US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen's three-country trip to Africathe leading edge of a new diplomatic push by the Biden administration aims to show the continent the US is a true partner, one here for the long haul.
As Africa struggles with economic headwinds caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and, notably, Washington's own monetary policy, Africans are asking for proof that the US will stay the course this time.
Yellen, so far, is at pains to make guarantees. "I don't know how I can give assurances, honestly," she said en route from Senegal to Zambia, but Republicans and Democrats alike support long-standing initiatives, including in the areas of health and trade.
Yellen's trip kicks off a year of high-level US visits that will include President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Trade Representative Katherine Tai, and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
Washington hosted African leaders from 49 countries and the African Union at a summit in December, where Biden said the US was "all in" on Africa's future and planned to commit $55 billion (R950 billion) over the next three years.
African officials have broadly welcomed the US's renewed engagement. But the timing, two years into Biden's four-year term, is viewed by many as "late and somewhat half-hearted", said Chris Ogunmodede, a Nigerian researcher and associate editor of World Politics Review.
China, debt and rate hikes
As the US touts its long-standing ties to Africa and a renewed commitment to ramping up trade and investment, it's playing catch-up with China and facing a growing challenge from Russia.
Chinese trade with Africa is about four times that of the US, and Beijing has also become an important creditor by offering cheaper loans than Western lenders do.
In Senegal, Yellen warned Africa against "shiny deals that may be opaque and ultimately fail to actually benefit the people" and has accused China of dragging its feet on a critical debt restructuring in Zambia.
But US fiscal policy is creating its own drag.
African countries have become collateral victims of this year's rate hikes by the Federal Reserve, aimed at curbing inflation at home.
The African Development Bank (AfDB) wrote in a report last week.
The cost of debt service is expected to hit $25 billion next year, according to the World Bank, up from $21.4 billion in 2022. In local currency terms, it's risen even faster, increasing the risk of debt distress, the AfDB stated.
African countries are also finding it harder to access capital markets to meet their fiscal needs and refinance maturing debt.
The US, meanwhile, has largely failed to offer viable alternatives to cheap Chinese credit, officials said.
"China is an important partner," Democratic Republic of Congo Finance Minister Nicolas Kazadi said. "It is clearly shown that it's not easy to mobilise US investors."
One senior US treasury official said the US had long been engaged in Africa, funding anti-HIV work and working on other health issues. "We don't often talk about it. It's not named bridges or highways ... but, if you think about just the sheer lives savedestimates of 25 million lives saved with our engagement with (AIDS relief) that is real."
African countries have largely rejected US pressure to take sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, some of them citing Moscow's colonial-era support for their liberation movements.
Russia has blocked Ukrainian grain exports, driving up food inflation and aggravating one of the worst food crises in Africa's history, US officials note.
On Friday, Yellen said in Senegal that the war was hurting the continent's economy, and that a Group of Seven-led price cap on Russian crude oil and refined products could save African countries $6 billion annually.
On Monday, though, South Africa hosted a visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and defended its decision to hold joint naval exercises with Russia and China off its east coast next month a day before Yellen was scheduled to arrive.
"All countries conduct military exercises with friends worldwide," South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, standing alongside Lavrov, told reporters.
Washington, Beijing and Moscow are all courting African nations with their own interests in mind, say foreign policy experts, including Ebrahim Rasool, a former South African ambassador to the US. African leaders, hoping for greater representation in bodies such as the G20 and UN Security Council, can play that game too.
"The US sometimes has good intentions and meetings but not always the follow-through," Rasool said, adding that sometimes Russia and China were needed to stir the US into action.