President Joe Biden is set to play host to dozens of African leaders in Washington this week as the White House looks to narrow a gaping trust gap with Africa — one that has grown wider over years of frustration about America’s commitment to the continent.
In the lead-up to the three-day U.S-Africa Leaders Summit that begins Tuesday, Biden administration officials played down their increasing concern about the clout of China and Russia in Africa, which is home to more than 1.3 billion people. Instead, administration officials tried to put the focus on their efforts to improve cooperation with African leaders.
“This summit is an opportunity to deepen the many partnerships we have on the African continent,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said when asked about the shadow that China and Russia cast on the meetings. “We will focus on our efforts to strengthen these partnerships across a wide range of sectors spanning from businesses to health to peace and security, but our focus will be on Africa next week.”
To that end, White House officials said that “major deliverables and initiatives” — diplomatic speak for big announcements — will be peppered throughout the meetings. The White House previewed one major summit announcement on Friday, saying that Biden would use the gathering to declare his support for adding the African Union as a permanent member of the Group of 20 nations.
The summit will be the biggest international gathering in Washington since before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Local officials are warning residents to brace for road blocks and intensified security as 49 invited heads of states and leaders — and Biden — whiz around the city.
Talks are expected to center on the coronavirus, climate change, the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Africa, trade and more, according to White House officials. Biden is set to deliver remarks at a U.S.-Africa business forum, hold small group meetings with leaders, host a leaders’ dinner at the White House and take part in other sessions with leaders during the gathering.
Biden has spent much of his first two years in office trying to assuage doubters on the international stage about American leadership after four years of Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. With this summit — a follow-up to the first such gathering held eight years ago by President Barack Obama — Biden has an opportunity to assuage concerns in Africa about whether the U.S. is serious about tending to the relationship.
Biden’s effort to draw African nations closer to the U.S. comes at a complicated moment, as his administration has made plain that it believes that Chinese and Russian activity in Africa is a serious concern to U.S. and African interests.
In its sub-Saharan Africa strategy unveiled in August, the Biden administration warned that China, which has pumped billions into African energy, infrastructure and other projects, sees the region as an arena where Beijing can “challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness.”
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The administration also argues that Russia, the preeminent arms dealer in Africa, views the continent as a permissive environment for Kremlin-connected oligarchs and private military companies to focus on fomenting instability for their own strategic and financial benefit.
Still, administration officials are emphasizing that concerns about China and Russia will not be central to the talks.
“The United States prioritizes our relationship with Africa for the sake of our mutual interests and our partnership in dealing with global challenges,” Molly Phee, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told reporters before the summit. “We are very conscious, again, of the Cold War history, we’re conscious, again, of the deleterious impact of colonialism on Africa, and we studiously seek to avoid repeating some of the mistakes of those earlier eras.”
The administration has been disappointed that much of the continent has declined to follow the U.S. in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but Biden is not expected to dwell on differences publicly.
The president is expected to participate with leaders in a session on promoting food security and food systems resilience. Africa has been disproportionately impacted by the global rise in food prices that has been caused in part by the drop in shipments from major grain exporter Ukraine.
“One of the unique aspects of this summit is the collateral damage that the Russian war has inflicted on Africa in terms of food supply and the diversion of development assistance to Ukraine. The opportunity costs of the invasion have been very high in Africa,” said John Stremlau, a visiting professor of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Four countries that were suspended from the African Union — Guinea, Sudan, Mali and Burkina Faso— were not invited to the summit because coups in those nations led to unconstitutional changes in power. The White House also did not invite the East African nation of Eritrea; Washington does not have full diplomatic relations with the country.
Biden’s decision to invite several leaders to the summit who have questionable records on human rights and democracy is looming large ahead of the gathering.
Equatorial Guinea was invited despite the State Department stating that it held “serious doubts” about last month’s election in the tiny Central African nation. Opposition parties “made credible allegations of significant election-related irregularities, including documented instances of fraud, intimidation, and coercion,” according to the department. Election officials reported that President Teodoro Obiang’s ruling party won nearly 95% of the vote.
Zimbabwe, which has faced years of U.S. and Western sanctions over poor governance, human rights abuses and widespread corruption, also was invited.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who seized power from longtime ruler Robert Mugabe in 2017, has sought to cast himself as a reformer, but local and international human rights campaigners accuse him of repression that is just as bad or even worse than Mugabe’s.
Although Mnangagwa enjoys cozy relations with China and Russia, as did Mugabe, he has also sought to make friends with the U.S. and other Western countries in an effort to bolster his legitimacy.
In a national address that he delivered in November in a new Chinese-gifted multimillion-dollar parliament building, Mnangagwa held out the invitation to the U.S.-Africa summit as a sign of his administration’s success. He said the southern African country welcomed the invitation, but he also called for the “unconditional” removal of sanctions that he blames for Zimbabwe’s debilitating economic woes.
“Emphasis remains on dialogue,” Mnangagwa said.
Ethiopia received an invitation even though Biden late last last year announced he was cutting out the country from a U.S. trade program, known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act, over Ethiopia’s failure to end a war in the Tigray region that led to “gross violations” of human rights. A peace deal was signed last month, but implementation faces major challenges such as the continued presence of troops from neighboring Eritrea.
Analysts say that African leaders will be looking for Biden to make some major commitments during the summit, including announcing his first presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa, efforts to bolster the continent’s economy through private sector investment and trade and more.
Perhaps most importantly, it could be an opportunity for Biden to demonstrate that Africa is more than a battleground in its economic and military competition with Beijing and Moscow.
“I do strongly believe that the United States is still seen as a superpower from the African perspective, but most African leaders do not want to align with its promotion of democracy,” said Abraham Kuol Nyuon, a political analyst and associate professor of political science at the University of Juba in South Sudan. “They need the support of America but not the system of America.”