President Joe Biden welcomes nearly 50 leaders from Africa on Wednesday for a summit intended to reset Washington’s commitment to a region where China and Russia are also working to expand their influence.
The gathering, coming nearly two years into Biden’s term, will focus on issues critical to the continent’s future, including climate change, public health and food security. Already, the administration has announced billions of dollars in economic aid and voiced support for a permanent seat at the Group of 20 for a representative from the African Union.
Biden is also expected to unveil plans to travel to the continent – he hasn’t visited Sub-Saharan Africa since taking office – and to appoint a new special representative for implementing the summit’s commitments.
Biden will deliver remarks Wednesday at the US-Africa Business Forum in Washington before hosting a small group of African leaders at the White House “for a discussion on upcoming presidential elections in 2023 in Africa and US support for free, fair and credible polls across the continent,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Monday, a sign of Biden’s focus on issues of democracy on the continent.
Four nations’ leaders were excluded from the summit invite list following recent coups. But otherwise, all of the continents’ countries will be represented, including some with dire human rights records.
On Wednesday evening, Biden will host the dozens of heads of delegation and their spouses for a dinner at the White House before kicking off Thursday’s program and closing the day “with a discussion on food security and food systems resilience” in Africa, which Sullivan said has been disproportionately affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The goal, according to senior administration officials, is to build more robust ties with African nations in the hopes of addressing the significant challenges the continent faces and to cultivate beneficial economic and security partnerships.
It’s not the first time African leaders have heard a similar message from an American president. President Barack Obama held his own US-Africa Leaders Summit in 2014, complete with gala dinner under a tent on the White House South Lawn. He promised then to take action to help build more prosperity and security in Africa.
But his predecessor Donald Trump largely ignored Africa, never visiting the continent and even rudely disparaging certain African nations in a 2018 meeting as “shithole countries.”
Meanwhile, other nations have made inroads on the continent. China has worked to grow trade relations with African nations and has developed major infrastructure projects there. Russia has expanded its military influence, including through mercenaries like the Wagner Group.
“We see Russia continuing to peddle cheap weapons,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday at a summit session. “And also, we see Russia employing mercenaries across the continent, and that is destabilizing as well.”
Those countries, along with the European Union and Turkey, have each held their own summits for African leaders in recent years.
In previewing this week’s US summit, American officials have been careful to avoid framing Africa as a pawn in a larger geopolitical strategy. Instead, they have sought to emphasize Biden’s interest in cultivating ties that would benefit both the US and Africa, and finding ways to harness the continent’s potential.
“The Summit, just to take a step back, is rooted in the recognition that Africa is a key geopolitical player,” Sullivan said. “The continent will shape the future, not just of the African people, but also the world.”
Yet the creeping leverage that Beijing and Moscow have exerted in Africa is a source of growing concern in Washington, particularly amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Some African nations have been wary of criticizing the invasion, even as they are burdened by its aftereffects, including global food shortages and high energy costs.