Biden Is Bringing Africa’s Leaders to Washington, Hoping to Impress

NAIROBI, Kenya — In Russia, Africa’s leaders were feted at a seaside resort where military aircraft for sale were parked outside the summit hall. In China, they dined with President Xi Jinping, some of them one-on-one, and received promises of investments worth $60 billion. In Turkey, they won support for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Now they are headed to Washington for a major summit hosted by President Biden — the latest diplomatic drive by a major foreign power seeking to strengthen its ties to Africa, a continent whose geopolitical clout has grown greatly in the past decade.

An international scramble for military, commercial and diplomatic interests in Africa, long dominated by China, has expanded in recent years to include other powers like Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. In this intense competition, the U.S. has often lagged behind, analysts say — a decline the Biden administration hopes to reverse with the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit that starts on Tuesday.

White House officials say the three-day gathering will include top-level meetings, new initiatives and business deals, and a gala dinner at the White House. But African leaders have grown accustomed to being courted by foreign suitors, and Washington is one stop on what has become a global circuit of Africa summits held by China, Russia, Turkey, France, Japan and the European Union.

As the planes of over 40 African heads of state descend on Washington, a question looms: What can Mr. Biden offer that they want?

“The U.S. has traditionally seen Africa as a problem to be solved,” said Murithi Mutiga, Africa director at the International Crisis Group. “But its competitors see Africa as a place of opportunity, which is why they are pulling ahead. It’s unclear if this conference is going to change that.”

A Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in 2019. Russia has become the continent’s largest arms dealer and is vying for opportunities in Africa.Credit…Pool photo by Sergei Chirikov

Africa’s top diplomat says that, first of all, they want to be heard.

“When we talk, we’re often not listened to, or in any case, not with enough interest,” President Macky Sall of Senegal, who is president of the African Union, said in an interview in Dakar last Thursday. “This is what we want to change. And let no one tell us no, don’t work with so-and-so, just work with us. We want to work and trade with everyone.”

Much has changed since the first U.S.-Africa summit, hosted by President Barack Obama in 2014. Chinese trade with Africa has continued to grow — hitting a record high last year of $261 billion — as have the debts of African countries to China. In contrast, U.S. trade with Africa has dwindled to $64 billion — a mere 1.1 percent of U.S. global commerce.

Russia has emerged as the continent’s largest arms dealer and become a muscular force across a swathe of the continent through its use of mercenaries from the Wagner Group to prop up shaky regimes, often in return for precious minerals.

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Turkey has built dozens of new embassies and Turkish companies have been on a spree, constructing airports, mosques, hospitals and sports stadiums, even in unlikely conflict zones like Somalia. The U.A.E. has built ports on the Red Sea and supplied armed drones to Ethiopia.

President Barack Obama raises his glass to toast African leaders at a dinner at the White House in 2014. Since then, when Mr. Obama held the first U.S.- Africa summit, the continent’s geopolitical status has grown.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

The issues that have long hobbled Africa’s progress remain, including poverty, conflict, threatened famines and corruption. But the continent also has many new strengths that are drawing foreign powers.

As birthrates tumble elsewhere, Africa’s population is projected to double by 2050, when the continent will account for one-quarter of the world’s people — potentially a huge market. Africa’s huge reserves of rare minerals will be needed to power the electric vehicles of the future.

Africa’s vast forests are among the world’s biggest carbon sinks, and its cultural footprint is expanding. Nigerian Afrobeats music is wildly popular worldwide, its movie industry is growing, and a thriving tech sector in countries like Kenya has emerged as a source of innovation and cheap software talent.

That new strength has changed the tone of Africa’s relationship with wealthy Western nations. On a visit in 2009, President Obama brought a message of tough love, saying that American help to Africa should be matched by Africans taking responsibility for their problems.

These days American officials stress partnership, and shared interests and values. Africa has become “a major geopolitical force,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in August. “One that shaped our past, is shaping our present, and will shape our future.”

Peatlands in Democratic Republic of Congo. The continent’s forests are among the world’s biggest carbon sinks.Credit…Nanna Heitmann for The New York Times

What’s less clear is whether this week’s summit will match up to that soaring rhetoric.

