it's time for africa

The first US-Africa Leaders Summit in eight years could and should redefine how the US views Africa

Launched in 2014 by then-president Barack Obama, the US has, until now, put this diplomatic exercise on the backburner

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Playing host.
Playing host.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla (Getty Images)

The US has a shot at rekindling its relationship with Africa next week.

From Dec. 13-15, president Joe Biden will host around 50 heads of states and senior leaders from across the African continent in Washington, DC.

The summit’s agenda is a hefty one. “The US-Africa Leaders Summit will build on our shared values to better foster new economic engagement; reinforce the US-Africa commitment to democracy and human rights; mitigate the impact of covid-19 and of future pandemics; work collaboratively to strengthen regional and global health; promote food security; advance peace and security; respond to the climate crisis; and amplify diaspora ties,” Biden said in a July statement.

The first US-Africa summit was hosted in 2014 by then-president Barack Obama a year after he and the first lady traveled to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania, to meet with heads of states and businesspeople. But since then, the US put this diplomatic exercise on the backburner. Donald Trump did not host the summit during his time at the White House, and pandemic considerations would have complicated hosting the event during Biden’s first year in office.

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The US has an interest in fostering a stronger relationship with the 54-country continent, which will make up a quarter of the world’s population by 2050. Since June 2019, the US government has helped close more than 800 two-way trade and investment deals across 45 African countries, worth an estimated $50 billion in exports and investments. On the humanitarian aid side, the US pledged $1.3 billion to the Horn of Africa, where 22 million people face a starvation warning.

However, it’s not moved fast enough or committed wholeheartedly. Biden has restarted the event and he speaks of “collaboration” when referring to it, but the US—which has often looked at the continent more like a problem to solve than a partner in trade and innovation–is yet to walk the talk. And hopefully, its efforts aren’t only motivated by stopping China in its tracks on the continent but also by helping African nations advance.

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Quotable: The US needs to start seeing Africa as an ally

“For years, US engagement in Africa has emphasized poverty reduction, foreign aid, and addressing conflict and insecurity. While critically important, these priorities have not fully kept pace with dramatic changes occurring across the region, as Africa today has emerged as one of the world’s premier destinations for cutting-edge innovation and inspiring entrepreneurship. This upcoming summit presents an unparalleled opportunity for the U.S. to recalibrate its approach to the region’s rapidly changing dynamics.” —Brookings Institution

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For the calendar: Breakdown of the US-Africa Leaders Summit 2022

Dec. 13: Civil Society Day. The African and Diaspora Young Leaders Forum, which will strengthen the dialogue between US officials, young Africans and citizens of African descent, and as the African Growth and Opportunity Act Ministerial Meeting, hosted by US Trade Representative Katherine Tai with Sub-Saharan African trade ministers and senior officials, are both scheduled on this day. Other discussion forums on this day span outer space, sustainable health, and conservation.

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Dec. 14: Business Day. The US-Africa Business Forum (USABF), where Biden is a keynote speaker, is intended to advance a two-way trade and investment partnership that bolsters Africa’s role in the global economy, scale innovation and entrepreneurship, and drive advancements in key sectors. The event will showcase “Deal Rooms” that “will offer a space for a diverse group of leading investors, businesses, influencers, and media outlets to foster partnerships, catalyze dealmaking, and shine a light on the energy, opportunity, and dynamism across the US-Africa investment ecosystem,” the state department said. The invite-only event will host heads of state, global CEOs, emerging business leaders, sports figures, and celebrities.

Dec. 15: Leaders Day. It will feature government meetings and discuss sessions focused on good governance, human rights, peace, sustainable development, food security, and more.

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A more detailed schedule is available here.

The US faces stiff competition from China and Russia in Africa

China is outpacing the US when it comes to trade and investment. From 2007 to 2017, US trade with Africa dropped by 54% whereas China’s grew by 220%. In 2016, China was the leading job creator on the continent. In 2020, China had deals totalling $735 billion with 623 businesses—a massive leg-up on the 80 companies the US has invested $22 billion in since 2019. China is sponsoring 46 port projects in Africa, and the US handles none.

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China’s soft power has been growing steadily too. Since 2006, it has diligently hosted the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation once every three years. Almost a decade ago, China put satellite televisions in 10,000 African villages, and loaded them with free Chinese stations broadcasting state-sponsored content.

Meanwhile, Russia has been tightening its grasp via military and security deals. At a 2019 Russia-Africa summit, Russia flaunted nuclear plants and fighter jets. And since the war Russia unleashed on Ukraine, the Kremlin has found supporters among the continent’s social media influencers, suggesting that there is a softer, cultural win, too.

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Unlike the West, these two countries work on the continent without openly criticizing the politics, bureaucracy, gender imbalance, and more, reducing chances of ideological tussles in business deals.

Their growing influence was pronounced when African countries were voting on resolutions concerning Russia at the UN: they were divided, and several withheld or voted down important charters.

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Why the US needs Africa

The US cannot sleep on Africa and the immense promise it holds with a massive working population, millions of whom are breaking out of poverty and into the middle class. To name a few reasons:

  • Africa is home to the youngest demographic in the world. The current median age in Africa is 18.8 years versus 30 globally.
  • The middle class has tripled to 310 million in the last 30 years.
  • It’s working population will grow by 20 million per year over the next 20 years.
  • It has a stronghold on the rare metals of the world. More than two-thirds of the world’s cobalt—a key component of lithium-ion batteries—is in Congo, and over a third of the world’s bauxite—essential in aluminum production is in Guinea.
  • The region poised to become a manufacturing powerhouse.

One more thing: The invitee list is controversial

Lawmakers and human rights activists are questioning Biden’s decision to invite some autocrats and leaders with checkered rights records. “When you partner with bad actors, nondemocratic leaders, you’re sending a clear message to the people in those countries … and giving these leaders more power and legitimacy on the world stage,” Nicole Widdersheim of the Human Rights Watch advocacy organization, told Foreign Policy.

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But the White House says it wanted to keep dialogue open.

We think actually engaging and consulting and talking about our different perspectives and seeking to advance US values is an appropriate way to meet challenges that we face in common,US Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs assistant secretary of state Molly Phee said during a Dec. 7 press briefing.

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That’s not to say an invitation was extended to every African country. “Out of respect for the African Union, we did not invite governments that have been suspended by the African Union for coups,” Phee added. These include Mali, Sudan, Guinea, and Burkina Faso. Eritrea and Somaliland, two countries with which the US does not have diplomatic relations, were also left out.

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