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Biden Hosts Summit of 49 African Leaders to Counter China & Russia’s Growing Power Across Continent

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Leaders from 49 African nations are in Washington, D.C., this week for a three-day summit organized by the Biden administration. The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit comes as the United States is trying to counter the growing influence of China and Russia in Africa. On Monday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan announced a pledge of $55 billion in economic, health and security support for Africa over the next three years. President Biden is also expected to express support for the African Union to join the G20 and to push for the United Nations Security Council to include a permanent member from Africa. The summit in Washington comes as parts of Africa grapple with crises including the climate emergency and political instability, with the past two years seeing coups in Mali, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Guinea. “China is definitely looming in the background” of the summit, says Lina Benabdallah, an assistant professor of politics at Wake Forest University. We also speak with anthropologist Samar Al-Bulushi with the University of California, Irvine, who notes that Biden’s summit comes “at a time when Africa’s geostrategic significance is on the rise and at a time when U.S. influence on the continent is on the decline.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Leaders of 49 African nations are in Washington, D.C., this week for a three-day Africa summit organized by the Biden administration. The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit comes as the United States is trying to counter the growing influence of China and Russia in Africa. On Monday, Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, revealed the United States is pledging $55 billion in economic, health and security support for Africa over the next three years.

JAKE SULLIVAN: Working closely with Congress, the U.S. will commit $55 billion to Africa over the course of the next three years across a wide range of sectors to tackle the core challenges of our time. These commitments build on the United States’s long-standing leadership and partnership in development, economic growth, health and security in Africa over the past three decades.

AMY GOODMAN: During the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, President Biden is expected to express support for the African Union to join the G20 and to push for the United Nations Security Council to include a permanent member from Africa. Axios is also reporting Biden is planning his first trip as president to sub-Saharan Africa next year.

The Washington summit comes as Africa faces numerous crises, from the climate emergency to political instability. Over the past two years, there have been coups in Mali, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Guinea. U.S.-trained officers led several of those coups. The four nations were not invited to the Washington summit; neither was Eritrea or leaders from Western Sahara, which has been occupied by Morocco since the 1970s. One prominent African leader who will not be attending this week’s summit is South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who faces possible impeachment over corruption allegations.

The summit comes as the U.S. continues to expand its military presence in Africa. President Biden recently sent U.S. troops back into Somalia, reversing an order by Donald Trump to withdraw troops.

We’re joined now by two guests. Lina Benabdallah is an assistant professor of politics at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. She is the author of Shaping the Future of Power: Knowledge Production and Network-Building in China-Africa Relations. And Samar Al-Bulushi is an anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine, focusing on policing, militarism and the so-called war on terror in East Africa. She’s also a contributing editor for the publication Africa Is a Country and a fellow at the Quincy Institute. Her forthcoming book is titled War-Making and World-Making. In August, the professors co-wrote an article titled “Biden Administration Needs to Match Rhetoric with Action on Africa Policy.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Samar Al-Bulushi, let’s begin with you. Talk about the significance of the summit, why the U.S. is holding it, the Washington, D.C., meeting of 49 African leaders. Who’s there, and who isn’t?

SAMAR AL-BULUSHI: Good morning, Amy. It’s great to be with you.

The summit comes at a time when the U.S., and the Biden administration specifically, is hoping to demonstrate its commitment to Africa at a time when Africa’s geostrategic significance is on the rise and at a time when U.S. influence on the continent is on the decline. So, I think, in the next few days, I think we can expect a good degree of performance and theater. The U.S. will be attempting to demonstrate that it respects African leaders as equal partners, that it respects the sovereignty of African states. We can expect to hear a lot of talk about shared goals on issues ranging from peace and security to democracy, development and climate change. And all in all, I think the U.S. is hoping to signal that it is doing something new and different here when it comes to U.S.-Africa policy, in the sense that it is taking African states seriously as geostrategic players in their own right.

Now, when you look between the lines, you’ll see that there are tensions that remain with — you know, tensions between this rhetoric and mainstream thinking in Washington, D.C. And I’m thinking here especially of Congress, which continues to be dominated by Cold War thinking that views Africa almost entirely through the lens of security and through the lens of geopolitical rivals. And here I’m thinking specifically of Russia and China.

We can take the example of a bill that was passed in the House earlier this year almost unanimously. This bill was called Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act. And the title speaks for itself, right? The objective of this bill is to monitor and, effectively, police Africa in its relations with Russia in terms of the kinds of agreements and partnerships that it might enter into. And some have interpreted this bill as an explicit response to and in some ways even a form of punishment of African states for the way in which they voted at the U.N. General Assembly earlier this year in the wake of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. You may recall that a good number of countries abstained in that vote. African states represented about half of those countries that abstained, roughly 17 of them. And the U.S. was extremely frustrated by these developments and failed to take into account the extent to which African states were making this decision on their vote based on their own geopolitical interests. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, went out of her way to talk down to those African states that abstained, to chastise them, to tell them that, you know, they don’t seem to understand the seriousness of what has unfolded. And we can see this kind of similar patronizing language evident in the text of the bill of this Countering Malign Russian Activities Act in the sense that the U.S. presents itself as wanting to, quote-unquote, “shield” African states from the, quote-unquote, “malign” activities of Russia. Now, at no point in the bill do they define what constitutes malign, but the U.S. positions itself as morally superior and as well placed to, you know, lecture African states in their relationships with other powers.

Now, we’ve also seen African leaders push back, right? A number of them have called out precisely this bill for the degree to which it is an insult to African sovereignty. And I think we can expect in the coming days that even as many African leaders play along with the rhetoric of shared goals and with the rhetoric of equal partnership, that behind the scenes they are deeply aware of the unequal power dynamics that continue to shape U.S.-Africa relations.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Monday’s news briefing with the White House, where national security adviser Jake Sullivan took questions about the Africa summit.

REPORTER: As China looks to increase its influence on that continent, I’m curious: Will the president seek to deliver any kind of message or word of warning to these African leaders that Beijing, whether it’s through their financing or economic or military aid, is not in fact a faithful ally or partner?

JAKE SULLIVAN: This is going to be about what we can offer. It’s going to be a positive proposition about the United States’s partnership with Africa. It’s not going to be about other countries. It’s not going to be attempting to compare or contrast. It’s rather going to be about the affirmative agenda that the United States has to bring to bear with Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Lina Benabdallah, if you can respond to this? And you particularly look at Africa when it comes to the relationship between China and Africa, and if you can include that in your response?

LINA BENABDALLAH: Thank you so much, Amy, for having me.

It makes sense for U.S. government officials to say and distance themselves from framing this summit and framing U.S. foreign policy towards Africa in the language of countering China, but this does not take away from the fact that China is definitely looming in the background. We know this summit is the second edition that the U.S. is hosting for African leaders. The first one was held in 2014. But on the China-Africa side, there have actually been eight editions of such summits and meetings. So, the first one was held in the year 2000, and it’s called the China-Africa Forum, or the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation, short known as FOCAC. And it has — and the China-Africa Forum edition actually has been held systematically every three years, and it has been taking place every three years since the year 2000. So there is more stability in that relationship, looking at the forum or the summit diplomacy, as it were.

For the U.S., we know that the Biden administration has been trying to see how the U.S. can come back to the scene of Africa and to the scene of trying to show a partnership with African countries. And the first thing that comes to mind is the summit diplomacy, because it is that — precisely that theatrical element of inviting these leaders, bringing them in, shaking hands, meeting, doing these press conferences, and so on and so forth. What more can show visibility of sort of this reigniting U.S.-Africa relations? But everybody knows in the back that — in the back of their minds that there is definitely China, even if it’s not spoken. The contrast and the comparison between what the U.S. is doing in Africa and what China is doing in Africa is definitely present in African leaders’ minds, as well.

And we have seen African leaders be extremely pragmatic in their relations. They have been very vocal about telling the U.S. and telling other partners that they are not interested in choosing sides in these relationships. As Samar was saying, African leaders see themselves as geopolitical players of their own right, and this means that they are interested in shaping the relations with these foreign powers on their own terms rather than being told or pressured or scolded in choosing or in shaping their relations with powers here or there. So, African leaders, you know, meet with China. The latest summit took place in November 2021. This was co-hosted between China and Senegal. And they are ready and excited to meet with partners from all over the place, and so they are — they respond to calls from the U.S. to meet.

And it will be interesting to see what the U.S. kind of puts on the table in terms of concrete aspects of the relationship. And this has been the issue with the U.S. and its foreign policy towards Africa. There has been a lot of rhetoric so far — this rhetoric about partnership, this rhetoric about taking Africans seriously, this rhetoric about the shared goals, as Samar mentioned. But we need to see more than this rhetoric. There needs to be concrete initiatives and projects put on the table, so that this relationship can move forward. And insofar as comparisons with China, it makes sense for the U.S. to stop making those direct links, because it is pretty difficult for the U.S. right now to catch up to kind of what China has been doing in the continent. And so, it just makes sense for the U.S. to pretty much try to hone in its own competitive advantage, even though we all know, in the back, countering China and Russia is definitely a huge part of U.S. general national security agenda.

