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3 reasons to pay attention to the White House summit with African leaders

The White House sees Africa — a continent of exceptional diversity, vitality and promise — as a critical ally in the decades to come, as the world emerges from the coronavirus to face threats like nationalism, climate change and migration.

Alexander Nazaryan·Senior White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON — The last time leaders of the African continent were invited to the White House, Barack Obama was president. It was August 2014, and Vladimir Putin had just invaded Ukraine — for the first time. The world was grappling with a deadly virus: Ebola. And Joe Biden was vice president of the United States.

Now Biden is president, and he has invited the leaders of 49 African countries to the White House for the first time since the Obama summit (five countries did not receive invitations). In the interregnum, there was, of course, the inward-focused presidency of Donald Trump, who once infamously complained about immigrants from “shithole countries,” including those from the African continent.

“Trump didn’t seem to attach any importance to a valuable relationship with Africa,” says W. Gyude Moore, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development and a former official in the Liberian government.

His neglect allowed China, Russia and Turkey to exert newfound dominance on the continent — dominance Biden believes should be challenged by the United States for moral, geopolitical and economic reasons.

The White House sees Africa — a continent of exceptional diversity, vitality and promise — as a critical ally in the decades to come, as the world emerges from the coronavirus to face threats like nationalism, climate change and migration.

Leaders of African nations sit on a stage in front of a backdrop that reads: U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.
At the summit: Presidents Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud of Somalia and Mohamed Bazoum of Niger; Jendayi Frazer, former assistant U.S. secretary of state for African affairs; U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin; U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken; Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)


At the same time, Biden wants to avoid the condescending tone that has marked relations between African nations and the West, which first colonized the continent, then worked to suppress and undermine popular revolutionary movements there after World War II.

“We are very conscious, again, of the Cold War history … of the deleterious impact of colonialism on Africa, and we studiously seek to avoid repeating some of the mistakes of those earlier eras,” Molly Phee, a State Department assistant secretary for African affairs, told reporters at a briefing last week.

The summit, which began earlier this week and ends tonight, comes at a time when domestic concerns continue to dominate American public discourse, with only the war in Ukraine and protests in China managing to garner widespread attention when it comes to foreign affairs.

Ignoring Africa is a mistake, however, the Biden administration believes. “The summit is really rooted in the recognition that Africa is a key geopolitical player and one that is shaping our present and will shape our future,” a senior official said last week.

Below are three reasons why Africa matters.

1. The continent is booming

Workers are seen along an automotive assembly line.
Volkswagen Workers assemble pieces of a model at the Uitenhage plant in South Africa in 2018. (Michael Sheehan/picture alliance via Getty Images)

If the business of America is, as the saying goes, doing business, then closer relationships with Africa makes perfect business sense. The pandemic did not damage African economies the way it did those in East Asia, Europe and North America.

In fact, the continent is experiencing unprecedented economic growth, even if income inequality remains a persistent problem.

The economic expansion is bound to continue. “The consumption that drives global prosperity after 2030 will take place outside the West,” Moore told Yahoo News.

“Africa makes sense for the United States,” he said in a telephone interview.

African leaders, however, want “investment, not aid,” Moore cautioned. In other words, they want to escape the model that guided Africa policy for much of the 20th century, which focused on helping people out of poverty and, later, fighting the devastation caused by HIV/AIDS.

Today, countries including Ghana, Ethiopia, the Ivory Coast and Senegal represent some of the fastest-growing economies in the world when measured by the year-by-year rise in gross domestic product, which measures the value of all goods and services produced by a country.

The car industry is rising in Morocco and South Africa, while the Rwandan capital of Kigali is emerging as a high-technology hub. Nigeria’s film industry, known as Nollywood, has become world famous.

“Africa is a rich continent with a young population,” Prince Michael of Liechtenstein, a small German-speaking country in western Europe, recently wrote. “Its arable land could in theory feed much larger numbers than today’s population. It is wealthy in natural resources, such as iron ore, cobalt, lithium, copper, uranium, manganese and many more minerals.”

A uranium mine.
A uranium mine near Arandis, Namibia, in 2019. (Christian Ender/Getty Images)

The administration has tried to position itself as a major influence on the content with Prosper Africa, a $170 million effort to increase trade between the United States and African countries, as well as Power Africa, a similar initiative that would make it easier for American green energy companies to invest in Africa. His administration is also devoting $350 million to Digital Transformation with Africa, an effort that will be launched by the government but will involve doubtlessly Silicon Valley and its expertise.

For their part, Africa leaders will want a reauthorization of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which expires in 2025.

The challenge for Western leaders will be how to seize opportunities there without exploiting people or natural resources. The Biden administration will also have to decide how best to hold fast to American values — promoting those values wherever possible — without dismissing the values of other nations.

The West “promotes values in a paternalistic way,” Prince Michael argues.

