ANALYSIS: Biden White House Africa Summit: What’s in the Cards for the Continent’s Big Wigs?


Monrovia – When US President Joe Biden sits down with leaders of the African continent this week, it will mark eight years since the first U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit, hosted by former President Barack Obama.

At that summit, held in 2014, former President Obama’s focus centered on the next generation, and provided an opportunity to discuss ways of stimulating growth, unlocking opportunities, and creating an enabling environment for the next generation.

Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]

This time around the circumstance is slightly different, even as many western nations aim to explore investment opportunities on a continent rich in resources despite many lapses in judgement by leaders and rulers depriving their citizens of a better life.

According to the Biden White House, this summit will aim to demonstrate the United States’ enduring commitment to Africa and will underscore the importance of US-Africa relations and increased cooperation on shared global priorities.

Shaping the future

The Biden White House believes that “Africa will shape the future — not just the future of the African people, but of the world. Africa will make the difference in tackling the most urgent challenges and seizing the opportunities we all face.”

In this regard, President Biden is expected to push for a permanent spot for the African Union in the Group of 20 major economies, seeking to elevate the continent’s role, the White House said Friday.

According to the White House, President Biden will make the announcement during the three-day US-Africa Summit that opens Tuesday in Washington, where the administration will make a case for US commitment to the continent amid inroads by China and Russia.

Currently, South Africa the only African member of the G20, which was launched in its current form during the 2008 financial crisis to bring together the world’s top economies.

Biden’s pledge on the G20 comes after he threw his support behind expansion of the UN Security Council, including representation of Africa, during a speech to the world body in September.

Despite the expected announcement this week, many African leaders attending the summit will be disappointed that there will be no one-on-one meeting with President Joe Biden.

Politico reported last week, citing two U.S. officials that the president isn’t currently scheduled to hold a bilateral session with a single African leader, even as the summit is set to kick off Tuesday.

The absence of a one-on-one with leaders from the continent will disappoint a few including Liberian President George Weah, whose government has been struggling to make inroads in the Biden administration with limited success.

The administration suffered a major blow in August when the United States sanctioned three senior Liberian government officials Nathaniel McGill, Sayma Syrenius Cephus, and Bill Twehway for their involvement in ongoing public corruption in Liberia.

Last Friday, in an open letter which coincided with International Anti-Corruption Day, U.S. Ambassador to Liberia Michael A. McCarthy lamented that it would be helpful for Liberians to take another honest look in the mirror amid the US keen eye on the lack of anti-corruption efforts.

Prior to the Ambassador’s letter, many Liberians anticipated a new batch of sanctions coinciding with International Anti-corruption Day.

The sanctions did come as expected, but Liberia was not included.

Sanctions & Cautions

The Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), in recognition of International Anti-Corruption Day and Human Rights Day, sanctioned a diverse array of over 40 individuals and entities that are connected to corruption or human rights abuse across nine countries.

The department said over the course of 2022, it took numerous actions to promote accountability for human rights abusers and corrupt actors across the world, including sanctions on dozens of individuals and entities including in the Western Balkans, Belarus, Liberia, Guatemala, the Russian Federation, Burma, and Iran. Treasury utilized various tools and authorities — including Executive Order (E.O.) 13818, which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act — to demonstrate the U.S. government’s focus on promoting respect for human rights and countering corruption.

For McCarthy, the Global Magnitsky sanctions of three Liberian officials in August demonstrated, the U.S. government can and will employ sanctions as needed on an ongoing basis, in support of our shared development, democracy, and security goals, guided by the U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption.

The ambassador cautioned that the all-important goal of transparent, free, credible, and peaceful elections in October will be one important factor in decisions about additional sanctions in the months leading up to the vote. Global Magnitsky, or GloMag, sanctions are deservedly a hot topic in Liberia. Some Liberians have urged the United States to implement more sanctions and even proposed names; others have objected that the sanctions process lacks due process.