I wanted to also mention something very briefly, which is to say the timing of this summit is really interesting. We first heard that the U.S. was interested in hosting this second edition of U.S.-African Leaders Summit back in October. This was actually scheduled to take place in October at the tail end of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. But what happened was the Biden administration chose to push back this meeting to December and host leaders from the Pacific Islands. And there was a summit between the U.S. and Pacific Island nations in October at the tail end of the United Nations General Assembly. And this tells us a little bit about the priorities that the U.S. government actually gives Africa in practical sense, in this urgency of the meeting. And, you know, we all know, when the Solomon Islands and China signed a security pact, an agreement, security agreement, in the late summer, early fall, that basically was probably one of the reasons why we see the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit pushed to December, when it was actually scheduled for October. So, in reality, you know, when you look at U.S. foreign — or, national strategy policies and priorities, Africa is not really at the top. And African leaders know these things, and so they are interested in seeing what practical and concrete initiatives the U.S. government can put in front of them, instead of these kind of performances and these kind of rhetoric-level initiatives.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Professor Al-Bulushi about Biden supporting a move for an African seat on the U.N. Security Council and also announcing that he wants the African Union to join the G20 as a permanent member. The significance of this?

SAMAR AL-BULUSHI: I think what’s significant about these statements from the Biden administration is how late they are coming, in the sense that other leaders, other governments have been at the forefront of calling for precisely these things — right? — having a permanent seat on the Security Council, having a permanent seat at the G20. And the U.S. is effectively late to the table — right? — and only making these proposals because it knows that it has to, because it knows that if it doesn’t support more of a role for Africa on the global stage, that it will lose out to the other powers that are — that have been saying this, that have been making this case for many years now.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally — and I don’t know which one of you would like to take this on — you know, we just came back from Egypt, where we covered the U.N. climate summit and also broadcast from Cairo, and we reported on the tens of thousands of political prisoners who are held in Egypt, the most prominent of them the political prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah. President Sisi is part of this Africa summit. There’s discussions of democracy and representation. The significance of this, him wanting to have a sitdown meeting with President Biden — President Biden, the German chancellor, the British prime minister, the French President Macron all calling for — demanding to know what’s happening in his case and, in some cases, calling for his release?


SAMAR AL-BULUSHI: I could speak —

LINA BENABDALLAH: Go ahead. Go ahead, Samar.

SAMAR AL-BULUSHI: You go ahead, Lina.

LINA BENABDALLAH: I just wanted to mention very briefly what we are seeing from this administration. There is this willingness to treat Africans in a way that’s more open, inclusive, more thinking about the language, the rhetoric, and not speaking at African leaders. There is a sensitivity around the language that we are used to in terms of Western leaders speaking at Africans in terms of questions of human rights, democracy, governance, and so on and so forth. One of the things that lots of Africans, leaders and analysts, kind of critique the U.S. about is precisely this point. They say, for instance, in the relationship to China, they don’t ever feel like they are being talked at.

So, it is possible we are seeing this — the administration, with this summit, potentially staying away from lecturing at Africans in terms of human rights issues. We are seeing lots of African leaders being invited from different regimes, different backgrounds, different government styles. And it is possible that this is also sort of in that spirit of competing with China to try to say we are also able to speak and kind of converse with Africans on issues that are of common or shared interest, rather than continuing that sort of tradition of Western leaders lecturing kind of African leaders.

AMY GOODMAN: But it’s not just Western leaders. And I’d like to ask Professor Al-Bulushi this question.


AMY GOODMAN: Of course, it’s many Egyptians are also deeply concerned, especially because so many tens of thousands are in prison.

SAMAR AL-BULUSHI: Yeah. So, I think, you know, Egyptians, Africans as a whole, are deeply aware of the double standards that the U.S. operates from, right? They’re deeply aware of the fact that the U.S. engages in its own anti-democratic behavior both at home and abroad. Africans will never forget the role that the U.S. played in deposing and assassinating Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in the 1960s. They haven’t forgotten the role the U.S. played in deposing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya more recently, right? So, I think that — and let’s not forget that there was a coup attempt in the United States last year. So, what is significant here is that the U.S. doesn’t have the moral authority to be calling certain governments democratic or not democratic, right? And in a context like Egypt, it becomes very difficult for the U.S. to be the one to weigh in, precisely because of its own anti-democratic behaviors.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us. Samar Al-Bulushi is associate professor of — is assistant professor of anthropology at University of California, Irvine, and Lina Benabdallah is assistant professor of politics at Wake Forest University.

Next up, we go to Arizona, where the outgoing Republican Governor Doug Ducey is using shipping containers and razor wire to build a makeshift border wall. We’ll look at the fight to stop it. Stay with us.

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