US-Africa Leaders Summit: An Attempt to Counter China and Russia’s Rising Influence in Africa?

In recent years, China, Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have joined the international battle for military, commercial, and political interests in Africa. The United States has frequently trailed behind in this strong rivalry, a trend the Biden administration intends to alter with the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

On December 13–15, 2022, President Joe Biden of the United States hosted the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit at the Washington Convention Center, Washington, D.C. The three-day continued efforts, according to the Biden White House, aim to demonstrate the United States’ enduring commitment to Africa and will underscore the importance of US-Africa relations and increased cooperation on shared global priorities. It also served as an opportunity to listen to and collaborate with African counterparts on key areas the United States and Africa define as critical for the future of the continent and our global community. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that “the summit… is rooted in the recognition that Africa is a key geopolitical player.” “The continent will shape the future not just of the African people but also the world.” Unexpectedly, President Biden is planning a multi-country trip to Africa next year.

In recent years, China, Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have joined the international battle for military, commercial, and political interests in Africa. The United States has frequently trailed behind in this strong rivalry, a trend the Biden administration intends to alter with the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

During Secretary Antony J. Blinken’s speech at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Foreign Ministers Dinner, he said, “It’s a demographic reality.” It’s an economic reality. “And it’s a reality that’s reflected in the incredible dynamism and vitality of African nations, of their people, and the companies that do business on the continent.”

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) is the world’s largest free trade agreement, bringing together 55 nations with a combined GDP of $3.4 trillion. The accord will have an influence on the lives of 1.3 billion people on the continent, either directly or indirectly. Increased manufacturing across Africa has the ability to tip the scales in the continent’s favor. Better industrial infrastructure and policies would imply that more items would be traded across the continent, improving the larger concept of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). According to the African Development Bank’s (AFDB) 2017 African Economic Outlook, insufficient manufacturing and processing capacity is a key restricting factor for trade among African nations. Perhaps focusing on value addition is the best approach to get the continent’s manufacturing back on track. The AFDB research indicates that minimal processing occurs before items are re-exported, using petroleum products as an example.

According to the African Development Bank, 645 million Africans lack access to electricity, while 700 million lack access to clean cooking energy. According to the bank, many individuals use biomass for cooking, and 600,000 people die as a result of the resulting indoor pollution. Africa’s per capita power consumption is 181 kWh, compared to 13000 kWh in the United States.Africa produces the least CO2 but pays the greatest price.

West Africa, in particular, has been tilting toward China in terms of military aid for a while. Accounting for 25% of African maritime traffic and two-thirds of Africa’s oil production, the region faces a number of security threats.

The region needs billions of dollars a year for roads, railways, dams, and power, and in the last decade, it has received huge sums from China, which generally does not tie money to political or rights-related conditions. Washington has characterised Chinese lending as predatory and leading to potential debt traps. It has instead focused on facilitating private investment, but officials acknowledge that the US needs to do more to speed up assistance.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which first surfaced in the early months of 2020, has caused a number of persistent economic issues that have dogged the world. These issues have been brought to light by Russian special military operations in neighbouring Ukraine. After years of rhetoric and global tumult, many hope that the summit will be a chance for America to put its money where its mouth is. However, the summit takes place against a backdrop of multiple challenges, including a challenging global economic environment, food and military insecurity in Africa, the rising toll of climate change, and declining exports under the United States’ flagship African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which grants certain countries duty-free access to the US market.

A Second US-Africa Summit

Successive US presidents have pursued signature initiatives for Africa, with George W. Bush launching a major push to fight HIV/AIDS that he considers among his top legacies and Barack Obama spearheading a drive to boost electricity, which US officials say has brought power for the first time to 165 million people.

The inaugural U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit was held in Washington, D.C., from August 4–6, 2014. Leaders from fifty African states attended the three-day event, which was hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama. It’s focused on trade and investment and underlines the United States’ commitment to the continent’s people, democracy, and security. The summit facilitated the discussion on how to deepen these partnerships.

