Biden welcomes Africa leaders in bid to undo image of years of US neglect

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US President Joe Biden is at pains to fix perceptions in Africa that the US has neglected the continent while China and Russia make inroads.

He will get a chance on Wednesday when he hosts the first summit of its kind in eight years, one that will see him personally interact with leaders from the continent on trade, climate, and governance.

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The schedule includes a forum with American business executives and a dinner on Wednesday at the White House for leaders and their spouses. Biden will meet with delegations from nearly 50 African countries as well as the African Union.

But US officials acknowledge they face an uphill battle in convincing African leaders that they’re committed to reverse years of inattention.

As part of that effort, Biden will announce that the US supports a bid for the African Union to join the Group of 20 forum as a permanent member and for the continent to hold a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The US is also appointing longtime diplomat Johnnie Carson as a new Special Representative for US-Africa Leaders Summit Implementation to push agreements struck during the three-day event.

Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and key Cabinet officials –- including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen –- are expected to announce plans to travel to the continent in 2023. The administration will host a forum on improving food security in amid the war in Ukraine, which has hobbled grain and fertilizer exports.

And the White House committed $55 billion in funding to Africa over the next three years to address top priorities, including climate change mitigation.

White House officials declined to detail specifics of the $55 billion investments ahead of the summit, and the total pales in comparison to the roughly $700 billion in infrastructure loans China has offered across the continent. Still, the efforts signal US intentions “to have a real, genuine follow-up from the summit,” White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday.

“We are very mindful of this argument that says, ‘Okay, you’ll hold this summit and then everybody goes home, and doesn’t it just go back to business as usual?,’” Sullivan said.

Biden aides contend that their engagement with African nations is already paying dividends –- and that the summit provides a pivot from former President Donald Trump, whose most memorable gesture toward the continent was dismissing African nations as “shithole countries” in a closed-door meeting.

Sullivan said Biden intends to develop “not just a plan for the next three days but for the years that follow.”

The first meeting that Biden will chair on Wednesday is focused on “Agenda 2063,” a development blueprint independently written by the African Union that leaders there highlighted as a priority. Talks over renewing and expanding the US African Growth and Opportunity Act -- a law known as AGOA that allows expanded access to the US market –- are also expected to take center stage.

Long lagging behind

Still, some African representatives have bristled at US efforts to play catch-up – particularly when the efforts appear to be part of a broader great-power struggle.

Africa “has been always lagging when it comes to interest and trade,” Rwandan ambassador to the US Mathilde Mukantabana told US Trade Representative Katherine Tai at a Women’s Foreign Policy Group luncheon event on December 8.

The continent is sometimes “seen as a proxy place among superpowers such as the US and China,” she added. She complained that countries including Rwanda have been penalized under AGOA.

“Is this again going to be a photo op, and they go back, and you go back to what was used to be?” she said.

No one-on-ones planned

Other African leaders have noted that the US continues to primarily address the continent as a whole, rather than through bilateral relationships that would allow countries to raise their individual concerns. Biden is not planning any one-on-one meetings with African leaders in Washington, instead inviting a small group to the White House before the larger dinner.

And some have complained in the weeks ahead of the summit that the White House’s rhetoric about engaging with the continent is undercut by US sanctions and trade restrictions.

Nigerian leaders, for instance, have sought to preserve US military assistance to contain threats including an insurgency in the northeast, so-called “bandits carrying out mass abductions and killings across the northern region and a secessionist movement in the southeast.” That aid is in question amid allegations of human-rights abuses by security forces, triggering restrictions.

“You cannot on the one hand condemn terrorism and on the other hand make it difficult for Nigeria to get arms from those countries,” Femi Gbajabiamila, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said in London on December 6.

Kindness Paradza, Zimbabwe‘s deputy information minister, said the invitation to the summit was a positive development but also showed a “double standard” when weighed against recent US sanctions on President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s son.

“This is a subtle way of ignoring their own sanctions,” Paradza said.

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