somalia and, like Presidents Donald Trump and Obama before him, pursue policies that confuse aid with stabilization, then it is likely Al Shabaab will not expand its operations and control across the country. Also, it will increasingly threaten neighboring Kenya.


  • Djibouti Expulsion. Since Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s exit, many American diplomats within the Bureau of African Affairs have given up even the pretense of prioritizing great-power competition. American adversaries, however, do not abide by such wishful thinking, America’s most important military facility in Africa is Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. Djibouti, however, now not only hosts China’s first overseas military base but also receives an order of magnitude more investment from Beijing. Indeed, it is perhaps the African country most leveraged to China. Should China ever seek to expel American forces from Djibouti, it would take little more than a phone call from President Xi Jinping to his Djiboutian counterpart Ismaïl Guelleh. Unless Biden, Blinken, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin pre-emptively establish an alternative, for example, in the Somaliland port city of Berbera, then the United States could be handicapped logistically in the face of any emerging crisis.