Biden eyes September UN session for US – Africa summit

By Julian Pecquet

Posted on Monday, 16 May 2022 10:15
The annual National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol in Washington
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the annual National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. May 15, 2022. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

US President Joe Biden is tentatively looking to host African leaders in Washington in mid-September as time rapidly runs out for him to hold his promised follow-up to the 2014 Leaders Summit this year.

With the crisis in Ukraine taking up much of its diplomatic bandwidth, the US administration is hoping to gather heads of state from across the continent over two days sometime between 13 September and 27 September. The dates coincide with the 77th session of the UN General Assembly, when many world leaders already plan to visit the United States.

Planning for America’s response to similar events by US rivals in Africa including China, Russia and the European Union is being led by Senior Director for Africa Dana Banks at the White House, according to interviews with a half-dozen US and African sources and planning documents obtained by The Africa Report. Banks’ counterpart at the State Department is Robert Scott, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs in charge of Peace and Security Affairs and Public Diplomacy/Public Affairs.

The summit’s driving theme is: “Partnering for a Prosperous and Resilient Future: Building a mutually beneficial trade and investment partnership between the United States and countries across the African continent.” The Biden administration is also collaborating with the US Chamber of Commerce and the Corporate Council on Africa (CCA) to host an ancillary US-Africa Business Forum for American and African private sector leaders, investors and policymakers to showcase business opportunities and build new relationships.

“I really do think it’s important that people know that this is something that’s coming up,” says CCA President and CEO Florizelle Liser. “The Biden administration, despite a lot of challenges, both domestic and foreign, is focused on trying to do something that will be important in not just establishing the type of relationship that the [US] wants to have [with Africa], but the quality of it as well.”

The State Department referred The Africa Report to the White House, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Pressure’s on

The idea of hosting a second iteration of President Barack Obama’s historic 2014 summit can be traced back to the very beginning of Biden’s first year in office, when the US promised to rebuild ties after his predecessor Donald Trump’s perceived indifference.

“My administration is committed to rebuilding our partnerships around the world and re-engaging with international institutions like the African Union,” Biden said in a 5 February 2021 address to the African Union Summit, just weeks after taking office. “We must all work together to advance our shared vision of a better future.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken officially announced the US intention to host a second summit in a speech before the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja last November.

“As a sign of our commitment to our partnerships across the continent,” Blinken said, “President Biden intends to host the US-Africa Leaders Summit to drive the kind of high-level diplomacy and engagement that can transform relationships and make effective cooperation possible.”

Driving the conversation is the realisation that the US has lost substantial ground to its competitors in Africa. China became the continent’s top trading partner in 2009, while two-way trade in goods with the US dropped by more than half between 2008 and 2021, from $142bn to $64bn.

The idea was to do it regularly. But then politics got in the way, elections got in the way, and the subsequent administration had, shall we say, diplomatically very little interest in Africa.

Simultaneously, US rivals have institutionalised their interactions with the continent.

China hosted its eighth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) ministerial meeting in Senegal last fall, while Russia planned to hold its second Africa summit in St. Petersburg in November. Meanwhile, the Europeans hosted the sixth European Union – African Union summit in Brussels in February.

The proliferation of such forums has put pressure on Biden to repeat Obama’s historic summit, when more than 40 African leaders gathered in Washington for three days of meetings and events in August 2014. The massive effort saw the State Department transformed in ways career diplomats had never seen, with the internal courtyard transformed into a makeshift convention centre.

“The idea was to do it regularly. But then politics got in the way, elections got in the way, and the subsequent administration had, shall we say, diplomatically very little interest in Africa.” says Stephen Nolan, a former ambassador to Botswana who was one of at least three former State Department officials brought in from retirement to help organise Obama’s summit. “So it’s good to see Africa coming back on stage rather than off in the wings.”

Time running out

Africans themselves have been clamouring for a follow-up summit ever since Biden’s election, an African diplomat in Washington told The Africa Report.

