NAIROBI, Kenya – In Russia, African leaders were celebrated at a beach resort where military planes for sale were parked outside the summit hall. In China, they dined with President Xi Jinping, some one-on-one, and received pledges of investments worth $60 billion. In Turkey, they won the support of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
They are now heading to Washington for a major summit hosted by President Biden – the latest diplomatic drive by a major foreign power seeking to strengthen its ties with Africa, a continent whose geopolitical clout has increased dramatically over the past decade.
An international scramble for military, commercial and diplomatic interests in Africa, long dominated by China, has spread in recent years to include other powers like Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. In this intense competition, the United States has often fallen behind, analysts say — a decline the Biden administration hopes to reverse with the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit that begins on Tuesday.
White House officials said the three-day gathering will include high-level meetings, new initiatives and trade deals, as well as a gala dinner at the White House. But African leaders have grown accustomed to being courted by foreign suitors, and Washington is one stop on what has become a global circuit of African summits hosted by China, Russia, Turkey, France, Japan and the United States. European Union.
As the planes of more than 40 African heads of state descend on Washington, a question arises: what can Mr. Biden offer that they want?
“The United States has traditionally seen Africa as a problem to be solved,” said Murithi Mutiga, Africa director at the International Crisis Group. “But its competitors see Africa as a place of opportunity, which is why they are getting ahead. We don’t know if this conference will change that.
Africa’s top diplomat says above all, they want to be heard.
“When we speak, we are often not listened to, or at least not with enough interest,” Senegal’s President Macky Sall, who is chairman of the African Union, said in an interview in Dakar last Thursday. . “That’s what we want to change. And don’t let anyone tell us no, don’t work with so-and-so, just work with us. We want to work and trade with everyone.
Much has changed since the first US-Africa Summit, hosted by President Barack Obama in 2014. Chinese trade with Africa has continued to grow – reaching a record last year of $261 billion – while such as the debts of African countries to China. In contrast, US trade with Africa fell to $64 billion, just 1.1% of US global trade.
Problems that have long impeded Africa’s progress remain, including poverty, conflict, the threat of famine and corruption. But the continent also has many new assets that attract foreign powers.
As birth rates fall elsewhere, Africa’s population is set to double by 2050, when the continent will account for a quarter of the world’s population – potentially a huge market. Africa’s huge reserves of rare minerals will be needed to power the electric vehicles of the future.
Africa’s vast forests are among the largest carbon sinks in the world and its cultural footprint is expanding. Nigerian Afrobeats music is hugely popular around the world, its film industry is growing, and a thriving tech sector in countries like Kenya has become a source of cheap software talent and innovation.
This new strength has changed the tone of Africa’s relations with wealthy Western nations. During a 2009 visit, President Obama brought a message of tough love, saying that US aid to Africa should be accompanied by Africans taking ownership of their problems.
These days, American officials emphasize partnership and shared interests and values. Africa has become “a major geopolitical force”, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in August. “He who shaped our past, shapes our present and will shape our future.”
What is less clear is whether this week’s top will match this surging rhetoric.
In a series of briefings, US officials said the summit would feature a series of trade deals between African and US companies, and an initiative to boost the continent’s “digital economy”. President Biden will announce US support for an African Union seat at the G20, as well as greater African representation in global institutions like the International Monetary Fund.
There will be initiatives to tap into the African diaspora for new ideas in higher education, creative industries and the environment and for collaborations with NASA on space programs. A guide for summit delegates, obtained by The New York Times, predicts that Africa’s “space economy” will grow 30% by 2024 – an opportunity for the United States to help with technologies to address issues related to climate change, agriculture, security, and illegal fishing and mining.
But there is no indication that Mr Biden intends to launch a signature policy initiative like previous US administrations.
A massive HIV and AIDS project launched by President George W. Bush in 2003 and known as PEPFAR has cost $100 billion and saved 25 million lives, the government says. President Obama’s biggest initiative was Power Africa, which brought electricity to 60 million African homes, about half of its original goal.
At this summit, Biden’s approach is broader, guided by a theme of “building 21st century partnerships,” Judd Devermont, Africa director at the National Security Council, said last week. The next decade will reshape the world order, Mr. Devermont added, and “African voices are going to be critical in that conversation.”
But at summits elsewhere, African leaders often come away with harsh promises of assistance – Chinese infrastructure, Russian weapons or Turkish drones, for example. Analysts say the American rhetoric of respect and shared values may not be enough for them.
“African countries don’t want to be taken for ice cream,” said Michelle D. Gavin, senior fellow for African studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They want debt relief. They want loss and damage. They want a TRIPS waiver.
(TRIPS is an intellectual property law that African countries want lifted so they can manufacture vaccines.)
The White House says it will use the summit to revitalize older US initiatives like the Africa Growth Opportunity Act, a Clinton-era law lowering certain trade barriers to Africa, which is due to expire in 2025. Although this approach makes sense, the danger is that African leaders “will see this as a downgrade,” said Cameron Hudson, an Africa scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“When you prioritize everything, you prioritize nothing,” he added.
America retains considerable influence over much of Africa. Its diplomats played an invaluable role behind the scenes in helping broker a recent peace deal in Ethiopia. It is the key foreign actor in Somalia in the fight against Al Shabab militants. It sends several billion dollars in aid to the poorest corners of the continent – far more than China, which gives little, or Russia, which gives next to nothing.
Yet the growing array of international powers crowding the continent means that African leaders know they have a choice – to turn to one ally for aid and another for weapons, for example – and don’t like to be forced to take sides.
In the war against Ukraine, several countries, including the continent’s economic powerhouse, South Africa, have been reluctant to take sides against Russia. US officials have been careful not to frame this week’s summit as part of a broader competition between America and China.
Some Biden officials are so keen to avoid mentioning China that they jokingly call it the “Voldemort” of US foreign policy – a reference to a “Harry Potter” villain whose name is rarely mentioned.
But the rivalry is evident to many on the ground in Africa.
At Makerere University in Uganda, a student, Abiji Mary Immaculate, acknowledged that the United States had done “a lot of good” for her country. The United States gives nearly $1 billion a year for health and development, according to the State Department.
But ordinary Ugandans often struggle to understand these benefits, she added, when they can see Chinese-built roads and bridges “every day of their lives”.
Sithembile Mbete, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Pretoria, hailed this week’s summit as a chance for the United States to deal with African countries as a bloc and move away from a pick and choose pattern. privileged allies.
But its success, she added, depends on Mr Biden being willing to genuinely engage with Africans as equals, not “as a big brother telling countries what to do”.
The report was provided by Ruth Maclean in Dakar, Senegal, Abdi Latif Dahir in Kampala, Uganda, and Jean Eligonin Pretoria, South Africa