Africa wants America’s actions to match its rhetoric
The US-Africa summit in Washington this week is an attempt by America to reset its relations with Africa after years of on and off attention by different administrations, which has led to a trust deficit between the two and a perception on the continent that the US is not a reliable partner.
But the Biden administration is sending a strong message that things are now different, because the US recognizes the strategic and global role of Africa or, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it, “Africa will shape the future not just the future of the African people but of the world.”
As the 49 African leaders huddle with their American counterparts during the three-day summit, there will be a lot of talk about partnerships and elevating Africa’s role in global affairs. But they will all be aware of the giant panda in the room: China’s big and heavy footprint in Africa. They see the US as trying to catch up with China, which outpaces the US in Africa in terms of trade, economic relations and influence. This is in addition to Russia’s role and its close relations with many African countries.
The Africans consider the hosting of the summit — the second such meeting, following the inaugural summit hosted by former President Barack Obama in 2014 — to be “an achievement.” But they worry that “there will not be much substance because there was no time for preparation,” as one African official told me. He said the Biden administration “came in 2021 and they had their summits with everyone except with Africa. This created pressure on them to have the summit this year.”
The Africans also worry that this summit is not about them, but is instead part of the US strategy to challenge China’s growing presence and influence in the continent. The White House was quick to dismiss this notion, with a senior administration official saying that this summit “is really about our relationship with the continent. It is not about other countries and their engagements.”
The problem for Washington is that US policy toward Africa has always been tied to the agenda of who sits in the White House, with presidents either prioritizing working with Africa or neglecting it, as the Trump administration did. The Africans have had to live with a lack of continuity in US policy and decry Washington seeing the continent through security and not the economic prism.
An African official bound for the summit said: “Our relations with the US are behind the rest of the world. They come when there is conflict. They come and donate. We want them to understand that this model will not give you influence (given) to others like China. Their main fear is that Africa is slipping away from them.”
A senior US administration official insisted that the Americans are listening to what Africa is saying and stressed that, during the summit, “we will focus on what we will do with African nations and people, not for African nations and people.”
The Africans also believe that the US will make announcements during the summit to signal to China and Russia that Africa is still contested; that they are with Africa and have influence there, so “don’t look at Africa as yours.”
The US, according to a senior official, hopes to deepen and expand the long-term US-Africa partnership and advance their shared priorities, “amplifying African voices to collaboratively meet this era’s challenges.”
The wide-ranging agenda reflects the new US approach to Africa, from pandemic recovery and the strengthening of health systems to creating economic opportunities and addressing the climate crisis, energy access and energy transition to revitalizing democracies and “strengthening the free and open international order.” The US will not discuss the Ukraine war, for example, but it will discuss its impact on Africa in terms of food security and wheat and fertilizer shortages.
African officials also think that the US will offer to work with Africa on some space programs. Invitations to join the Artemis program could be one such cooperation extended to some African countries.
A senior Biden administration official told the press that “there will be major deliverables and initiatives to announce throughout the summit.” We already know that President Joe Biden will announce his backing for a permanent seat for the African Union in the G20 group of major economies. And Biden announced at the UN General Assembly in September his support for an expansion of the UN Security Council membership to give Africa greater representation.
African officials also believe the US will seek more support at the UN, where they do not always vote in favor of US-supported resolutions, whether on Israel or Ukraine. They also believe their host will lobby for support for initiatives such as the Abraham Accords, including encouraging more African nations to sign up.
But while the US has been losing ground to China on trade in Africa, and despite the long memory of African leaders, who remember that Russia and not the US stood with them during their struggle for independence, Washington still has strong cards to play in Africa. The US can boast many successful initiatives, such as the cornerstone of its economic relations with sub-Saharan Africa since 2000, the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, its many initiatives on AIDS, the Youth Leaders’ Forum, and the historic role that the Peace Corps have played in Africa.
The problem for Washington is that US policy toward Africa has always been tied to the agenda of who sits in the White House.
Dr. Amal Mudallali
Most important is America’s soft power and values, which still generate support in Africa. According to Afrobarometer surveys, seven out of 10 Africans support democracy and accountable government. In health and education, the US still has a “competitive advantage,” while a Brookings Institution report found that African citizens “prefer the US model of development (32%) over China’s (23%).”
A large number of African countries are highly indebted to China and, if this summit offers a new path for them to progress without being straddled with debt, it can give the US a strategic and economic opportunity in a continent that is projected to be home to 40 percent of the world’s population in 2100.
The US said all the right things ahead of the summit, but the Africans want to see if their actions will match the rhetoric. They do not want a summit of unfulfilled promises. They are looking for a “permanent framework with Africa similar to what everyone has,” the African official said. If that is achieved, “we will consider the summit a success.”
- Dr. Amal Mudallali is a consultant on global issues. She is a former Lebanese ambassador to the UN.