The source said the informal African Ambassadors Group of envoys to Washington has been pressing for a summit since even before Blinken first mentioned it. The group is chaired by the dean of the African diplomatic corps in Washington, Ambassador Serge Mombouli of the Republic of Congo.

The source said the mid-September date range has been floated with the African diplomatic corps, but no formal invitations have gone out. The administration, they insisted, should follow through on its promise to make Africans a priority and hold the summit this year, even if it’s not perfect.

“They just need to feel the love,” the African source says.

The remarks come as a series of delays have fuelled a growing sense that the Biden administration is ill-prepared for a massive gathering.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is taking up the time and attention of some of America’s finest Africanists, including US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield. An earlier proposal to hold the summit in August, when things usually slow down, had to be shelved to avoid conflicting with Japan’s high-level dialogue with Africa, the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), which this year is taking place in Tunis.

Meanwhile the release of a much-anticipated US-Africa Strategy drafted by Africa expert Judd Devermont at the National Security Council has been repeatedly delayed since a draft first started circulating at the end of 2021. And a Summit of the Americas meant to reassert US leadership in that region next month in Los Angeles could turn into a public relations fiasco, with the presidents of Mexico and Brazil both reportedly threatening to skip the event.

Congress has taken note.

Priority for US lawmakers

Engagement with the continent has long been a bipartisan priority for US lawmakers. Indeed, Congress first broached the idea of a summit with African leaders in their 2000 law that created the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

“The President shall, to the extent practicable, meet with the heads of governments of sub-Saharan African countries … not less than once every 2 years,” the law states.

This spring, a trio of Senate members introduced a resolution urging that the promised Leaders Summit be more than a check-the-box exercise, calling it “an important opportunity to strengthen ties between the United States and African partners and build on areas of mutual interest.” The resolution is sponsored by Sen. James Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Chris Coons of Delaware, both high-ranking Biden allies in the Senate.

The resolution notably recommends that the summit include a focus on “shared democracy, governance, and human rights” and set up a “roadmap for future engagement,” including planning for future summits.  It also calls for events to be held outside Washington, to connect with business leaders and state government officials.

“Our global partners, like Europe, and malign actors, like China and Russia, regularly convene African leaders not just to talk and discuss issues of common interest, but also to cement relationships through strategic initiatives. The summit is an opportunity for America to connect Africa’s leaders with the best of what American business, academia, civil society, and African diaspora living in the United States can offer,” Risch said in a statement introducing the resolution. “If we’ve learned anything from recent global events, we need to demonstrate we are in a new era of US-Africa relations where we can do great things together.”

Liser says that behind the scenes, the administration is working hard to make the event a success.

“Just because people haven’t come out with a formal announcement…doesn’t mean that nothing’s happening.”

Trade first

Among the key events taking shape is a US-Africa Business Forum, in partnership with Liser’s group and the Africa Business Center at the US Chamber of Commerce. Obama hosted the first such forum in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies in parallel with his summit, followed by a second forum in 2016 in New York City during the UN General Assembly.

When American businesses that aren’t already operating in Africa look at Africa, they just see the logistical hurdles, the obstacles, not the opportunities, unless they’re already there.

This year, US officials are considering four possibilities for the key theme of the forum, according to a planning document obtained by The Africa Report. The choices are: Scaling Innovation and Entrepreneurship; Bolstering Africa’s Role in the Global Economy; Financing Sustainable Growth; and Expanding Access to World-Class U.S. Technologies and Services.

Whatever the Biden administration ends up focusing on, focusing on private sector engagement is key as it was in 2014, says Nolan.

“I think that was probably one of the most important parts because one of the perennial problems of … [is] trying to generate interest in Africa,” he says. “When American businesses that aren’t already operating in Africa look at Africa, they just see the logistical hurdles, the obstacles, not the opportunities, unless they’re already there. And I think part of what the business forum did was to break down some of those barriers, make the opportunities a little bit more self-evident.”

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