I hope that they will be very straight forward in telling our leaders what is expected of them, recognizing where some have indeed moved their countries forward; have achieved a lot of their development goals. But for many, who determine that they will hold on to office and thereby sabotage the future of our young citizens, that they need to be told that we must all have our chance to be on the scene, do what we can do and pass it on

– Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Former President, Republic of Liberia

Ambassador McCarthy however cautioned that GloMag is a tool the United States uses to protect itself from particularly corrupt actors, not a punishment against a country or government. “It is also in no way a substitute for a domestic judicial process in the host country, including prosecution. Ultimately, “due process” or an accused’s “day in court” can only happen under Liberian law, in Liberian courts. Liberians generally agree with our analysis that corruption is the primary cause of Liberia’s failure to thrive; most in the international community share that assessment.”

While many leaders and rulers will miss out on a one-one chance to sit with Biden, there may be opportunities for “pull-asides,” and photo opportunities.

Politico, citing a person familiar with the administration’s discussions, said some in the White House were concerned that scheduling any bilateral sessions between Biden and his African counterparts would create friction, since it wasn’t possible logistically to accommodate all requests. Around 50 leaders have been invited, and many would like to show audiences back home that they have a connection with the U.S. president.

Human Rights Concerns

Although the White House did not send invites to four countries that have had unconstitutional changes to the government that have been suspended from the African Union: Guinea, Sudan, Mali, and Burkina Faso, the watchdog group, Human Rights Watch is concerned about invitations to three African leaders that stand accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

HRW says the invitation sends a clear message that the U.S. government values security considerations over human rights. “That message – alongside the Biden administration’s failure to prioritize human rights in its new strategy of engagement with African countries – risks undermining efforts to advocate for democratic governance and people-centered diplomacy.

HRW says, notwithstanding claims that human rights are at the centerpiece of its foreign policy, the Biden administration continues to provide military and financial assistance to rights-abusing regimes across the continent. For instance, according to HRW, the United States sends millions in security assistance to support Uganda’s participation in regional stability operations, despite Ugandan security forces’ involvement in enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions and torture of government critics, political opposition, and protesters. In South Sudan, United States officials condemn violence against citizens, but withdrew funding for the hybrid court for justice.

In Ethiopia, HRW says despite the establishment of a sanction’s regime and available coercive tools, the United States refuses to hold warring parties accountable for horrible abuses in a conflict that has now lasted nearly two years.

EJS Suggests the Riot Act

For HRW, the summit will hopefully offer an opportunity to explain how the United States will address ongoing abuses perpetrated by African leaders who have benefitted from U.S. security assistance. Reorienting the new Africa strategy through a human rights lens would go a long way toward creating the free, fair, open, and stable partnerships the Biden administration seeks to build in Africa.

US policy toward Africa is often a point of concerns, not so much for the leaders and rulers for those languishing at the bottom of the economic ladder of poverty-stricken countries.

It is for this reason that former Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf hopes the US will use the opportunity with this week’s summit to read the riot act on countries still harboring anti-democratic tendencies.

Addressing the United States Institute for Peace last week, Sirleaf declared threw a pointed suggestion to the Biden administration: “I hope that they will be very straight forward in telling our leaders what is expected of them, recognizing where some have indeed moved their countries forward; have achieved a lot of their development goals. But for many, who determine that they will hold on to office and thereby sabotage the future of our young citizens, that they need to be told that we must all have our chance to be on the scene, do what we can do and pass it on.”

Former President Sirleaf, who has often been criticized for not adequately planning her own post-presidency and transition, suggested some regrets about her successor, the incumbent President George Weah, without naming names. “I know there’s disappointment too. I’ve faced disappointment when I passed it on, I gotta to tell you that and sometimes, I must stop and say, did I do the right thing? But it was the right thing to do and what has happened cannot be an excuse not to follow the rules and regulations. What we must do is better plan successions so that we can make sure that there’s continuity in effort and continuity in progress – and that I think all our leadership will be encouraged to think that there’s always a good continuity, if it’s planned properly and it’s exercised – and so I think, that’s where we stand.