In a series of briefings, U.S. officials said the summit would feature a string of business deals between African and American companies, and an initiative to boost the continent’s “digital economy.” President Biden will announce American support for an African Union seat on the G20, as well as for greater African representation in global institutions like the International Monetary Fund.

There will be initiatives to tap the African diaspora for new ideas in higher education, creative industries and the environment and for collaborations with NASA on space programs. A guide for summit delegates, obtained by The New York Times, predicts that Africa’s “space economy” will grow 30 percent by 2024 — an opportunity for the U.S. to help with technologies to solve problems related to climate change, agriculture, security and illegal fishing and mining.

But there is little sign that Mr. Biden intends to launch a signature policy initiative like previous American administrations.

A massive project to combat H.I.V. and AIDS, launched by President George W. Bush in 2003 and known as PEPFAR, has cost $100 billion and saved 25 million lives, according to the government. President Obama’s biggest initiative was Power Africa, which has brought electricity to 60 million African homes — about half its original goal.

In this summit, Mr. Biden’s approach is broader, driven by a theme of “building 21st century partnerships,” Judd Devermont, Africa director at the National Security Council, said last week. The coming decade will reshape the world order, Mr. Devermont added, and “African voices are going to be critical in this conversation.”

Boarding a Chinese-built train in Nairobi last year. Credit…Sarah Waiswa for The New York Times

But at summits elsewhere, African leaders often leave with hard promises of assistance — Chinese infrastructure, Russian weapons or Turkish drones, for instance. Analysts say that American talk of respect and shared values may not be enough for them.

“African countries don’t want to be taken out for an ice cream,” said Michelle D. Gavin, a senior fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They want debt relief. They want loss and damage. They want a TRIPS waiver.”

(TRIPS is an intellectual property law that African countries want waived so they can manufacture vaccines.)

The White House says it will use the summit to revitalize older American initiatives like the Africa Growth Opportunity Act, a Clinton-era law lowering some trade barriers to Africa, which is set to expire in 2025. While that approach makes sense, the danger is that African leaders will “see it as a downgrade,” said Cameron Hudson, an Africa specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“When you prioritize everything, you prioritize nothing,” he added.

America retains considerable clout across much of Africa. Its diplomats played an invaluable back room role in helping to broker a recent peace deal in Ethiopia. It is the key foreign player in Somalia in the fight against Al Shabab militants. It sends many billions of dollars in aid to the continent’s poorest corners — far more than China, which gives little, or Russia, which gives almost nothing.

A camp for Somalis forced from their homes by three years of drought. While Africa’s new strengths are drawing foreign powers, poverty and the threat of famine still plague some countries.Credit…Malin Fezehai for The New York Times

Still, the growing range of international powers crowding into the continent means that African leaders know they have choices — turning to one ally for aid, and another for weapons, for instance — and don’t like to be forced to take sides.

In the war against Ukraine, several countries including the continent’s economic powerhouse, South Africa, have been reluctant to take sides against Russia. American officials have been careful not to frame this week’s summit as part of America’s wider competition with China.

Some Biden officials are so keen to avoid mention of China that they jokingly call it the “Voldemort” of U.S. foreign policy — a reference to a “Harry Potter” villain whose name is rarely uttered.

But the rivalry is obvious to many on the ground in Africa.

At Makerere University in Uganda, a student, Abiji Mary Immaculate, credited the U.S. with doing “a lot of good” for her country. The U.S. gives nearly $1 billion a year for health and development, the State Department says.

But ordinary Ugandans often struggle to understand those benefits, she added, while they can see Chinese-built roads and bridges “every day of their lives.”

Sithembile Mbete, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Pretoria, welcomed this week’s summit as a chance for the U.S. to deal with African countries as a bloc, and move away from a tendency to cherry-pick favored allies.

But whether it succeeds, she added, depends on if Mr. Biden is willing to truly engage with Africans as equals, and not “as a big brother telling countries what to do.”

In Kampala, Uganda, last month. The U.S. gives the country nearly $1 billion a year for health and development.Credit…Esther Ruth Mbabazi for The New York Times

Reporting was contributed by Ruth Maclean in Dakar, Senegal, Abdi Latif Dahir in Kampala, Uganda, and John Eligonin Pretoria, South Africa

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