  • President Obama proposed $20 billion in investments in electricity, $7 billion in government financing to encourage US exports and investments in Africa, and an annual expenditure of US$110 million to help African countries develop peacekeeping forces.

A number of technical agreements were also signed. These include the Investment Framework Agreement with the Economic Community of West African States. It provides a coordination mechanism for trade and investment issues.

  • President Obama also called on the US Congress to extend and improve the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which provides duty-free access to goods from designated African countries into the US. He also announced a new investment of US$110 million a year for three to five years to train African soldiers to battle terrorism and insurgency through the Rapid Response Partnership programme.

Africa has indeed benefited from a number of these initiatives, although many remain unfulfilled. For example, in energy generation and distribution, the “Power Africa” project became an enhanced platform for lighting up Africa. Its original mandate was to add 30,000 megawatts of cleaner and more reliable electricity generation to connect 590 million people in Africa. So far, 6,501 megawatts have been generated, providing power to 165.4 million people for the first time.

AGOA has been at the core of US economic policy and commercial engagement with sub-Saharan Africa since 2000. It provides eligible countries in the region with duty-free access to US markets for over 1,800 products. Prior to the first African summit in 2014, AGOA, which was meant to end in 2015, was extended to 2025. Since then, it has enabled African countries to export (duty-free) non-oil products worth US$33 billion between 2014 and 2021. Also, $267 million was budgeted for 2015–2017 for capacity-building support for African militaries.

This year, with delegations from all 49 invited African countries and the African Union, the summit brings together heads of state, government officials, business leaders, and members of civil society to strengthen ties between the U.S. and Africa. “We wanted to be as inclusive as possible, not defining the region for the region but taking the lead from the African Union.” Not invited are those who have been suspended from the AU: Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sudan, and Mali. An additional element was inviting only countries with whom we have full diplomatic relations; currently, we do not exchange ambassadors with Eritrea. And countries we recognise—the U.S. has not recognised Western Sahara, so they were not extended an invitation. “We did extend an invitation to Zimbabwe at the foreign minister level, given U.S. sanctions against other members of the government,” Dana Banks, Senior Advisor for the Summit at the White House, said in an interview.

Mr. Biden indicated that the talks were about “building connections” as well as a “shared future” for the US and Africa. “We’ve known for a long time that Africa’s success and prosperity are essential to ensuring a better future for all of us.” The summit is built on US shared values to: better foster new economic engagement; reinforce the U.S.-Africa commitment to democracy and human rights; mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and of future pandemics; work collaboratively to strengthen regional and global health; promote food security; advance peace and security; respond to the climate crisis; and amplify diaspora ties.

The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit closed on Day 3 (December 15) with high-level discussions among leaders on the theme “Partnering on Agenda 2063,” the African Union’s strategic vision for the continent. The concluding session, with President Biden, focused on food security and food system resilience.

The administration has committed $55 billion to Africa “over the course of the next three years across a wide range of sectors to tackle the core challenges of our time,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan announced in a White House briefing.

The announcement includes:

  • a $100 million aid package for clean energy and another $800 million in public and private financing for digital development.
  • A $504 million infrastructure package aims to connect Benin’s port of Cotonou with landlocked Niger’s capital, Niamey. US officials estimate 1.6 million people will benefit from this.
  • Credit card company Visa said it would invest $1 billion into Africa to develop digital payments, and Cisco and its partner Cybastion announced 10 cybersecurity contracts worth a total of $858 million. Microsoft said it would roll out satellites to provide internet access to millions of people, starting in Egypt, Senegal, and Angola.
  • At the Business Forum, hosted by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Corporate Council on Africa in partnership with the Prosper Africa initiative, he announced $15 billion in two-way trade and investment commitments, deals, and partnerships that advance key priorities, including sustainable energy, health systems, agribusiness, digital connectivity, infrastructure, and finance.
  • President Biden also underscored America’s more traditional priorities in Africa when he announced another $2 billion for emergency humanitarian aid on top of $11 billion in recent food security announcements.

