U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris pledged a new era of partnership between the U.S. and Africa, touting women’s empowerment, developing the digital economy and supporting democracy to 8,000 young Ghanaians who gathered under the punishing midday sun to hear her speak in Accra.
Harris, the first Black female U.S. vice president, took the stage under the arch of Black Star gate, a sweeping seaside monument to Ghana’s 1957 independence from British colonial rule.
“We are all in because there are longstanding ties between our people,” Harris said. “We have an intertwined history, some of which is painful and some of which is prideful and all of which we must acknowledge, teach and never forget.”
Her schedule Tuesday includes a visit to Cape Coast Castle, a place where enslaved Africans were once crowded onto overloaded, unsanitary ships headed on the long, dangerous ocean journey to the Americas.
But Harris stressed that her three-nation visit is forward-looking, and on Monday pledged $139 million in U.S. assistance to West Africa, most of which will support conflict prevention in the Sahel region, where Islamist extremists have expanded their footprint.
“I am more optimistic than I have ever been about the future and the future of the continent of Africa and, by extension, the world, not only because of the work we undertake in government, not only because of the investments in the private sector,” Harris said. “I am optimistic about the future of the world because of you, the woman who will shatter every glass ceiling.”
A young woman who identified herself as a student told VOA after the speech, “I thought she was great.” But, she added: “I hoped she would talk about LGBTQ” issues.
On Monday, Harris said she had raised human rights issues in her bilateral discussions with Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo. All three nations on her tour—which includes Tanzania and Zambia—have laws that criminalize homosexuality to some degree.
“Let me be clear about where we stand,” Harris said. ”First of all, for the American press who are here, you know that a great deal of work in my career has been to address human rights issues, equality issues across the board, including as it relates to the LGBT community.
“And I feel very strongly about the importance of supporting the freedom and supporting and fighting for equality among all people, and that all people should be treated equally,” she added. “I would also say that this is an issue that we consider and I consider to be a human rights issue, and that will not change.”
Beyond China competition
Speaking alongside Akufo-Addo on Monday at Jubilee House, the seat of Ghana's presidency, Harris stressed that U.S. interests in African nations extend beyond competing with China.
"To help address the threats of violent extremism and instability, today I am pleased to announce $100 million in support of Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire and Togo," she said. "Last week, President Joe Biden announced a strategic plan for coastal West Africa as part of the United States Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability. Today, funding and the announcement that I've just made will help implement that plan and will address security, governance and development issues in the region."
Harris is the fifth top U.S. official to visit the continent this year, and she deflected criticism that the U.S. sees African nations through the lens of its own competition with China, which has built massive infrastructure projects and loaned billions of dollars to African nations in what many see as a fight for influence and access.
"The president and I had a conversation on this very topic, but the conversation was not about China as much as it is about the enduring and important direct relationship that the United States has with Ghana and with African nations," she said. "I will tell you that we are very clear—and I will speak for myself and on behalf of the Biden-Harris administration—that the relationship between the United States and this continent and African leaders is an important one. There's a historical basis for the relationship, not to mention as we look forward, as all governments should, and recognize the unachieved—as of yet—opportunities that exist going forward."
"There may be an obsession in America about the Chinese activities on the continent, but there's no such obsession here," he said. "China is one of the many countries with whom Ghana is engaged in the world. Your country is one of them. Virtually all the countries of the world are friends of Ghana, and we have relations in varying degrees of intensity with all of them. Our relationship with America is a relationship that has been forged over several decades, right from the time of independence up till now."
Harris travels on from Ghana to Tanzania, and then to Zambia.