Dec 12, 2022 - World

Scoop: Biden planning multi-country trip to Africa next year

President Biden speaks with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at last year's G7 summit. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

President Biden is planning a multi-country trip to Africa next year, with an announcement expected to be made at this week’s U.S.-Africa summit, two sources familiar with the plans told Axios.

Why it matters: U.S. officials want the summit to be a mixture of substance and symbolism. The Biden administration hopes that announcing a presidential visit to sub-Saharan Africa will send a clear signal that the U.S. is serious about deepening ties to the continent.

The big picture: With representatives from 49 African countries visiting Washington, the White House is using the pageantry of a summit to convince leaders that Africa is a priority — and move relations beyond the security concerns, humanitarian crises, and human rights abuses that have dominated in the past.

  • Biden will also highlight his support for an African seat on the UN Security Council, and announce that he wants the African Union to join the G20 as a permanent member, according to U.S. officials. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden would announce $55 billion in initiatives over the next three years during the summit.
  • The White House declined to comment on Biden's specific travel plans, though Sullivan told reporters earlier Monday that there will be an announcement about a "broad-based commitment" by administration officials to travel to the continent in 2023.

Between the lines: Any presidential trip to Africa will set off jockeying among countries, looking to host a high-level guest as a validation of their policies and a signal to investors.

  • Team Biden will have to weigh regional rivalries, as well as security concerns, before finalizing the itinerary.

Flashback: For the first nine months of Biden's administration, none of the senior-most foreign policy officials visited Africa. Instead, they visited European allies and countries in Southeast Asia that have become a focus of U.S.-China competition.

  • Since then, though, Secretary of State Tony Blinken has visited the continent multiple times, including in August to announce the new U.S. Africa strategy, which emphasizes the continent's growing global importance.
  • Still, Biden's public call logs included conversations with only three sub-Saharan African leaders as of last month, per Politico. He's yet to visit the continent beyond a stop in Egypt for the COP27 climate summit.
  • Donald Trump was the first president since Ronald Reagan not to visit sub-Saharan Africa. The Biden administration aims to show that things have come a long way since Trump's tenure — and since Barack Obama hosted the only previous U.S.-Africa summit in 2014.

What they're saying: "This administration starts with the conviction that Africans are critical to addressing the most challenging problems of our time. It's a different frame than previous administrations. It's a focus on what we do with Africans, not just what we do in Africa," a senior administration official told Axios ahead of the summit.

  • Biden isn't expected to announce a single signature policy, like George W. Bush's program to fight AIDS, or Obama's attempt to double electricity access in Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The official said there would be "deliverables" in the areas of food security, health care, infrastructure, digital technology, security and governance.
  • Unmentioned in the agenda, but looming over the entire summit, is China, which holds summits with Africa every three years either in Beijing or on the continent.

In the eight years since Obama hosted the previous summit, Russia, Turkey the Gulf states, the European Union, France and Japan have also all held summits with African leaders, with many of those recurring at a regular cadence.

  • 43 heads of state or government went to Sochi in 2019 to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for a summit that doubled as an arms expo. Japan pledged $30 billion in development aid this August during a Japan-Africa summit in Tunisia. Turkey and the UAE have made major investments in areas ranging from construction to fintech.
  • China's trade with Africa was five times the U.S. total last year, and Beijing can offer loans and infrastructure projects that the U.S. won't, says Gyude Moore, who attended three "Africa-plus-one" summits while serving as public works minister of Liberia. However, the U.S. can leverage its private sector and expertise in areas like health, he says.

U.S. officials won't focus this week on countering China, but on what the U.S. can offer, the senior Biden administration official said. There will be sessions on issues like climate change and space cooperation, not just the security and humanitarian prisms of the past, the official added.

  • That's important because "if you only have a partnership based on security to offer, that means you see the continent as a threat for the world," says Rama Yade, director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center, noting that Africa is home to some of the world's fastest-growing economies and populations.
  • "It's critically important for the U.S. to take the initiative, because Africans don't expect to be lectured. I think what they expect is to become strategic partners for the U.S.," she says.

What to watch: Senegalese President Macky Sall, who holds the African Union's rotating chair, told the NYT ahead of this week's summit: "Let no one tell us 'no, don’t work with so-and-so, just work with us.' We want to work and trade with everyone."

  • If Sall's comments are any gauge, Biden still has some convincing to do this week and during his trip to Africa.
  • “When we talk, we’re often not listened to, or in any case, not with enough interest,” Sall added.
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