Meanwhile, the American president has also announced that he plans to visit sub-Saharan Africa, in what will be the first trip by a US president since 2015. “We’re all going to be seeing you, and you’re going to see a lot of us,” Biden told a summit of African leaders. He advocated for the African Union to have a permanent seat in the G20.

In response to a question from the media, Sullivan stressed that this money is not conditional on African nations condemning Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. In March, shortly after the invasion started, 17 African nations abstained from a vote to condemn Russia at the United Nations.

The choice of multi-polar actors

By the end of World War II, the multi-polar international system characterised by the pursuit of the balance of power among great powers in such a way that none of them was strong enough to predominate over others had transformed into bipolarity. The bipolar world was dominated by two opposite great powers with strong economic, military, and cultural influence on their allies. This nearly equal distribution of power between the United States (US) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) created an international system with no peripheries and two different spheres of influence, which resulted in stability for more than 40 years, assured peace between the two great powers, and limited wars in the rest of the world. After the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, the US emerged as the only great power in a new unipolar international system.

After the independence of most African nations, joining the United Nations (UN) becomes an obligation for all to fulfil for the benefit of each country’s sovereignty, security, diplomacy, and political gladiatorial roles. However, the majority of African leaders at the time refused to join any political bloc, demonstrating the non-allegiance roles that African nations played during their early years of independence. In a rare speech by the assassinated first and only Prime Minister of Nigeria, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, addressing the fifteenth regular session of the United Nations General Assembly, said: “We are willing to learn before we rush into the field of international politics, but we are totally unwilling to be diverted from the ideals that we think to be true.” That is the reason we in Nigeria will not be found to routinely align ourselves with any particular bloc. Indeed, I hate the very idea of blocs existing at all in the United Nations. Since then, Nigeria has laid the foundation for African-style diplomacy and the international political path in the global arena. In recent times, President Macky Sall of Senegal, who is president of the African Union, said, “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.” This is truly Africa’s position in relation to diplomacy and international politics.

Unfortunately, Europe and the United States have not paid much attention to Africa since decolonization. Beyond some business dealings and poorly allocated aid, the West has been absent from the continent. Fears of mass migration, however, have sparked Europe’s recent interest. China, Russia, and Turkey limit themselves to working within existing structures. They do not criticise countries for their governance, political systems, cultural habits, or traditions, whether they are concerned with gender issues, birth control, or equality. The West, however, promotes values in a paternalistic way. This is not always appreciated, and although economic aid is welcome, such paternalism is seen as a new form of colonialism.

Observers say the EU is nervous about the fact that it is losing influence in Africa with the growing presence of China, Russia, Turkey, and other global players. But the EU is internally divided and not able to live up to its ambitions to become a stronger global player, according to Geert Laporte, the director of the European Think Tanks Group.

France, which has in the past contributed thousands of troops to bring stability to fragile West African nations, is now being challenged by Russia. France’s last troops left Mali in August, ending a nine-year anti-terror operation after Bamako accused it of supporting terrorist groups. And they are being replaced by Russian mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner mercenary group. “There is a risk,” French President Emmanuel Macron warned during his recent state visit, that the United States may see transatlantic relations through the prism of its rivalry with China, reducing ties to Europe (and France) to a kind of lever to be pulled (an “adjustment variable,” he said) rather than an alliance on its own terms.

Just under half the military equipment in Africa is supplied by Russia, with historical ties stretching back to the anti-colonial liberation struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. The foundations of the security assistance are troop training, arms sales, and the dispatch of mercenaries. Russian arms have added fuel to the fire of conflicts—for example, the war in Darfur, Sudan—but have also played a critical role in strengthening the defence infrastructure of African countries. Algeria, Angola, and Egypt are Moscow’s biggest clients, and Russian military hardware, such as MiG and Su-class jets, Pantsir-S1 missile defence systems, and T-90 class tanks, has been distributed to at least 21 African countries.

