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Blinken lays out the Biden administration's approach to Africa

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Biden administration is laying out its approach to Africa today in a speech by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Nigeria. Blinken's been in Africa this week saying the U.S. wants to help back African solutions to Africa's problems. He delivered the centerpiece speech of his trip today at the continent's leading security organization in Abuja and touched on that theme.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: The United States firmly believes that it's time to stop treating Africa as a subject of geopolitics and start treating it as the major geopolitical player it has become.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us from there. Michele, the scene of the speech says something about the problems the continent is facing. Tell us about that.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Yeah, so Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation, the giant of Africa as Blinken called it in his speech. And he gave his remarks at the headquarters of ECOWAS, which is West Africa's regional security and trade organization. So what Blinken's talking about is he says that the world needs multilateral institutions like that, like ECOWAS, and it needs African countries to come together to help solve global challenges, from climate change to the pandemic. The U.S. also needs countries in the region to help resolve some of the conflicts around here that are kind of spinning out of control. You have a civil war in Ethiopia that's causing a famine and threatening to spill over into the Horn of Africa. And then there's a military takeover in Sudan, which is a disaster for a country that had been on the path to democracy after decades of autocratic rule.

MARTINEZ: All right, so that's a very long list. How is Blinken sorting through these in his address today?

KELEMEN: He was mostly talking in broad brushstrokes. He wasn't putting any new ideas forward on Sudan, for instance. But he talked about what he called a democratic recession. You know, the Biden administration is going to hold a summit on democracy next month, and you can get some hints about how it's approaching this issue by listening to what else Blinken had to say about it. So take a listen.

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BLINKEN: I want to emphasize that democratic backsliding is not just an African problem; it's a global problem. My own country is struggling with threats to our democracy. And the solutions to those threats will come as much from Africa as from anywhere.

KELEMEN: So, you know, it's not about lecturing; it's taking a little bit more of a humble approach. I should mention that while he talks about democratic backsliding, he didn't mention that here in Nigeria, the police violently quashed a protest movement last year over police brutality. U.S. officials say there's a strong civil society here in Nigeria that's holding the government to account. But Blinken himself didn't publicly criticize Nigeria at all for that.

MARTINEZ: And he's stressing that the U.S. wants African leaders to come up with the answers there, and the U.S. will support them. But does the U.S. have goals in Africa?

KELEMEN: Yeah, he talked about, you know, development in a more sustainable way. And part of this, A, is really about the U.S. competition with China on the continent. The secretary didn't even mention China by name. He just alluded to it, saying that often big infrastructure deals are too opaque and leave countries saddled with debt. He said the U.S. approach is going to be more sustainable. It's meant to create local jobs, protect workers and protect the environment. So it is a competition between the U.S. and China, but he wants it to be a race to the top and not, you know, a race to the bottom.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen in Nigeria. Michele, thanks.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.