'Poor relatives always show up, rich ones don't', Biden says as he plans Africa trip

United States of America President Joe Biden. [File, Standard]

U.S. President Joe Biden capped a summit of 50 African leaders by stressing his administration's deep commitment to Africa, urging the continent's leaders to respect the will of their people, and saying he may come visit.

The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit concluded Thursday with bonhomie, $55 billion (Sh6.8 trillion) in U.S. commitments, and this from Biden:

"As I told some of you - you invited me to your countries," he said. "I said, "Be careful what you wish for because I may show up. The poor relatives always show up. The wealthy ones never show up. The poor come and they eat your food and stay longer than they should. Well, I'm looking forward to seeing many of you in your home countries."

He did not give details of the possible trip.

It's a striking joke from the leader of the world's wealthiest nation, who spent much of Wednesday touting U.S. plans to deliver $55 billion (Sh6.8 trillion) in assistance to a continent struggling with food insecurity, inequality and a painful legacy of colonialism.

But jokes aside, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations told VOA that a presidential trip would have a big impact.

"This will be an opportunity for the people of Africa - whatever countries, if the president decides to make such a visit - that they will actually see our commitment to them," said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who spoke to VOA on the sidelines of the summit.

Many kinds of diplomacy

These grand gestures and big promises contrast with the quieter diplomacy happening at this summit, which included pull-asides between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the leaders of Ethiopia and Congo - both countries with active conflicts. In talks with Ethiopia's prime minister, the U.S. "urged accelerated implementation" of a recent peace agreement and "access to the conflict areas by international human rights monitors," the State Department said.

Blinken also met with stable West African ally Senegal, whose president is the chairperson of the African Union, and with the president of Southern Africa energy giant Angola.

Analysts say the U.S. is trying to work with a range of African partners - regardless of their track records - on issues where they can find common ground.

"I think what Washington is trying to do is diversify its relationships on the continent and not make them dependent on any one leader or any one group of countries because what we have seen is these countries remain fragile and a strategic partner today could be engulfed in civil war tomorrow," said Cameron Hudson, an analyst on African peace, security, and governance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He spoke to VOA via Zoom.

'Critical time for democracy globally'

Biden also invited the leaders of Congo, Gabon, Liberia, Madagascar, Nigeria and Sierra Leone to a private meeting on Wednesday, where they discussed their upcoming elections during what the White House says is a "critical time for democracy globally."

Publicly, Biden affirmed support for more African representation at the G-20 and the U.N. Security Council - while also not ignoring leaders' shortfalls.

"As leaders, our people inspire us," he said. "They awaken us to possibilities that are within our grasp. There are so many possibilities if we work together. They tell us hard truths that we need to hear. And sometimes we have trouble listening. They challenge us to live up to the values enshrined in so many of our founding documents and to be worthy of the responsibility given to us by that sacred trust."

That particular message falls on some old ears. Cameroon's Paul Biya is 89. Republic of Congo's Denis Sassou Nguesso is 79, as is Nigeria's Muhammadu Buhari. Many of these men - and all but one African head of state is male - were born well before their countries gained independence, on a continent where the median age is just 18.

What will they take back to their homelands, other than full pockets and warm memories?