Biden must prove his Africa strategy is no ‘tick the box’ exercise

Instead of hurtful digs at “shithole” countries, the new government promised a new era of relations based on shared interests and mutual respect. The US, Biden’s White House claimed, should be Africa’s ideal partner on everything from nation-building to trade to security.

Nearly two years into his first term, the president’s record in Africa is in the spotlight like never before.

After months of back-and-forth between federal agencies, Secretary of State Antony Blinken finally released the government’s new US strategy for sub-Saharan Africa in August. This December, Washington will host a US-Africa summit for the first time since President Barack Obama launched the idea in 2014.

Together, the strategy and the summit embody Biden’s vision for establishing business relations with a young continent, which is regarded as a future economic center, while repelling the invasion of China and Russia. At the same time, after four years of “America First” priorities under President Donald Trump, the administration has recommitted itself to the longstanding US policy of supporting democracy in Africa and around the world.

“There was definitely a deliberate departure from the way the Trump administration spoke and dealt with Africa,” said Akunna Cook, a Nigerian-American former assistant secretary of state for African affairs who left the administration in September. to start a media production company with a focus on Africa. “The bar was set at the bottom of how to elevate the discourse on engagement with Africa and build on mutual respect.”

Now comes the real test of whether US-Africa relations are finally picking up steam or will continue to fall far short of their full potential.

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appeal of the United States

At least on paper, there is a lot to be said for the USA.

African governments and their citizens may dismiss Western lectures on the risks of dealing with China — the continent’s largest trading partner for the past 13 years — and exhortations to denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But many still see the United States as a force for good.

Afrobarometer polls show that 60% of Africans believe the United States has had a positive economic and political influence on their country, just behind China (63%) but well ahead of Russia (35%) and former colonial powers (46%). ). At the same time, 70% of Africans agree that “democracy is preferable to any other type of government”.

The new US strategy takes such insights into account to argue that democratic African nations are more likely to choose the US as their partner of choice. As such, the document calls for increased US support for a free press, rule of law and transparency across the continent.

“Open societies,” says the strategy, “are generally more inclined To work with the United States to attract more US trade and investment and pursue policies to improve conditions for its citizens and counteract harmful activities by the People’s Republic of China, Russia and other actors.”

To engage with Africans on their own terms, the Biden administration is also seeking to leverage America’s 2-million-strong African-born diaspora like never before.

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“That competitive advantage is latent right now,” says Zainab Usman, director of the Africa program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “It hasn’t been realized yet, but it needs to be developed.”

come up short

While the Biden administration is saying many right things, critics argue that more can and should be done to make Africa a real priority.

As of mid-September, neither President Biden nor Vice President Kamala Harris had made or even announced a visit to the continent. The last US President to visit Africa was Obama in July 2015 when he visited Kenya and Ethiopia.

By contrast, Biden has so far made eight international trips to 13 countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East (plus the West Bank), including his Sept. 19 visit to London for Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral. Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Africa most recently in 2018 just before the Covid epidemic, while Russian President Vladimir Putin visited South Africa for the BRICS summit in the same year.

“I think there’s just a mismatch between the level of engagement (and the rhetoric), in part, because the United States has so many interests around the world and has many demands on its time,” says Cook. “But also just, frankly, a (lower) priority given to Africa.”

Pro-democracy activists also worry about America’s continued support for the region’s autocrats, despite its pro-democracy rhetoric.

That year, Washington think tank Freedom House rated only eight African countries as fully free (Botswana, Cabo Verde, Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia, Sao Tome and Príncipe, Seychelles and South Africa) – the worst result since 1991. By inviting a multitude of Taking heads of state from authoritarian countries to his Leaders Summit, from Cameroon to Uganda, President Biden is giving them all a once-in-a-lifetime chance to pose with the leader of the free world, without having to change anything to earn it.

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“There is a significant – and some might argue, growing – Gap between rhetoric and reality,” says Jeffrey Smith, founder of Vanguard Africa, a US consultancy that represents African opposition figures such as Bobi Wine of Uganda and Martin Fayulu of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “I think that’s always a problem, because that’s when America’s critics can point to that void, and they’re not wrong.”

Key to the success of the summit, Cook says, will be how well the US can engage Africa on a variety of issues, from increasing private sector investment to strengthening Africa’s voice in international organizations to helping the continent in sustainable development Covering its enormous energy needs.

“I think the fear is that it’s a check-the-box exercise. Okay, there are so many African countries, and if we bring them all here… that’s it,” says Cook. “But that’s not really what you expect from a summit. What you want from a summit is something that sets out a meaningful agenda that you can work on for the next year or two.”

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