United States (US) President Joe Biden’s US-Africa summit next week is set to be a big ‘jamboree’. Over three days, around 42 African heads of state – plus African Union (AU) Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat – and a host of business, civil society, diaspora and youth leaders will hold wide-ranging talks with the US administration in Washington.
America hopes to relaunch US-Africa relations, which became dormant under former president Donald Trump. The US wants to show its commitment to Africa and increased cooperation on shared global priorities, says Dana Banks, Senior Director for Africa at the White House. These priorities include health, climate change, food security, conflict issues and even cooperation in space.
The stress on equal partnership is worthy, though perhaps a subtle response to most African states’ refusal to take sides in the Russia-Ukraine war. The message is that Africa doesn’t need to suffer other countries’ actions – in this case, chronic food insecurity because of the war – but can help to shape those actions.
For Washington to host a second Africa summit, eight years after the first one in 2014, raises several questions. One is what the US can offer Africa that other major players on the continent such as the European Union, China and Japan cannot – especially since these other three powers have been holding regular summits all along.
Molly Phee, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, answered that question at a media briefing this week, saying a US partnership could help the continent advance its own goals, such as food and health security and addressing climate change. She and Judd Devermont, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for African Affairs at the National Security Council, both regretted that US-Africa summits hadn’t been held regularly.
Devermont said many initiatives conceived in 2014 were continuing, citing major bipartisan US-Africa programmes such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and Prosper Africa.
Désiré Assogbavi, who will participate in the summit as part of the ONE campaign delegation, has written that the gathering should ‘focus on a comprehensive long-term vision for a strong and strategic US-Africa relationship to achieve the collective prosperity of American and African people. Such a relationship should be built on absolute mutual respect and shared values.’
He said Africa’s leaders should clearly articulate the AU Agenda 2063’s aspirations at the summit, which includes ‘Africa as a strong, united, resilient and influential global player and partner.’ Indeed, as Devermont spelt out, the summit’s goals were based on the Agenda 2063 outcomes.
It isn’t clear yet whether all of Assogbavi’s ambitions will be met, such as his call for the US to help staunch the drain of Africa’s capital through illicit financial flows, estimated at about US$89-billion a year. He also said a structured follow-up mechanism was needed to ensure summit commitments were met.
What distinguishes America’s engagement from other global partners is not always obvious, but it can be discerned.
A large part of the answer – at least when comparing the US to China – is the US focus on the private sector, as Arun Venkataraman, US Assistant Secretary of Commerce, pointed out in an earlier media briefing. He noted that although the US couldn’t command its companies to invest in Africa (as China can), it could create a better enabling environment for business on the continent.
Venkataraman revealed some of the nuances that distinguished US engagement. He stressed for example that US partnership with Africa in boosting digital connectivity would focus on ‘supporting open networks built on a cyber-secure foundation’ and ‘an investment environment that enables the free flow of data while protecting personal information.’ In other words, perhaps the US can offer Africa a way to avoid China’s Huawei 5G network, which the US and others suspect of cyber-spying on its customers.
He also mentioned Africa’s ‘reserves of rare earth minerals critical for the green energy transition’ as one of America’s interests in the continent. This reflects Washington’s concern that China is monopolising the extraction of these resources.
He noted that in its Africa energy policy, ‘US businesses and government partnerships will support a fuel mix that supports Africa’s self-sufficiency and industrialisation goals, as well as adjust an affordable transition to a more diversified and cleaner energy matrix.’ This suggests the US might give Africa more of a pass on exploiting its gas and other fossil fuels, versus Europe for example, which is more rigid on emissions.
Peace and security will also feature prominently at the summit, with a forum that reflects what Chidi Blyden, Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs, called America’s ‘3D’ approach – defence, democracy and development.
At the 7 December media briefing, she was asked about the US response to the retreat of France and other European powers from the war against jihadism in West Africa and the Sahel. Blyden said the US would remain engaged while deploying its full ‘3D’ resources to address the conflict’s causes – the lack of democracy and development.
And finally, one of the chief issues of such summits is who gets invited. Devermont said 49 governments were among those invited. He explained that four were excluded (Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sudan and Mali) because they were under AU suspension for coups. Eritrea wasn’t invited because the US has no diplomatic relations with Asmara.
Western Sahara (aka the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) and Somaliland weren’t invited because the US doesn’t recognise them as states. Other officials said Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa didn’t get the nod because he was under targeted individual US sanctions – though his government will be there.
At the Wednesday briefing Devermont didn’t say whether it was true that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali hadn’t been invited – though his government had been. Oppositionists rebuked the US for including many oppressive and undemocratic leaders, such as Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, in a meeting intended to promote democracy and good governance.
Phee replied that these leaders were invited because engaging with them and seeking to advance US values was the appropriate way. Devermont added however that there would be ‘hard conversations’ on these issues at the summit. We shall see.
Written by Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria