US President Joe Biden has invited the leaders of 49 African nations, as well as the African Union, to a rare summit in Washington this week.
The declared objective is to engage the leaders of the continent and redefine America’s role at a time when both Russia and China are gaining a footing there and when old colonial rulers, like France, are packing up and leaving. Last time Washington DC saw such a gathering was in 2014 under Barack Obama.
The three-day summit running from Dec 13 through Dec 15 will cover various issues including climate crisis, good governance, food security and global health, as well as bolstering US-Africa trade and investment opportunities.
This is all fine and dandy, but Africa today is different from Africa of the distant past. A number of countries are witnessing incredible economic growth and are diversifying their global alliances.
Africa had disappeared from America’s foreign policy radar under former president Donald Trump. Between 2016 and now, the African nations had to withstand a number of challenges; economic, political and health related.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating effect on the people of the continent. Africa has had the least number of vaccines delivered and administered compared to say Europe and North America.
Now the US says it is realizing the increasing geopolitical role that Africa is playing in global affairs. The Biden administration wants to commit $55 billion to Africa in the course of the coming three years. The US remains one of the biggest foreign investors in Africa.
China's growing Africa footprint
Between 2014 and 2019 it had invested almost $200 billion; about $50 billion annually. But while the US, and to a lesser extent France, remain the main investors, China is moving in quickly with total investments in 2021 totaling $70 billion, making it the highest investor in terms of capital.
Between 2000 and 2019, it is estimated that Chinese financiers signed 1,141 loan commitments worth $153 billion with African governments and their state owned enterprises.
On the other hand, Russia has been building up its presence in Africa for years. Just before the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Moscow was responsible for more than 40 percent of the continent’s grain supplies.
In contrast to China, which has been investing in Africa’s infrastructure, Russia has been solidifying its military alliances too.
In fact, just under half of the military equipment in Africa is supplied by Russia. The relationship goes as far back as the 1950s during the years of liberation in Africa.
Economically, Russia and South Africa are both members of the economic alliance called BRICS.
In terms of US relationship to Africa, the emphasis was more on the continent’s role in the Cold War with the American’s seeking to counter the growing Soviet presence in a number of African countries.
Africa is now getting more than $1 billion in US emergency food aid this year while total foreign aid from the US reached almost $7 billion.
While the Washington summit will focus on democracy, human rights and good governance, the reality is that African leaders want to see more investments coming in with no conditions attached. This is at least what they expect from the Russians and the Chinese.
The problem with the US relationship to African nations is that it is influenced by American domestic politics. The “America First” mantra of Trump and his ilk is now a central theme in future presidential elections.
Can Africa trust the US?
The question is: Can African leaders count on continued US support? In contrast, China’s attitude and approach to African nations has been consistent for decades. African leaders know firsthand that China does not tie money to political conditions.
On the other hand, the US remains the foremost economic and military global power and Biden will play his best hand yet; he has promised that he will back an initiative to include the African Union in the Group of 20, while the US administration is expressing a commitment to UN Security Council reform, “including support for a permanent member” from Africa.
There is a need to alter the stereotypical perception of Africa as an underdeveloped continent. Africa is now Europe’s remaining hope to find an alternative to Russian gas and oil.
Overall, Africa’s gross domestic output increased significantly in 2021 by an estimated 6.9 percent. The anticipated real GDP growth for Africa in 2021 was higher than both the global average and other regions’ growth rates.
There is another side of Africa that many don’t know about. It’s time that such a story is told and that the continent that had suffered the most in recent decades is left out of the global power struggle.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.