US-Africa Summit: Joe Biden tests his new Africa strategy

By Romain Gras, special correspondent in Washington, DC
Posted on Tuesday, 13 December 2022 15:46

The Ethiopian delegation arrives at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on 11 December 2022 for the US-Africa Summit. ©Oliver Contreras/AFP

From 13 to 15 December, nearly 50 African leaders will participate in the second edition of the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington. It will be a test for Joe Biden and an opportunity for many to make progress on certain strategic issues.

It has been eight years since the event last took place. The first edition was organised in August 2014 during the Barack-Obama presidency. This year, African heads of state are once again converging for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, which opens on 13 December at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

Of the 50 or so leaders who were invited, most have said they will attend the three-day conference. Eritrea – with which the US no longer has diplomatic relations – was ignored by the organisers, who have also been careful to follow African Union criteria: Countries that have recently experienced a military coup and were suspended from the AU have not been invited. They include Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Sudan.

This summit is a test for Washington. “Joe Biden wants to distinguish himself from Donald Trump, to mark a break with the total disinterest of his predecessor with regard to the continent,” says Christopher Fomunyoh, of the American think tank National Democratic Institute (NDI).

So far, Biden has only been marginally involved in African issues. He has not visited the continent either – with the exception of a recent appearance at the COP27 in Egypt – but some hope he will announce an African tour at the summit. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already made two such trips, the last of which took him to Rwanda, the DRC and South Africa in August. “We don’t do these kinds of summits with other parts of the world. This shows the importance that President Biden places on cooperation with Africa,” says an American diplomat familiar with the continent. The American president is also likely to push for the integration of the African Union into the G20.

‘Business first’

However, for these three days, Biden will be doing a balancing act. He will be torn between the desire to get closer economically to a continent where the US has continued to lose ground and the refusal to show too much cosying-up to certain regimes that have been criticised for their human rights violations.

The summit programme has been prepared by Dana Banks, the president’s special adviser. The deliberate aim is to not only keep away from overly political and security-related themes, but also favour a “business first” approach, combining economic opportunities and the promotion of good governance. The first day will therefore focus mainly on civil society, in the context of a major forum devoted to this issue.

There is a sense that the Biden administration is trying not to talk about the hot button issues.

Above all, the US president hopes that the summit will help improve the ability of the American business community to develop commercial partnerships with the continent. These will need to be accompanied by progress on governance, an essential step towards reassuring investors, who remain wary.

The second part of the event will be entirely devoted to the US-Africa Business Forum, during which several trade agreements are to be signed, notably in relation to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Bilateral talks?

The other question that President Biden’s entourage is asking is whether he will hold bilateral meetings with his hosts. “The problem with a big summit like this is that it is difficult to choose just a few participants and risk offending the others,” our diplomatic source says. For now, no one-on-one meetings have been scheduled, although several heads of state are hoping to meet their host in private. However, Biden will host a big White House dinner on 14 December and will have his photo taken with each of the participants.

“There is a sense that the Biden administration is trying not to talk about the hot button issues. There is a desire to match the AU’s position, to try to please and talk to everyone, to be as inclusive as possible and, at the same time, to insist on issues of governance and democracy,” says NDI’s Fomunyoh.

Much of the parallel diplomacy is likely to be delegated to Antony Blinken. Other officials, such as Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have also requested meetings with some African heads of state.

Countering China and Russia

With this summit, the American president intends to lay the groundwork for his “US Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa”. Presented on 8 August by the State Department, this 16-page document lists the main priorities (trade, the fight against global warming, democracy, etc.). One of its stated objectives is to “partner with other governments and regional bodies, including the AU, to address public dissatisfaction with the performance of some democracies, which provides a pretext for aspiring coup plotters, populist movements, and authoritarian leaders to undercut democratic values”.

The US strategy, which is expected to develop over the next decade, is very clear on the issue of competition with China and Russia. “The People’s Republic of China… sees the region as an important arena to challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken US relations with African peoples and governments,” says the State Department document. “Russia views the region as a permissive environment for parastatals and private military companies . . . us[ing] its security and economic ties, as well as disinformation, to undercut Africans’ principled opposition to Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine and related human rights abuses.”

If your tactic is to tell African countries to be democratic and use your model because it works, you risk not being heard

China remains the continent’s largest trading partner; by contrast, bilateral trade between Africa and the US has fallen steadily in recent years, amounting to “only” $64.3bn in 2021. Moscow, on the other hand, is making inroads, through its own companies and through the paramilitary contractor Wagner, which is present in many countries.

Russian diplomatic activism has intensified since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. In March, 17 African countries abstained from calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine in a Security Council vote. In July, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Egypt, Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia.

However, Washington insists that there is no question of imposing any particular choice on African nations. During his visit to South Africa last August – organised only a few days after Sergei Lavrov’s appearance – Blinken said that “the United States would not dictate to Africans [and that] no one in the world should”.

He did, however, have a lively exchange with his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor, who had denounced a bill entitled “Combating Malicious Russian Activities in Africa”, which made its way to the the House of Representatives last April. “If your tactic is to tell African countries to be democratic and use your model because it works, you risk not being heard,” Pandor said. Which sounds like a warning bell to the Africa strategy that Biden has set out to defend.

Track II diplomacy

In addition to the summit’s myriad round tables and conferences to which delegations have been invited, participants will be working behind the scenes to defend other diplomatic issues that they want to push forward.

This is notably the case of Zimbabwe, represented by Frederick Shava, its foreign affairs minister. Under sanctions for nearly 20 years, Harare is calling for the lifting of measures that are suffocating its fragile economy. Zimbabwe, which is due to hold presidential elections next year, can count on the support of its allies in the SADC (Southern African Development Community), chief among them South Africa, an anchor for Washington’s new strategy.

Kigali and Kinshasa will undoubtedly seek to defend their respective positions on the M23 issue, which has kept them at odds for months and which, according to our sources, could be the subject of a parallel summit in Washington.

Kenya’s William Ruto will be the centre of attention during his second official trip to the US after his September appearance at the UN General Assembly. A meeting with investors has been scheduled for 16 December after the summit. Ruto will also be seeking support for the chairmanship of the AU for 2023, which Kenya and Comoros are vying for.

Managing the problem of non-renewable energy will also be one of the concerns of several African participants, including fossil fuel producers. During the pre-COP27 meeting in Kinshasa in September, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry asked the DRC to withdraw certain oil blocks from auction in order to protect its forests. Kinshasa has refused to budge on this issue.

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