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“Deadly Earnest and Serious”: Successes and missed opportunities at the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit 

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Abigail Kabandula

Director, Africa Center


Singumbe Muyeba, PhD, Assistant Professor of African Studies, and Abigail Kabandula, PhD, Director of the Africa Center


Singumbe Muyeba, PhD, Assistant Professor of African Studies, and Abigail Kabandula, PhD, Director of the Africa Center 

Africa Summit-US

The continued buzz from last month’s US-Africa Leaders’ Summit appears to challenge the long-established observation that the African region occupies the lowest priority in US foreign policy. In his own words, President Biden declared that his administration is “deadly earnest and serious about this endeavor”, meaning the US relationship with Africa. Indeed, the summit and its immediate aftermath have created an impression of prioritization of Africa in US foreign policy for the future, but there were many missed opportunities which indicate that this might be temporary. 

The Summit was held in Washington DC from December 13 to 15, 2022. Only the second in eight years, the summit brought together 49 heads of state and government, the African Union, business leaders, journalists, civil society, youth, and the African diaspora communities. The aftermath has seen the appointment of Ambassador Johnnie Carson, a seasoned US diplomat, to oversee the implementation of the agreed-upon resolutions. Additionally, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen embarked on a 10-day visit of three African countries, coinciding with IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva’s visit to Zambia.  President Biden has promised to visit the continent along with a host of high-level officials, which would be the first time a US head of state would visit the continent since President Obama’s visit in 2015.  

There are clear successes that have emerged for the US. The three-day undivided attention given to Africa by the most powerful nation on the planet demonstrated that the Biden Administration is indeed deadly serious about the relationship with Africa. Moreover, the efforts made since the administration came to power show remorse for the public disparagement and derision endured by Africa under the Trump administration. The Biden administration brokered 15 deals and made commitments worth $55 billion over the next three years. Part of the funds will ensure that the US economy will have access to Africa’s metals to aid its clean energy transition. On the democracy front, the US sent a clear and powerful message to the governments of Guinea, Mali, Sudan and Burkina Faso, which came to power through coups d’etats, that undemocratic rule isolates them from US and global politics. Eritrea and Western Sahara were also left out due to lack of diplomatic relations with the US. Underlying this exclusion is deterrence to leaders who might be contemplating remaining in power undemocratically. The special meeting on the second day with governments preparing for elections this year solidified this message. Finally, the Biden Administration managed to maintain African support for its strategy of militarization of US-Africa relations that has defined a major part of US-Africa relations since the George W. Bush administration. 

Like the US, African governments had several significant successes. African leaders appreciated that the continent has been taken seriously beyond its relations with former colonial powers, albeit as a single African continent rather than individual countries. Nothing says we are deadly earnest and taking you seriously than billions in federal funds at a time when countries are in debt default, high debt distress, or in debt distress. Further, securing US support for the inclusion of the AU in the G20 and for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council was a remarkable success for African voices being welcomed in global governance. The summit also infused confidence in the AU’s Agenda 2063, which had outlived its 15 minutes of fame in the media. It is almost 10 years since Agenda 2063 was instituted and yet the US only mentioned it for the first time in 2022. Unintendedly, a significant success for African governments is a return to the Cold War position of powers competing for the attention of African governments and having the option of using that to their strategic advantage. 

Despite several successes, there are missed opportunities for the US. The summit failed to demonstrate long-term US commitment indicating that this prioritization might be once-off or short-lived. No date for the next summit was set. Neither was there expectation that there will be prioritization beyond the Biden Administration. Irregularity of timing of summits, as opposed to the predictability and regularity of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Turkey-Africa Summit, Russia-Africa Economic Forum etc., leaves lingering questions regarding the US commitment and prioritization of Africa over the long term. Further, the US missed the opportunity to institutionalize the event under the Bureau of African Affairs. On the leadership front, despite committing $100 million over several years, the summit missed the opportunity to amplify the goals of the Obama Youth African Leaders Initiative (YALI) in the sense of reminding some of the presidents and recycled politicians that have overstayed in power that it is time to institutionalize succession plans, to let go, and hand over to the youth as a way to strengthen democracy. A case in point is 90-year-old Cameroonian president Paul Biya’s hot mic incident which revealed that he was unaware that he was at the summit while delegates and the world watched him embarrass himself, his country, and the continent. Further, the summit missed the opportunity to guarantee future democratic rule by grouping youth engagement with diaspora engagement. Youth engagement seemed to be an afterthought. Finally, the well-organized summit showed that much effort went into masking that the summit was a frantic attempt by the US to join the party as a latecomer. It was a clear attempt by the US to enter Africa as an arena of great power competition with China, Turkey, Russia and the Gulf States. Only time will tell if Africa was being prioritized over the long term or the US was attempting a second entry into the competition following the 2014 summit. 

There were also missed opportunities for African governments. They did not secure a strong commitment from the US for a definitive end to the debt problem. What is more, they missed the opportunity to seek structural change to commodity pricing to address declining terms of trade, intellectual property rights, and fairer trade which is a critical path to sustained economic power, inclusion in international political decision making and long-term prioritization of the region. These demands have been on the table for Africa at least since the 1970s and in some cases since the independence struggle. 

In sum, the summit and the continued buzz is emblematic of the prioritization of US foreign policy in Africa in the short-term, but the missed opportunities by both parties indicate that long-term prioritization in US foreign policy remains questionable. In addition to the post-summit follow-through by the US seen so far, institutionalization and regularization of the summit and structural changes in trade are needed to guarantee prioritization for the summit not to just end in a buzz. 

Acknowledgement: The authors would like to thank Prof. Aaron Schneider, Director of ICRS for the idea to write an opinion piece on the summit and for comments made on the initial draft.