The Biden administration hopes to use a gathering of 50 African delegations in Washington "to uplift and empower African institutions, citizens and nations" through discussions about challenges such as health, democracy, governance, investment, development, climate change and more, senior administration officials said Thursday.
Participants in next week's U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit will spend three days in Washington discussing the challenges, needs and hopes of one-fifth of the world's population, spread over a landmass that is larger than China, India, the continental U.S. and most of Europe, combined, and where as many as one-third of the world's languages are spoken.
This year's summit, which begins Tuesday, will focus on "deepening and expanding the long term U.S.-Africa partnership and advancing our shared priorities, amplifying African voices to collaboratively meet this era's defining challenges," a senior administration official said. Officials briefed reporters Thursday, on condition that their names would not be used, as is common in White House briefings.
Another senior administration official said they will announce "major deliverables and initiatives" over the three-day-summit but declined to give details.
"This is also about defining a global agenda together," the official said, "where there are opportunities where Africans should – will, must – sit at the table and help us work through some of the most difficult challenges in this consequential decade."
Who's in – and out
A spokesperson for the National Security Council told VOA that all 50 invited delegations – from 49 countries plus the African Union – "have confirmed their participation" but did not say at what level of government.
Five countries were not invited, the White House said. Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Sudan were excluded because the African Union has suspended them over unconstitutional changes of government; and the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the pariah state of Eritrea.
Not all delegations plan to send heads of state, officials told various reporters in VOA's Africa Division – raising questions about how effective deliberations can be without the direct involvement of leaders who wield considerable power.
South Sudan's president will send his foreign minister. Ethiopia's prime minister, whose nation is immersed in an ethnically driven conflict, is likely to be represented by that nation's ceremonial president, who will be a rare female figure on a stage dominated by men. The president of South Africa, among the most advanced nations on the continent, is staring down challenges from within the ruling African National Congress, which meets next week for a high-stakes leadership conference. And Zimbabwe's president remains under U.S. visa restrictions while accused of undermining democracy and abusing human rights.
But several continental heavyweights will attend, including African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki and the presidents of African oil giants Angola and Nigeria. The new president of Kenya has signaled that he will be there, as will the leader of Uganda, who has held that role for 36 years.
The summit will also look at how the U.S. can work with African governments on security challenges, which are especially acute in the Sahel region and in Somalia.
Speaking to the Defense Writers Group on Tuesday, Chidi Blyden, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for African Affairs, said that Somalia's militant Islamist al-Shabab group remains the "No. 1" threat.
Briefing reporters Thursday, a senior defense official said the Pentagon is taking a three-pronged approach – blending defense, development and diplomacy – to address African security challenges.
"Yes, the violent extremist threat is very challenging, but what we also realize is that it is exacerbated by the fact that there are challenges with governance and there are a lack of opportunities, and the development challenges also make for a perfect storm of instability and fragility in some of these countries," the defense official said. "And that's not something that you can fix with just a weapons system or more training."
Pentagon officials also expressed concern over Russia's shadowy mercenary Wagner Group, which has made landfall in several African nations struggling with insecurity and instability, and where, the official said, "their presence has exacerbated some of those conditions, rather than contributing to improving the security situation."
On one topic, however, most African nations agree: the world's richest nation has a large role to play in promoting prosperity and development on the continent.
"More needs to be done by the United States as regards U.S.-Africa trade, as regards U.S. investments in Africa, as regards U.S. lending to Africa and indeed, U.S. aid to Africa," said Aloysius Uche Ordu, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
He added that he was "delighted" to note that the U.S. very recently announced an increased, $600 million commitment to the African Development Fund, which works on financing in low-income countries.
"Now we're hoping that this momentum could be maintained in terms of the push of U.S. support to Africa," he said.
U.S. officials are aware of this, Blyden said.
"The Africa Leaders Summit will place a lot of emphasis on a business forum that will take the time to bring together a number of private sector investors who can exchange with African partners, exactly what they are able to collaborate on in the different sectors of business that we have here in the United States," she said.
And White House officials said they plan to confront thorny issues, like African nations' reluctance to condemn Russia over its February invasion of Ukraine. Additionally, the U.S. has long been wary of China's advances on the continent through its ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
"While we do not wish to make our African partners choose sides, the U.S. strives to be the partner of choice by offering relationships based on mutual respect and values," the defense official said, echoing similar U.S. diplomatic pronouncements. "By providing higher quality products and services and by working together with our partners on issues that are important to them," the defense official said. "We are confident that our relationship will bring about long-term stability and prosperity."
And then there is the sticky issue of the leaders themselves. Currently, five African leaders have ruled for more than 30 years each, and a half dozen more have been in power for longer than a decade.
And many face credible, serious allegations: The U.S. State Department, in an annual report, described corruption under Nigeria's president as being "massive, widespread, and pervasive."
Uganda's president, who has ruled since 1986, has been accused of using security forces to commit politically related abuses, secure election victories and silence dissent.
And Kenya's incoming president faced murder, deportation and persecution charges at the International Criminal Court over his role in 2007 postelection violence that killed about 1,200 people. His case was dismissed, but the court did not acquit him.
Human Rights Watch has urged the White House to make human rights a focus at this summit.
"Hosting these leaders at the White House will further legitimize these regimes, sending a clear message that the U.S. government values security considerations over human rights," wrote Nicole Widdersheim, deputy Washington director, and Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director.
VOA asked the White House, separately, how President Joe Biden would approach these sensitive topics, and if he was concerned about being seen with leaders with such reputations.
"The president's foreign policy is rooted in values – values like promoting human rights," the official responded. "Human rights will always be on the agenda, and the president will not shy away from raising these issues with any foreign leader anywhere in the world."