Last week, President Joe Biden welcomed dozens of African leaders to Washington for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Below, Matthew Duss, an American Statecraft Program visiting scholar, and Gilles Yabi, an Africa Program nonresident scholar, discuss the summit’s impact and key takeaways.
The previous U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit was in 2014. How has the relationship changed since then, and how were this summit’s dynamics different (or similar)?
Gilles Yabi: The context has changed significantly. After former president Barack Obama left office, Donald Trump’s administration made a brutal shift in the tone and the actual interests of the United States in Africa. The election of President Joe Biden marked a new turn and a comeback to the spirit of 2014. But eight years have passed, political changes have happened in various African countries, there was a unique pandemic with global consequences, and the war in Ukraine had huge implications for Africa and beyond. The dynamics of the recent summit reflected the current geopolitical context and the renewed interest of all major powers in securing support and partnerships with African countries.
Matt Duss: Compared to 2014, there is a far greater U.S. appreciation, at least at the rhetorical level, of the need to engage with Africa in a more consistent and sustained way, given the role the continent is poised to play, and is already playing, in global affairs. The Biden administration seems even more acutely aware than the Obama administration of the need to strengthen existing partnerships and develop new ones to address the United States’ diminishing share of global influence, and the greater attention to Africa and other regions of the Global South reflects this.
What do you see as the summit’s major takeaway? What fell short?
Gilles Yabi: It was the number of announcements of new partnerships and associated funding from the United States in multiple different areas—health, infrastructure, adaptation to climate change, support for democratic elections and governance, and more. The message the Biden administration wanted to send was clearly that of a strong re-engagement in Africa.
Among the major takeaways was the creation of the President’s Advisory Council on African Diaspora Engagement in the United States, the first-ever U.S.-Africa Space Forum, the formal announcement of Biden’s support for the African Union to become a permanent member of the G20, and a commitment of $55 billion to advance shared Africa and U.S. priorities in the framework of the African Union’s Agenda 2063. There were other promising announcements regarding U.S. funding for regional transport infrastructure, food security, and digital transformation with the Power Africa initiative’s Healthcare Electrification and Telecommunication Alliance. These all were quite significant takeaways for the three-day gathering, and it is probably better to focus on effective implementation than looking for the missing announcements.
Matt Duss: Biden clearly acknowledged that the countries of Africa have the right to expect a much larger role in global affairs, proposing that African countries receive permanent representation in the G20. By the end of this century, Africa will be home to 40 percent of the world’s population. Its representation in global decisionmaking bodies should reflect that, but that will require a greater willingness than has thus far been shown for countries in the Global North, led by the United States, to share power. For example, Senegal’s President Macky Sall, the current chairman of the African Union, told the New York Times that Africa should have two permanent seats on the UN Security Council. It’s hard to imagine the current Security Council members countenancing that, but it’s something that must be considered if the Washington’s commitment to representation is real.
Much of the summit’s coverage framed the summit around the U.S.-China rivalry, as well as around Russia’s war in Ukraine. How did this play out among Biden and the African leaders?
Matt Duss: Great power competition is the clear subtext, when it’s not just text, of the Biden administration’s strenuous engagement with Africa, as in much of the Global South. But for this engagement to be sustained and effective, the United States will need to show that it does not simply see Africa as an arena for influence, domination, and resource extraction by foreign powers, which devastated Africa in centuries past.
With this history in mind, which Biden explicitly acknowledged in a summit speech in reference to the “unimaginable cruelty” of “my nation’s original sin” of slavery, the countries of Africa deserve to be engaged on their own terms and according to their own needs.
Gilles Yabi: Most African leaders want to discuss country-specific, regional, and continental issues with the United States without a permanent reference to the war in Ukraine and the demand of an alignment against Russia.
During the previous administrations, the discussion of U.S. foreign policy priorities in Africa were often about countering Chinese political and economic influence and denouncing Chinese debt and commercial practices, which were said to be detrimental to African interests. I recall a speech in December 2018 by John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, who spoke mostly about China when he was presenting the administration’s strategy for Africa. The New York Times article on the briefing was headlined: “Bolton Outlines a Strategy for Africa That’s Really About Countering China.”
