This week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit was designed as a new opportunity for the United States to prove its commitment to forging stronger ties with African nations. Some 49 African heads of state received invitations for the three-day summit, which took place Dec. 13-15 in Washington, D.C.
The only nations in attendance were those that have not been sanctioned by the African Union (AU), the organizing body of the 55 countries on the continent. Six countries—Eritrea, Guinea, Sudan, Mali, Western Sahara and Burkina Faso—were not invited to take part in the summit, a U.S. State Department official acknowledged, because the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Eritrea or Western Sahara. The other four nations are currently suspended from the AU. AU Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat was also in attendance.
“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,” U.S. senior administration officials insisted in a background press call. “As Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken underscored during one of his recent trips to the continent this year, Africa will shape the future not just of the African people, but of the world. Indeed, with one of the world’s fastest-growing populations, largest free-trade areas, most diverse ecosystems and…largest voting––regional voting groups in the United Nations, African contributions, partnerships and leadership are essential to meeting this era’s defining challenges.”
The summit began with a Young Leaders/Diaspora Forum at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. That event was aimed at recognizing the shared cultural and historical bonds the African diaspora community has within the United States.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairperson Gregory Meeks (D-NY) told those at the museum that he has always advocated for “a U.S. foreign policy that aims to strengthen our relationship with our African partners by drawing upon the immense talent and diverse experiences of the African diaspora.” Meeks said that serving as the first African American to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee has meant “moving Africa from the back burner to the front burner. … So that it is not just being heard by subcommittees but by the full committee and so that everybody knows the importance and significance of making sure that we are engaging with the youngest and fastest-growing continent on the planet called Earth.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), the first naturalized U.S. citizen born in Africa to serve in the U.S. Congress, spoke up about the resiliency of Africans and Africa’s diaspora. “There is a danger to a single narrative that oftentimes strips us of the resiliency of our brilliance—of our strength,” she said. “The narratives that are existing in the continent and outside of the continent lead folks to forget that when given the opportunity, we excel.” When barriers are removed, Omar insisted, Africans can innovate and create. African nations may have governments that are still dealing with the residues of colonialism and wars, but African people are pushing past those remnants and creating beyond that, she said. “When we start to believe in ourselves, I think we are limitless and there are great opportunities for us to create the kind of investment that the African continent needs—if we push for the right partnerships that do not exploit the continent and its people but enrich the continent and its people.”
And that’s what groups like the Black Alliance for Peace (BAP) say they fear with efforts like the U.S. Leaders Summit. The U.S. role in Africa has been to disrupt African governments, said Margaret Kimberley, BAP’s Africa Team co-coordinator. “The same country that led the destruction of Libya in 2011 precisely because Muammar Gaddafi was trying to unify African nations—trying to come up with a currency that would help nations like his that were rich in natural resources—this same country can’t turn around 10 years later and claim to be a friend of Africa.” BAP held a week of protest actions to counter the summit. The group said it wants to highlight issues that should be on the agenda at the summit, like the dismantling of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which controls the military of most African countries and gives the U.S. some sway over those nations.
If it really wants to forge closer ties with the African continent, the U.S. itself will have to change and no longer be committed to the kind of full-scale dominance that says the U.S. has the right to control the rest of the world, BAP’s Kimberley said: “Despite any words, actions show that the U.S. is still dedicated to getting what it wants and the impact on other countries [is] of no consideration.”
The Biden administration has termed this second-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit as an event rooted in the recognition that Africa is a key geopolitical player. It fended off suggestions that the U.S. is trying to counter inroads made on the continent by Russia, which is now the largest weapons supplier to Africa, and China, whose Belt and Road Initiative has made billion-dollar investments in infrastructure on the continent.
The previous, and initial, U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit was held in 2014 under President Barack Obama, after his summer 2013 trip to Africa. President Biden is said to be planning to travel to Africa in 2023 and Vice President Kamala Harris may go as well.