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A shift in the US perspective on Africa

December 16, 2022

China was the elephant in the room as the Biden administration sought to regain trust among African leaders gathered in Washington this week. Analysts say the US made some progress to that end.

US President Joe Biden and delegates at a table
The US-Africa Leadres Summit in Washington took place December 13-15 Image: Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

"The United States is all in on Africa's future," US President Joe Biden told African heads of state at the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington this week. The three-day summit was just the second of its kind. The first was some eight years ago, when the Obama administration invited nearly all African heads of state to the US. 

The issues discussed were as diverse as the African countries themselves. Topics ranged from health, food security, climate change to democracy, peace, digitalization, and space exploration. Trade and economic relations were also top of the agenda. 

But it wasn't just about that, according to Cameron Hudson, an Africa analyst at the Washington-basedCenter for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) .

"I think it's trying to give African leaders a sense that Washington is back, Washington cares about their concerns, Washington is listening to their concerns and is prepared to act with a new kind of partnership to address them," Hudson told DW.

This is also reflected in the Biden administration's new Africa strategy , in which the US seeks to reframe the importance of sub-Saharan Africa to its own national security interests. 

The summit, however, fell far short of expectations, according to Hudson. "Sadly, the summit has not presented the substantially new vision for Africa that we were promised," Hudson told DW as the gathering concluded on Thursday. 

Was China discussed at the US-Africa Summit 

Biden's predecessor Donald Trump made significantly less effort to engage with African countries on the economic front. That gap has strengthened China's influence and financial investments on the continent in recent years.

China, hardly mentioned at the summit, was the elephant in the room as Biden sought to regain influence in Africa with diplomacy and billions of dollars in funding. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sit at a table with Angolan President Joao Lourenco
The US is striving to counter Chinese and Russian Influence in AfricaImage: Evelyn Hockstein/AP/picture alliance

The Trump administration had regarded the African continent as a scene of problems and neglect. China saw opportunities. 

This shift under Biden is positive, as Ebenezer Obadare, an expert for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.

"There's a lot of goodwill, a lot of positivity toward Africa," Obadare told DW. 

"As an African, as an analyst of the continent, it's very reassuring for me to hear the American president say that the United States is committed to the future of Africa, and that would seem to be the general tone of the summit in over the last three days." 

But China still has the edge over the US, he said. "Much of what the United States does every day in Africa is not seen in the same way as a road, an airport, or a bridge," Hudson told DW.

What will the US do for Africa  

The summit was about more than economic investment and trade relations. Biden announced that the US would back the African Union becoming a permanent place with the G20 nations. The US also promised to provide funds to support elections and good governance in Africa, as well as humanitarian aid.  

"We are working with the African Union to strengthen democracy and the core values that unite all our people, especially young people: Freedom, opportunity, transparency, and good governance," Biden said.

"These are what companies are looking for when they want to invest. They provide new opportunities and enable new partnerships."

Cameron Hudson, the Washington-based Africa analyst, argued that these commitments do not present a clear vision for the US and Africa. 

"The major announcements that have been made are not particularly significant or new announcements. What the president [Biden] has announced is essentially the day-to-day work of the US government," he said.

DW speaks with US Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs

The US also pledged $50 billion (€47 billion) to support business, health, and security in Africa. "So to that extent, you could say America is putting its money where its mouth is," said Africa studies expert Ebenezer Obdare.

However, he contends, what ultimately remains is the question of how much money flows into each area and how effectively the money is used over the next few years.

The outlook among African leaders

At the summit, African leaders appeared optimistic, although the US had only met their demands halfway, and there is no guarantee that US policy on Africa won't change in the short term, Hudson said.

"They didn't come to Washington to ask for aid and assistance. They came to demand a seat at the table where decisions are made in the multilateral context. They came to be treated as equals, to be respected as equals, not to be talked down to or lectured at," Hudson told DW. 

It may be hard for African countries to see the US as a reliable partner, knowing that Trump has set himself up for reelection in two years, Hudson told DW. But Obadare was more optimistic. 

The US can be a counterweight to China and Russia for African countries, he said. "If the US policymakers themselves have realized that the strategic, the military, the diplomatic context in Africa has changed, that's a win-win for African countries," he told DW.

The future for young Africans

Edited by: Benita van Eyssen

Silja Thoms stands and smiles as she looks into the camera.
Silja Thoms Senior Editor and Reporter