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Biden gathering with 50 African leaders in first such summit in eight years

Barack Obama, center, surrounded by world leaders at a summit
Then-President Obama attends at the 2014 U.S. Africa Leaders summit in Washington, D.C. This week, President Biden will host the first such gathering since 2014.
(Charles Dharapak / Associated Press)
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President Biden is hosting nearly 50 African leaders this week in an effort to show “renewed commitment” to a continent routinely neglected by the West, one that has been battered by coups and wars, poverty and the pandemic, but that also has seen vast Chinese investment in numerous nations.

It is the first U.S.-Africa summit since 2014 and takes place in the shadow of Russia’s war on Ukraine, which has diverted money and attention along with sending food and oil prices soaring around the world — nowhere more than on the African continent.

Administration officials acknowledge Africa has not always been at the top of Washington’s agenda — Biden has yet to visit except for a short stopover in Egypt at the U.N. Climate Change Conference last month — and that they have faced criticism for inattention.

“The gap, I think, between 2014 and 2022 certainly is regrettable,” said Judd Devermont, who heads African affairs at the National Security Council. The goal now is “first and foremost making sure that whatever comes out of this summit is going to stay here for the long run.”

To that end, the White House on Monday announced a $55-billion commitment to Africa over the next three years across various sectors and the appointment of a special envoy, 79-year-old retired veteran diplomat Johnnie Carson, to oversee continued action coming out of summit agreements.

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In addition, Biden is expected to urge that the African Union, which represents 55 African states, be given a seat in the Group of 20, an influential collection of the strongest economies in the world. South Africa is the only member from the continent.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan vowed the summit, which begins Tuesday and lasts through Thursday, would yield more than the platitudes that have previously frustrated African leaders and supporters.

“We didn’t set this agenda in a vacuum,” Sullivan said, briefing reporters at the White House. “We set it in consultation with our African partners on the issues that matter most to them.”

Sullivan hinted that the president, vice president and Cabinet members would announce a “broad-based commitment to traveling to the continent in 2023,” but didn’t provide further details.

African leaders are arriving in the U.S. capital bringing with them a message of partnership over paternalism, an old theme but one many say continues to undermine economic development.

The U.S. is stressing the growing centrality that Africa plays in numerous global crises and challenges, including climate change, food insecurity, world health and violent extremism.

“The Biden administration is approaching this second U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit with a trust deficit that it must overcome if it hopes to truly give life to a new era of ‘partnership,’” Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Cameron Hudson, a research associate, said in an analysis produced for the think tank.

U.S. interest in Africa inevitably comes with China as the backdrop, and Russia to a lesser extent. The China-Russia threat was at the heart of a sub-Saharan African security strategy the administration released in August and used as a basis for this week’s meetings. But officials hope to keep the focus squarely on Africa.

Witney Schneidman, a deputy assistant secretary of State for African Affairs during the Clinton administration, said focusing on China would distract from the more important topic of U.S. private sector investment.

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African leaders arriving in the U.S. capital are clamoring for more U.S. business in the region, he said, where a glaring gap has led to the U.S. ceding Africa not just to China, but also to the European Union, India, Turkey and other countries that have invested in the region in recent years.

“We can’t look at Africa through the lens of China. That would be a huge mistake,” Schneidman said. “The Biden administration recognizes that there’s a lot to do with our partners in Africa, and when we invest ourselves more, that will begin to address the dominance of China in the African market.”

In the last two decades, an aggressive China has made enormous inroads on the African continent as part of its $4.3-trillion Belt and Road campaign, building roads, ports and other infrastructure, alongside investing in mining and other extractive industries, and even snapping up banks.

Unlike the U.S. and other Western nations, the Chinese don’t make demands over human rights or environmental concerns, and have managed to gain vast influence and access to markets, intelligence and energy.

China now has a footprint in nearly every African country and has grown to be Africa’s largest two-way trading partner, to the tune of $254 billion — nearly four times the value of U.S.-Africa trade.

Russia’s trade profile is much smaller and primarily supplies weaponry, often fueling local warfare through mercenary forces.

Many in Africa, however, resent being a seen as a proxy battlefield for the world’s major conflicts, a legacy due in part to centuries of colonial control over African countries and their people.

“[We] think a lot about the impact of colonialism in African history as well as the impact of the Cold War on African history, and we work very hard to make sure that the United States defines our relationship with Africa on African terms,” said Molly Phee, assistant secretary of State for African Affairs. “It should not be a battlefield for external powers.”

As happens with summits, the list of invitees generated controversy, with U.S. officials fielding questions and criticism over whether it would include countries with poor human rights records or corrupt governments, or those engaged in wars.

In the end, the State Department said it excluded countries that have been suspended from the African Union because of coups — Mali, Sudan, Guinea and Burkina Faso — and those that don’t have diplomatic relations with the U.S. or are not recognized by it, such as Eritrea and Somaliland.

Still, several autocrats and strongmen are on the invite list, including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Though no bilateral meetings have been announced for the three-day summit, the president is expected to deliver remarks at the business forum, participate in several sessions and host a dinner for leaders at the White House.

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