2. China is already there — and so is Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin with a group of leaders of African countries.
Russian President Vladimir Putin with leaders of African countries at a summit in Sochi, Russia, in 2019. (Sergei Chirikov/Pool via AP)

In 2019, African leaders convened with another leader of a superpower: Vladimir Putin of Russia, who invited the heads of state to Sochi on the Black Sea. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has also been making overtures to counterparts on the continent

During the Trump presidency, opportunities to expand relationships with Africa were squandered, and now Biden has to catch up to the two countries that present the United States with the greatest geopolitical threat.

This week’s summit has had an “unspoken but clear objective,” Moore says: “We are a better partner for Africa than China.”

China has been building enormous infrastructure projects across the continent and generally treating the continent with much more attention than the West. Because its own record on human rights and civil liberties is so troubled, Beijing has show little hesitation about working with oppressive regimes, like that of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe.

A section of the Nairobi Expressway in Kenya.
A section of the Nairobi Expressway in Kenya, built by China Road and Bridge Corp. (Dong Jianghui/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Perhaps the strategy is cynical, but it has worked. According to a recent study by Nancy Lee and Mauricio Cardenas Gonzalez of the Center for Global Development, Chinese development institutions invested 2.5 more times in infrastructure in sub-Saharan countries than all other such institutions in other countries combined.

U.S. financing “was an order of magnitude smaller than China’s finance, and no upward trend is yet evident,” they wrote.

Biden is trying to correct that, announcing a slew of new investments in the region, including from institutions like the National Cancer Institute.

At a business summit with African leaders on Wednesday, Biden reminded them that the United States provided 231 million coronavirus vaccine doses to the continent. “The United States is all in on Africa’s future,” Biden said.

His remarks did not mention China, but the implication would not have been lost on anyone in the room. Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the president’s goal is to counter “China’s malign influence on the continent.”

Russia, meanwhile, has been called “Africa’s dominant arms dealer,” a trend best embodied by recently released Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who helped funnel weapons to some of the continent’s most oppressive regimes.

President Biden is seen speaking on stage and on a large screen.
President Biden delivers remarks at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, which has isolated Russia from its former trade patterns in the West, Africa has been seen as a potential customer to replace lost energy and agricultural business in the West.

It helps Putin that favorable views of the Kremlin linger. They are a legacy of the Cold War era, when Russia tried to bolster the very same leftist movements Washington was trying to frustrate. “For many African governments with revolutionary parties, Russia sort of retains goodwill from the USSR,” Moore explains.

Russia is less strategic than China, but also less averse to risk, making its presence in Africa less predictable.

African leaders are well aware of these dynamics. They don’t want to be used as pawns in superpower competitions. Instead they want to be taken seriously on their own terms, in their own right, which is something that, ironically, Russia and China already do by dismissing the kinds of concerns — about governance, LGBTQ and women’s rights and civil liberties — that sometimes make Western governments squirm.

Those countries have been successful in Africa because they “limit themselves to working within existing structures,” Prince Michael wrote. “They do not criticize the countries on governance, political systems, cultural habits and traditions, be it gender issues, birth control, or equality.”

3. You can’t fight climate change without Africa

Elephants grazing.
Elephants graze in Loango Park in Gabon. (Steeve Jordan/AFP via Getty Images)

“The global crisis on climate cannot be solved by America alone,” Moore says. Not only does Africa represent dozens of votes when it comes to any international agreements, it has the resources necessary to wean human civilization off carbon-based fuels.

For one, two of the world’s largest carbon sinks — regions where trees pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — outside of the Amazon rainforest — are in Africa: Gabon, whose landmass is 88% forest, and the sprawling peatlands of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

If those are destroyed — as is happening in Congo already — the pace of global warming will only accelerate.

“You need Africa,” Moore argues. Not as a junior partner, though, but as an ally.

Here, again, business opportunities await. Africa “has the potential to reshape the supply chain for many clean energy options,” a report published in October by the consulting firm Deloitte found. “Some African economies could even become pivotal suppliers of energy minerals and natural gas in the immediate term.”

The West needs minerals like cobalt and manganese to make solar panels, batteries and wind turbines. These are found in abundance across the continent.

The challenge will be how to extract the resources without exploiting people, as was the case when Europeans mined for diamonds in southern Africa.

For now, the mining of minerals in Africa is dominated by China.

A conveyor belt carries chunks of raw cobalt.
A conveyor belt carries chunks of raw cobalt at a plant in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Samir Tounsi/AFP via Getty Images)

To make matters more complicated, some developing nations in Africa and elsewhere want to be compensated for the devastations they have experienced because of climate change — devastation they say the West is largely responsible for.

Climate reparations emerged as a topic at the recent climate change summit in Egypt.

Compensating for the flooding, drought and other adverse effects of a warming planet “is a moral imperative,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said at the convention. “It is a fundamental question of international solidarity — and climate justice. Those who contributed least to the climate crisis are reaping the whirlwind sown by others.”

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