US kicks off Africa Leaders Summit with focus on deepening ties with continent

Namibian President Hage Gottfried Geingob arrives at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. AFP

The US on Tuesday welcomed dozens of African leaders to a summit aimed at strengthening partnerships across the continent.

One of the underlying goals of the summit is countering China‘s influence in Africa. China is the continent’s largest trading partner and source of foreign direct investment, and Beijing enjoys wide support there compared to Washington.

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Before the three-day summit, Don Graves, the deputy commerce secretary, said the US had fallen behind China in terms of foreign direct investment in Africa, but he argued Washington remains the “partner of choice”.

“We took our eye off the ball so to speak, and US investors and companies are having to play catch up,” Mr Graves said at an event hosted by the news outlet Semafor.

“We’re bringing the best technologies and innovations, the highest standards … The US helps to build capacity in our partner countries as opposed to exploiting those countries.”

Recent polling from the UK-based YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project found that in South Africa, 61 per cent of respondents saw China’s influence in the world as positive; in Kenya, support was higher at 82 per cent, while Nigeria showed the highest opinion of Beijing, with 83 per cent support.

The African Leaders Summit, attended by 49 heads of state and government, kicked off with the aim of zeroing in on the “vital goal of civil society and the strength of our African diasporic communities in the United States”.

The summit’s first day featured sessions on topics including trade, climate, security, space co-operation and health.

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Among the first of many anticipated “deliverables” from the forum, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced a commitment “to align US investments with country needs” and to work in co-ordination with African and international partners to “reduce health workforce gaps”.

“These initiatives reflect our shared health objectives and the broad range of health workforce functions and needs, including preventive services, healthcare services, and emergency preparedness and response,” USAID said in a statement.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken helped to launch the summit with a reception for African innovators.

“We can’t solve any of the really big challenges we face if we don’t work together. So it’s about what we can do with African nations and people, not for them,” Mr Blinken said in his opening remarks.

The event included panel discussions with African business leaders and entrepreneurs, as well as former US president Barack Obama and British actor Idris Elba, whose family roots are in Ghana.

Mr Obama, whose father was Kenyan and who hosted the first Africa summit in 2014, echoed the call by President Joe Biden’s administration for an emphasis on governance and investment at the summit.

“Business doesn’t operate in a vacuum. You also need responsive governments, stable institutions and potential customers with money to spend,” Mr Obama said.

In his remarks, Elba emphasised the experience of the African diaspora in the West.

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“I grew up knowing my culture, understanding my culture. But I also grew up in London where being African was something to be ashamed of. They made me feel small,” Elba said.

“[African] innovators are not just thinking about money — they’re thinking about social structures, about different ways to help each other.”

Idris Elba speaks at an event for African innovators and entrepreneurs in Washington. AP

Idris Elba speaks at an event for African innovators and entrepreneurs in Washington. AP

The White House previewed that Mr Biden plans to officially endorse the African Union’s permanent status in the G20 in his remarks on Wednesday.

Washington also announced it will commit $55 billion to the continent over the course of the next three years “across a wide range of sectors to tackle the core challenges of our time”, and will appoint a new Special Representative for US Africa Leaders Summit Implementation.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Monday that the State Department plans to appoint Johnnie Carson, a former ambassador to several African countries, to the role.

“Africa is a key geopolitical player. The continent will shape the future not just of the African people, but also the world,” he said.

But Mr Biden has so far met fewer African heads of state than either Mr Obama or Donald Trump at the same point in their terms.

“The Biden administration is thus approaching this second US-Africa Leaders Summit with a trust deficit that it must overcome if it hopes to truly give life to a new era of partnership,” said Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa Programme.

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