“We’re all in on Africa’s future,” Biden told the crowd of officials and business leaders gathered at Washington’s sprawling convention center. “African success and prosperity is essential for a better future for all of us, not just for Africa.”
In one of many veiled nods toward China, Biden argued that for economic prosperity to take hold in Africa, democracy had to as well.
“In a year that has seen elections across Africa, we have worked together with the African Union to strengthen democracy and the core values that unite our people,” Biden said. “Freedom, opportunity, transparency, good government.”
White House aides have stressed that the U.S.-Africa summit, only the second ever held, acts as both evidence of the Biden administration’s commitment to Africa, and the capstone to a year dedicated to foreign policy that also had the president host Western Hemisphere allies in Los Angeles and travel to Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
But as the 49 African leaders and their delegations descended on Washington this week, there was a sense of American opportunity lost.
The first such summit was in 2014. Then-President Barack Obama pledged a new era of relations between the United States and the continent. But while Obama made efforts to improve ties, he also cut funding to combat AIDS in Africa and reduced foreign aid to the region.
Then for four years, the Trump administration actively neglected Africa, with the former president declaring its nations as “s—thole countries.” A presidential visit has long been viewed as a symbol of a commitment to a bilateral relationship and Trump, accordingly, never traveled to Africa. The last trip by an American president was Obama’s July 2015 journey to Kenya and Ethiopia.
Biden plans to change that. The president — as well as Vice President Kamala Harris and other top officials — intend to travel to Africa in 2023, according to officials familiar with the plans but not authorized to discuss them ahead of an official statement.
The itinerary for the president’s trip was not immediately announced, but it is sure to set off a wave of jockeying for potential host nations. The White House did not comment on the trip; the president is expected to announce it later in the week.
This week, the Biden team also offered several other deliverables, including $55 billion in assistance over the next three years and a pledge to recommend the African Union receive a permanent invitation to the influential G-20 group of nations.
In addition to his address, Biden will return to the summit Thursday. Over the two days, he will hold small group meetings with leaders, host a leaders’ dinner at the White House, and take part in other sessions with leaders during the summit. On the agenda: the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has strained food supplies on Africa, as well as the Covid pandemic, climate change and trade.
In total, Biden announced more than $15 billion in two-way trade and investment commitments, deals and partnerships from dozens of American companies in fields like clean energy, internet access, gender equality and agriculture.
But there is a sense among the international community that the U.S. has lost ground to China on the African continent.
China’s Belt and Road program has pumped billions into African energy, infrastructure and other projects, allowing Beijing to wield growing influence in the region. The U.S. has looked to expand its own geopolitical influence in the region, and U.S.-based businesses view Africa as important as a growing market for American products as well as a source of commodities, including cobalt and lithium, essential to the quickly expanding electric vehicle industry.
“The U.S. needs to signal it is on the playing field,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “This will require resources, attention, and an openness to trade, sharing technology and promoting investment.”
Chinese foreign ministers have made Africa their first foreign destination of each new calendar year since 1991. Moreover, China’s diplomatic outreach has embraced countries regardless of their respect for democracy or human rights; the United States on the other hand, has been sharply critical of the human rights violations committed on the continent, and five African nations were not invited to the summit. According to the White House, four of them — Guinea, Sudan, Mali and Burkina Faso — have changed their governments unconstitutionally and were suspended from the African Union. The fifth, Eritrea, does not have formal ties with the U.S.
Russia poses another rivalry on the continent. It has become the leading arms dealer in Africa, and the White House believes Moscow treats the continent as a friendly environment for Kremlin-connected oligarchs and private military companies to profit off regional instability and violence.
The White House has been frustrated that much of the continent has failed to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but national security adviser Jake Sullivan said earlier this week it would not threaten any economic consequences. Africa has been disproportionately impacted by the global rise in food prices that has been caused in part by the drop in shipments from major grain exporter Ukraine.
The summit returned an air of normalcy to Washington. It was the first gathering of its size to be held in the capitol since the start of the pandemic, closing roads and snarling traffic.
Biden made sure to link the gathering to the day’s other global African headline: Morocco’s World Cup semifinals game, in which it became the first African nation to appear in the tournament’s final four. The president joked that he’d wrap up before the match began, but by the time he was done, France had already grabbed a 1-0 lead.
Phelim Kine contributed to this report.
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