Dozens of Africa's most powerful politicians are gathered in Washington, DC, this week for a three-day US-Africa Leaders Summit, which kicked off on Tuesday.
Heads of states from 49 African nations and the African Union have been invited to take part in the summit that has been billed as an opportunity for President Joe Biden’s administration to reengage the continent’s leaders.
Vice President Kamala Harris welcomed attendees this morning, promising a partnership based on candor and openness.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, is front and center at the conference. She sat down to talk with The World's host Marco Werman about some of the challenges the US faces in deepening ties with the continent, while countering the expanding roles there of Beijing and Moscow.
Regarding summit goals, Thomas-Greenfield described four main areas of focus:
"We really want to deepen and expand our partnership and to advance our shared priorities. We want to really amplify Africa's voice, both in our bilateral relationship, but also multilaterally. And then third, I think just to leverage the best of the United States, we're bringing the private sector in, we're bringing in civil society, we're bringing in our diaspora community that I'm going to be speaking with shortly. And really, our goal is to uplift our relationship with the continent," she said.
Marco Werman: As you well know, China has long been Africa's big trading partner. Countries like Russia also have made inroads on the continent selling arms and sending mercenaries. Turkey and the United Arab Emirates also have expanded their presence. What's Washington offering that's different?
Linda Thomas-Greenfield: You know, I don't know that we are different. We have been engaged with the African continent since the beginning. The US is one of the first countries to recognize African countries who were gaining independence, if we go back even to Ghana, in 1957. And we have never had a relationship of colonialism with the continent of Africa. We have been a strong supporter of human rights on the continent of Africa. African Americans, as well as others, were a strong voice of support for South Africa. China is new to this game on the continent. They have come to the conclusion that they need to focus attention on Africa because Africa is kind of the last frontier — resources — and the last frontier of untapped possibilities. But what they are doing on the continent of Africa, as we see it, they are putting these countries in debt. They're providing infrastructure that many of us have seen that crumbles within a few years. They have a relationship, although they try to argue that it's a relationship of equal partners, we have all seen the extent to which they are able to threaten African countries, including using their debt as a weapon against these countries. Our relationship is really very different. It really is one based on partnership. It is one that is based on a deep and abiding support for the people of Africa. We do engage with governments. We know the importance of those bilateral relationships, but our relationship people-to-people is very different from what the Chinese have been able to achieve. So, while there is clearly a competition, we think the US is ahead of the game.
I mean, China has also brought many improvements to a lot of countries and some prosperity, which those countries are happy with. So, is that going to change?
We're not telling Africans not to engage with China. We're not choosing their friends for them or their partners for them. What we're doing is reaffirming our relationship with the continent of Africa and the values that we present to the continent and the value of the relationship and partnership we have. If Africans make the decision that they want to engage with the Chinese, our goal is to help them get the best deal that they can possibly get, and they're not getting that right now.
Do you worry, though, that maybe we're entering an era of another great powers rivalry in Africa?
I don't think we are. I think we are in a place on the continent where Africans themselves know their value, they know their potential, and they're willing to work with countries and particularly with the United States, as they've indicated to us, they have a preference for working with the United States to build prosperity for the future. And again, it's going to be up to Africans themselves to decide that. But we're willing to partner with them.
President Biden is expected to announce $55 billion in initiatives for Africa over the next three years during the summit. How can you be sure, ambassador, that Washington does not put some of that money into the pockets of authoritarians and those who support them?
We have embassies and USAID missions in almost every country on the continent, and part of our jobs in embassies is to monitor and to ensure that the money that we're providing to countries actually go to the needs that have been identified. And I think we do an extraordinarily good job at that.
Will the president be meeting one-on-one with any heads of state during the summit?
He's going to be meeting with a number of leaders in group sessions. As you know, there are 49 leaders here, and we're looking for opportunities for him to engage with as many of them as possible during the summit.
And so, how will the president parse out his messages to these various leaders? Because yesterday we spoke with a Ugandan opposition activist who argued that by inviting authoritarian leaders to this summit — and there are several of them of varying degrees of authoritarianism — the US is sending the wrong message to pro-democracy activists in Africa. So, what would you say about that?
You know, I think it's really important that we engage with those countries, even those ones where we have differences, because that gives us the opportunity to press them on those issues. I do believe that we will use this as an opportunity to deliver tough messages. You can't deliver a tough message if you're not engaging.
US officials have been quoted saying President Biden supports both a seat for an African nation on the UN Security Council and allowing the African Union to join the G20
as a permanent member. What can you tell us about that, ambassador, and why do you think it would make a difference?
This is part of our commitment. It is our showing to our African partners that we hear them. This is something that they've asked for and we're responding to that.
Amb. Thomas-Greenfield, as you noted earlier, you've devoted a lot of your career to places in Africa: Kenya, the Gambia, Nigeria. You were the US ambassador to Liberia. What sort of change are you hoping to see going forward when it comes to how US leaders deal with their counterparts in Africa?
We have committed to engaging with this continent. And for me, I think the important thing that we will message in the summit is that we value Africa and, most importantly, we value the people of Africa. Africa is a young continent. The median age is 19. And we have to engage with those young people moving forward. They are the future. And we need to make sure that they are prepared for their leadership roles in the future and ensure that the United States is listening to them and supporting them and working so that they can provide for Africa's prosperity in the future.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.