According to Susan Turner, since the late 1990s, the notion of multipolarity has grown in popularity across the world. Russia and China, in particular, have frequently agreed on this ill-defined word, which has since been included or alluded to in virtually all of their joint declarations, pronouncements, and treaties beginning from the mid-1990s to the present. At a time when American hegemony is waning and speculation abounds over which of the world’s rising nations will come to prominence, it is critical to analyse the revitalised Sino-Russian relationship and one of its pillars—the promotion of multipolarity. Though they may agree on the same “solution” to the new global order, China and Russia pursue it in quite different ways.

Nonetheless, after the Ukraine crisis in 2014, Russia has boosted its engagement in global organisations, particularly those focusing on the Eurasian area over which it formerly governed. By participation in these organisations, Moscow has demonstrated that Western efforts to isolate Russia have failed. The willingness to accept binding obligations imposed by these regional organisations, as well as substantive follow-up on summits organised by these organisations, is usually lacking.

The decision by Washington to convene a second US-Africa summit eight years after the first, in 2014, raises various concerns. One example is what the United States can offer Africa that other key actors on the continent, such as the European Union, China, and Japan, cannot, especially given that these other three nations have been conducting regular summits for years.

An instance was when 43 heads of state or government went to Sochi in 2019 to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for a summit that doubled as an arms expo. Japan pledged $30 billion in development aid this August during a Japan-Africa summit in Tunisia. Turkey and the UAE have made major investments in areas ranging from construction to fintech.

In addition, China’s trade with Africa was five times the U.S. total last year, and Beijing can offer loans and infrastructure projects that the U.S. won’t, says Gyude Moore, who attended three “Africa plus One” summits while serving as public works minister of Liberia. However, the U.S. can leverage its private sector and expertise in areas like health, he says. Chinese deals with 632 businesses in Africa totaled $735 billion (€698 billion) in 2020. The previous year, 800 trade and investment deals across 45 countries were valued at $50 billion. CRS data also shows the US invested $22 billion in 80 companies in Africa over the same period, the Congressional Research Service indicated.

China has also made considerable investments in megaprojects. These include the construction of Angola’s Caculo Cabaça hydroelectric power station, Egypt’s Suez Canal Economic Zone, Nigeria’s Edo State oil refinery, and the refurbishment of the AU and the offices of the Economic Community of West African States. Xi Jinping has stressed repeatedly that Africa’s weak infrastructure is the most significant hindrance to its growth, and China’s BRI investments prioritise intra-state and inter-regional connectivity. China provided $25.7 billion of Africa’s $100 billion in infrastructure investments in 2018. These investments include railway projects such as Nigeria’s longest double-track railway and Tanzania’s $1.3 billion Standard Gauge Railway (12), but they also involve telecoms. China has funded at least $1 billion in projects along the Digital Silk Road in Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe. As part of the BRI, China introduced the Digital Silk Road in 2015, giving China a major role in developing digital connectivity among member nations.

Notwithstanding, 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 criticising the invasion, even as they are burdened by its aftereffects, including global food shortages and high energy costs.

Russia has complemented its mining concessions with investments in the energy, defense, and agriculture sectors. For instance, the Russian oil giant Lukoil has agreed to a preliminary refining sector deal with Nigeria. The state development bank VEB, meanwhile, has financed a refinery in Morocco and an oil products pipeline in Congo-Brazzaville. Russian nuclear energy giant Rosatom also views Africa as a core market. Although its nuclear reactor deal with South Africa was controversially unravelled in 2017, Rosatom has begun constructing the El Dabaa Nuclear Power Plant in Egypt. It has signed construction agreements for nuclear research centres with Rwanda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Zambia, as well as less comprehensive MOUs with the DRC, Sudan, and Uganda. It remains to be seen if these translate into tangible nuclear builds.

Moreover, the deliberate sabotage of any meaningful peace talks between Kiev and Moscow by the Biden administration since the beginning of the war exposes the role of the U.S. in continuing the current crisis. The war in Ukraine is part and parcel of a broader strategy that also attempts to weaken the People’s Republic of China. Biden’s visit to Taiwan and his threats to militarily intervene if Beijing brings Taipei under its administrative control are yet another example of the imperialist militarism being enunciated by the U.S. The announced meeting on June 3 between Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart notwithstanding, there are definite problems surfacing within the ranks of Biden’s advisors and supporters within the corporate media.

