African heads of state will join President Joe Biden in Washington in mid-December to take part in the second United States-Africa Leaders Summit. Some 50 African leaders will travel to the US capital for the two-day conference, which starts on December 13.
Senior policymakers say talks will focus on economic engagement, human rights, food security and climate, with an emphasis on partnerships that demonstrate an intention to go beyond strategic geo-political interest. President Biden has said he hopes to ‘reinforce the US-Africa commitment to democracy; mitigate the impact of Covid, respond to the climate crisis and amplify diaspora ties’. The White House will seek to offer reassurance to African governments concerned by a perceived cooling in relations with the US.
Africa’s cooling relations with the US
‘As trite as it might sound, the key objective of this conference should really be to enhance trust between African leaders and the United States,’ said Gilbert Kaplan, a former under-secretary at the US Department of Commerce. ‘I was in Africa in 2018 leading the President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa and the foreign minister of Ethiopia said to me: “Well you’re here but are you really here?” What he meant was: is the United States really committed to a long-term, strong relationship with the African continent or is it just a drive-through and a hello without making major commitments?’
The first summit was held by President Barack Obama in 2014. Addressing the inaugural conference, he spoke of the ‘blood of Africa’ that ran through his veins and how ‘the bonds between our countries are deeply personal’. Today, however, a succession of abstentions or no votes from African states over United Nations resolutions on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine points to a growing misalignment in the relationship. This is indicative of expanding Chinese and Russian influence on the continent, say analysts.
‘Africa is faced with some of the biggest governance challenges on the globe,’ said Kah Walla, president of the Cameroon People’s Party and the first woman in the nation’s history to run as a presidential candidate in 2011. ‘We need government that is functional, competent and innovative, and what we are getting instead is the US and a global international system that is supporting [via financial aid] autocratic and dysfunctional governments. We can’t continue in this way.’
Africa’s 54 nation states span six time zones and the continent’s population of 1.4 billion is on course to make up a quarter of the global population by 2050. It boasts the youngest demographic in the world, a potentially huge labour resource for private sector investors seeking to expand in manufacturing and processing, for example. The current median age in Africa is 18.8 years, compared with a global median age of 30.
In July this year, the US provided nearly $1.3 billion in humanitarian assistance to help stave off hunger due to drought in the Horn of Africa. Since June 2019, the US, under its Prosper Africa programme, has also helped close some 800 export and investment deals across 45 African nations with an estimated value of $50 billion.
The US is losing out to China in Africa
Meanwhile, China surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trade partner in 2009, with total bilateral trade reaching more than $254 billion in 2021, a 35 per cent rise on 2020.
‘Despite Africa’s tremendous economic potential, the US has lost substantial ground to traditional and emerging partners, especially China,’ Landry Signé, a member of the World Economic Forum’s Regional Action Group for Africa, told a Senate subcommittee on Africa last year. ‘While recent trends indicate that the US engagement with the region has fallen, it has not and should not cede its relationship with the region to other powers.’
By James Orr, Journalist on South Asia, the US and the Middle East, Freelance (Chatham House)