Biden pumps up Africa relations, will visit next year

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
President Joe Biden and other leaders pose for a family photo during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022.

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden said Thursday he will visit sub-Saharan Africa next year, the first U.S. president to travel there in a decade. He announced the trip — still unscheduled — as he wrapped up a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit by stressing he’s serious about increasing U.S. attention to the growing continent.

His promise of a personal visit came as Biden declared to the 49 leaders gathered for the summit that “Africa belongs at the table” in every conversation of global consequence.

“I’m looking forward to seeing you in your home countries,” Biden said near the end of the three-day summit that the administration billed as primarily a listening session with the continent’s leaders.

The Biden administration used the summit — a follow-up to one held in 2014 by Barack Obama — as the latest part of a charm offensive with leaders of African nations. The administration is looking to strengthen relations with those nations as China has surpassed the U.S. in trade with Africa and is aiming to grow its military presence.

The continent is crucial to global powers because of its rapidly growing population, significant natural resources and sizable voting bloc in the United Nations. Some leaders who took part in summit made clear they want the Biden administration to steer away from forcing them to choose between the U.S. and its global competitors when it comes to trade matters.

“These are economic opportunities,” Niger President Mohamed Bazoum told The Associated Press. “Companies from Turkey and China come and invest in Niger in a win-win type of relationship. It is something that American investors can do as well.”

Biden on Thursday formally announced that he supports the African Union becoming a permanent member of the Group of 20 nations. He also announced plans to spend $2 billion to help bolster food security on the continent and $165 million to help African nations carry out peaceful and transparent elections next year.

Those announcements came after Biden this week detailed his administration’s commitment to spend $55 billion on government programming in Africa over the next three years, over and above the billions that American private companies would invest.

“Our eyes are fixed squarely on the future,” Biden said.

The elections-funding announcement came after Biden met on Wednesday with a small group of leaders whose countries have big votes in the new year.

Those leaders: Democratic Republic of the Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba, Liberia President George Manneh Weah, Madagascar President Andry Nirina Rajoelina, Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari and Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio.

The White House said in a statement that Biden, in his meeting with the leaders, reflected on the state of democracy in his own country after last year’s Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. That’s when supporters of then-President Donald Trump violently sought to stop Congress from certifying the results of the 2020 election, which Trump lost to Biden.

Biden also spoke about the recent U.S. midterm elections, when voters rejected a number of 2020-results-denying candidates, with the president making his case that “the strength and resilience of American democracy was reaffirmed in the process.”

Thousands of Trump supporters descended on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in a violent insurrection, breaking through police barricades and smashing windows in the building, crying out to hang the vice president.

Trump and his allies also launched roughly 50 lawsuits aimed at overturning vote counts in battleground states. They lost almost every legal battle they waged and Biden was declared the winner.

The upcoming elections in African nations are seen as important indicators of the strength of democracy across the continent.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with more than 210 million people, is already confronted with violent attacks relating to its election, to be held in February.

Congo is battling an upsurge of rebel violence in its east, which will complicate efforts to hold elections. Tshisekedi won power in tumultuous elections in that country in 2019, and the upcoming elections, scheduled for next December, will be crucial to solidify his rule.

West Africa has had several coups in recent year, and Burkina Faso and Mali are currently ruled by military juntas. With this in mind, the elections in Gabon and Sierra Leone will be key markers. Sierra Leone had anti-government demonstrations this year over high inflation and displeasure with President Bio, who was elected in 2018.

In Madagascar, with a history marked by coups and disputed elections. President Rajoelina was elected in 2019, replacing rule by a military-backed junta. Rajoelina will be striving to consolidate his rule and the country’s democracy in the elections.

The United States has already provided nearly $50 million in support of civil society and the electoral commissions in Nigeria and Congo.

Senegalese President Macky Sall, the African Union chairman, in remarks at Thursday’s session thanked Biden for his commitment to Africa. But he also said Africa’s countries face steep challenges – -from rising food insecurity to badly needed infrastructure improvements to fend off the scourge of climate change.

Sall criticized pending U.S. legislation that he said unfairly “targeted” Africa, an apparent reference to a measure titled “Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa.” Lawmakers sponsoring the bill say the legislation is intended to prevent Moscow from using Africa to bypass U.S. sanctions imposed after the invasion of Ukraine.

Sall also raised concerns about years-long U.S. sanctions against Zimbabwe for corruption and human rights violations, saying that it was time to lift the penalties so the nation could “fight against poverty and underdevelopment.”

Earlier this week, the U.S. Treasury Department announced it was hitting four Zimbabwean people, including the adult son of President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and two companies with new s anctions, accusing them of roles in undermining democracy and facilitating high-level graft.

Africa has been disproportionately harmed by the rise of global food prices sparked by Russia’s war on Ukraine. Sall said it was critical to take heed of the “lessons” of the crises of the pandemic and war.

“The time is right to take vigorous action in the field of agriculture and food security,” Sall said.

Biden concurred at a closing summit session focused on food security. He said, “If a parent can’t feed their child, nothing else really matters.”

Sall also said the African Union expects a “strong commitment and support” from the United States on countering terrorism.

“We wish for the fight against terrorism to be an integral part of the world struggle against thus blight,” he said.

Biden’s visit to Africa will include stops in multiple countries, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to comment by name and spoke on the condition of anonymity. The White House has not released any details about where or when Biden will be travelling.

He made a brief stop in November in Egypt, which spans across the northeast corner of Africa and southwest corner of Asia, for an international climate summit.

In the first two years of his presidency, Biden’s international travel has focused on Asia and Europe, as he has sought to recalibrate his foreign policy to put greater focus on the Indo-Pacific. He has also had to deal with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Biden’s Republican predecessor, Trump, did not make it to Africa during his COVID-19 shadowed presidency in which he made no foreign visits during his final 11 months. Trump was the first president since Ronald Reagan not to visit the continent during his presidency