What’s in it for Africa?

Behind the scenes, officials from many African countries were less favourable about the US-Africa Leaders conference, commenting on the condition of anonymity to avoid criticising their American hosts. Some claimed they had heard great American promises previously, most notably during President Barack Obama’s first 2014 U.S.-Africa summit, but that they had not been fulfilled. Others pointed out that several of Mr. Biden’s pledges were contingent on congressional approval at a time when the American economy was strained and the situation in Ukraine was a major issue.

These grand gestures and grandiose pledges contrast with the more subdued diplomacy taking place at this summit, which featured pull-aside meetings between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the presidents of Ethiopia and Congo, both of whom are embroiled in ongoing wars. The US “urged quicker implementation” of a recent peace deal and “access to conflict regions by international human rights monitors” in meetings with Ethiopia’s prime minister, according to the State Department.

Washington’s competition with Beijing, which has invested in Africa in recent years at a level that has far outpaced the US, has loomed in the background of last week’s discussions. But Biden administration officials have sought to downplay that factor in their push to boost ties with African countries, instead stressing that the summit “is rooted in the recognition that Africa is a key geopolitical player.” The talks nevertheless elicited a response from China, as foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Wednesday that the US should “respect the will of the African people and take concrete actions to help Africa’s development, instead of unremittingly smearing and attacking other countries.” Wang said during a briefing that it is the “common responsibility of the international community to support Africa’s development,” adding that “Africa is not an arena for great power confrontation or a target for arbitrary pressure by certain countries or individuals.”

Experts say China is more focused on economic and national security interests than on peacebuilding. Beijing prefers strategies centred on development that help to alleviate poverty and provide stable governance but do not necessarily advance the protection of individual rights and free markets. But this growth-first attitude may be counterproductive over the long term. Russia’s engagement with Africa was intended to demonstrate that it offered a competitive alternative to the Western powers there and took advantage of its positive relations with the region to influence votes in the United Nations.

“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’s engagement with the region has fallen, it has not and should not cede its relationship with the region to other powers.”

As for the AfCFTA, the US is optimistic that if it is implemented the right way, it could help the continent solve most of its industrial challenges and attract more foreign investment. The Biden administration expressed confidence in Africa’s transformation journey in a press statement released by the White House. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the US and the AfCFTA Secretariat during the summit could boost trade and investment on the continent while unlocking trillions of dollars of Africa’s hidden potential.

In October, seven countries began a pilot programme (guided trade), sending goods across borders under the new AfCFTA customs rules to identify practical issues that can stand in the way of trade. All this to say that African countries have taken significant steps to address companies’ concerns and foster the emergence of new value chains and economic linkages. Once fully implemented, the Agreement Establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area will create a combined, continent-wide market of 1.3 billion people and $3.4 trillion, which would be the fifth-largest economy in the world.

The geopolitical rapprochement of Russia and China is aiding cooperation between the two countries in a part of the world where the presence of Western players has noticeably decreased in the last fifteen years. Chinese penetration of the continent has consistently developed since the start of the 2000s in both bilateral and multilateral formats, while Russia’s influence in Africa only began to manifest itself a few years ago. And for America and Europe, they have a history of making promises they can’t keep. Leaders in Africa tend to relate more to doers than to sayers.

Russia and China’s geopolitical rapprochement is facilitating collaboration between the two nations in a continent where Western actors’ presence has shrunk substantially in the previous fifteen years. China’s penetration of the continent has been steadily increasing since the early 2000s in both bilateral and multilateral contexts, but Russia’s influence in Africa just recently begun to emerge. America and Europe have a history of making unfulfilled promises, while African leaders are more likely to relate to doers than to sayers.

Writer and researcher at Alafarika for Studies and Consultancy.

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