Africa goes to DC

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 13 Dec 2022

Who will get what out of the US-Africa Summit meeting that convened in Washington this week?

photo: UNICEF
At the three-day US-Africa Summit in Washington DC, closing today, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi stressed the need to overcome development challenges across the continent, foremost among which are food security and confronting terrorism and lawlessness where they persist. (photo: UNICEF)


Development and security were the top items that Egypt tabled this week before the US-Africa Summit in Washington that was inaugurated on Tuesday afternoon and was scheduled to close on Thursday.

At the head of the Egyptian delegation, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was expected to stress the need for the US to work closely with the African continent to overcome serious development issues including the now pressing matter of food security. Al-Sisi was also expected to stress the need for the US to support Africa in its war to contain and defeat militant cells present in many parts of the continent.

Government officials familiar with the preparations for the high-level Egyptian participation said that the president was set to underline the need for the US to work on supporting stability in Africa, especially through promoting development via economic cooperation and investment and in supporting African governments in their war on terrorism that Al-Sisi was going to remind those present was vital to international security.

Al-Sisi’s call represents a collective African position, officials say, and is compatible with the views the African countries expressed last month during their participation in the UN COP27 Climate Conference that Egypt hosted in Sharm El-Sheikh. This is the case particularly for the demand for a loss and damage fund set up for the developing countries, including the African nations, to compensate for their suffering from the effects of global warming to which they have made hardly any contributions.

The same officials add that food security is a particularly significant issue, especially in view of the impact of global warming and the current impact of the Russian war in Ukraine on the availability of food supplies and the price of food to the disadvantage of many African countries.

This week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the UN Children’s Fund, and the World Food Programme (WFP) warned that the number of hungry people in West and Central Africa could reach a record high of 48 million next year. Earlier in the year, the FAO and WFP warned that over 50 million people were facing challenging food security in East Africa.

Meanwhile, the same officials say that along with this collective African position, there are also some “specific points regarding Egypt” that President Al-Sisi is expected to stress during his participation in the US-Africa Summit.

One key specific point for Egypt relates to the better and less-restrictive access of Egyptian products to the US market. Egypt is trying to promote the idea of the US expanding its preferential access scheme to allow some Sub-Sahara African countries to have access to the US market and also some countries in the northern part of the continent.

Another Egypt-specific point is the conflict between Egypt and Sudan, on the one hand, and Ethiopia, on the other, over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that Addis Ababa is building on the Nile without an agreement with the downstream states.

Ethiopian President Sahle Work-zewde was tentatively scheduled to head her country’s delegation to the summit. Abiy Ahmed, the country’s effective leader and prime minister was not going to be invited to Washington in view of the US s disapproving of his position on the war with Tigray. However, he showed up at the summit table.

Firmly excluded from the summit, however, is the Chairman of the Transitional Sovereign Council of Sudan Abdel-Fattah Al-Borhan, as Washington has decided to exclude four countries that the African Union (AU) is punishing for holding coups d’état. The four countries are Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea, along with Sudan.

Eritrea has also been excluded in view of its strained relations with the US. Somaliland is excluded because of its lack of international recognition.

Development and security are on the agenda of this second US-Africa Summit meeting that US President Joe Biden is hosting for the first time eight years after the convocation of the first in the US capital in 2014. Other issues on the agenda include matters related to the role of civil society and good governance.

On Monday, and in the lead-up to the inauguration of the official summit, several events took place with wide business and civil society participation from the US and Africa. They included the Peace, Trade, and Youth Seminar at George Washington University in Washington and a Civil Society Forum and African Human Rights Leaders Summit.

There was also a panel examining Just Energy Transitions at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The US Institute of Peace in the US capital also held talks for several African leaders.

However, as informed Egyptian diplomats say, the significance of the summit goes beyond the wish for the US to help Africa pursue development, security, and even possibly some form of democracy.

 It is more about the battle over Africa in a world order that is now being slowly developed in which the supremacy of the US in international politics is receding in favour of up-and-coming world powers like China, they say.

China is the largest trade partner with Africa with a volume of annual trade that is four times that of the US, India, and Japan. There is also a growing battle over Africa between the US and Russia, repeatedly manifested this year with visits by officials from the US and Russia to different parts of Africa.

In press statements ahead of the summit, which is taking place with the participation of 49 African leaders, US officials said that it was about a new partnership with Africa whereby Washington will engage more with the African countries and also be more aware of the fact that these countries do not have to choose between working with the US and working with other world powers, especially China.

Egyptian diplomats say that the battle over Africa is not just between the US and China but also between other international players. “There is a big battle now in the Sahel and Sahara zone and in significant parts of North Africa between France and Russia. This does not mean that France and the US agree over their Africa policy, however,” said one.

But for the US, especially the Biden administration, the battle over Africa cannot be separated from the US scheme to push back the expanding international influence of China and to contain the ambitions of Russia, he said.

He argued that this does not mean that the US is looking at Africa only as a zone for a battle of influence, because for the US Africa is also an incredible economic opportunity, with its resources, its strategic significance, and the volume of its population making it one of the fastest-growing markets in the world.

In August this year, the US issued its New Africa Strategy in South Africa during a second trip to the continent by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The strategy offers four ambitious objectives: climate adaptation and post-pandemic economic recovery efforts, alongside long-standing goals of transparent governance, democracy, and security.

The US push for influence in Africa is matched not just by old and new rivalries like that with Russia and China, but also from allies like the UK, which is also pushing a new strategy for Africa. Turkey has expanded its presence in Africa during the past 20 years, and the UAE has invested considerably in its African presence during the past decade.

Egyptian diplomats say that what is at stake is the level of commitment that the US can show, more at the economic level than at the expansion of the on-the-ground US military presence in the continent.

They add that the new US “hinge” to Africa will be measured in the continent not just against the performance of China, but also against the level of commitment that the US is showing as a result of its Pivot to Asia policy. Then, they add, there is the ability of Africa to work on benefiting from what the Americans and others have to offer at this moment of rivalry over the continent.

In press statements leading to the summit, Macky Sall, the president of Senegal and the current chair of the African Union, said that what counts is to remove Africa from the periphery of international interests.

Meanwhile, US officials have been stressing their country’s commitment to Africa with promises of $55 billion over the next three years and representation in the G20 and the UN Security Council upon its reform.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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