Now the messages from the Biden administration are much more subtle and sophisticated, but they are still a lot about countering Russia and China in Africa. African leaders are reluctant to publicize their choices about the types of relations to be established with this or that other country according to the wishes of the United States or Europe. However, the diversity of the events, announcements, and participants to the summit and the importance given to economic, infrastructure, governance, climate change, and other issues in the panels made it possible to avoid frustrating African leaders and participants with a disproportionate focus on geopolitical rivalry between global powers at the expense of African priorities.
At the White House, Biden met with six leaders whose countries have elections in the next year and urged them to hold free and fair votes. How does this factor into Biden’s larger democracy push?
Gilles Yabi: This meeting was an interesting idea and certainly reflected both the common features and challenges of these countries, as well as their significant differences in terms of political context, risk of tensions around elections, and perceived credibility of electoral processes based on past experiences. In most of the six counties, electoral controversies are the rule, not the exception. And I am afraid that it is not a matter of funds for electoral processes, despite the United States’ plan to provide more than $165 million to support elections and good governance in Africa in 2023.
Biden’s democracy push has also been framed around the geopolitical battle between Western democracies and authoritarian regimes in Russia and China. But the debate in Africa should be about understanding the political realities and practices; the economic, social, and security contexts; and how to build both democratic and efficient institutions serving the people. Democracy is not only about elections—even free, fair, just, and nice elections. It is about building institutions, ensuring balance and mutual control of powers, creating conditions for an effective governance and a low level of corruption in its various forms. Protecting, sustaining, or building democratic systems in African countries is essential, but the discussion should also include the need to construct effective states in terms of civilian and military services and to tackle the vital needs of the populations. Building democratic systems in a context of widespread poverty, acute inequality, high levels of corruption, and entrenched interests of local and foreign actors who have nothing to expect from truly transparent and accountable governments is a huge challenge that requires much more than short-term support to elections and governance.
Matt Duss: Free and fair elections are necessary but not sufficient for democracy to succeed. Biden has made the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism a key focus and framing in both his foreign and domestic policy, built on the recognition that in order for democracies to survive and thrive, they must show that they can deliver for their people better than the alternatives. Focusing on the needs of working people rather than the needs of multinational corporations and powerful self-dealing elites is absolutely essential for strengthening democracy both at home and abroad. Here the Biden administration’s focus on global anticorruption as a national security priority is very welcome, but in order to fulfill that agenda, it will need to recognize that political corruption is as much a problem in the United States as it is anywhere else.
In his speech, Biden emphasized cooperation and partnership, but Washington often hasn’t followed through on that promise. What do you see going forward, in terms of expectations among the leaders?
Matt Duss: African leaders rightly expect the Biden administration to back its rhetoric with a concomitant commitment of funds. For example, Biden announced a $350 million investment in the Digital Transformation with Africa initiative and an overall commitment of some $55 billion to the continent over the next three years. Meanwhile, the administration has also requested nearly $40 billion more in funding for Ukraine, bringing total U.S. aid to more than $100 billion, even as Africa confronts a food security crisis exacerbated by Russia’s war on Ukraine. Strengthening and sustaining engagement with Africa will require addressing this disparity in both attention and resources toward a whole range of issues beyond just security, including education, housing, and clean energy, among others.
Climate funding was a major topic at COP27 last month. How did it factor into this summit?
Matt Duss: Climate was a key focus of the summit, and for good reason: seventeen out of the twenty countries estimated to be most vulnerable to climate change effects are on the continent of Africa. On December 16, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that at least 8.2 million people in twenty countries across Africa have been affected by heavy rains and flooding, with 2.9 million having been displaced. Africa is one of the regions that suffers from climate change most while having contributed to it the least, and so one of the most important things the United States can do is to meet its own climate commitments and encourage other industrialized countries to do the same, even while investing in renewable energy development in Africa.