WASHINGTON — Nearly 50 African leaders converged on Washington on Tuesday to begin three days of talks on issues central to the future of the continent and the world, including health, food security, climate change, civil wars and even the exploration of outer space.
The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit this week, the first one since 2014, comes as the world is struggling with urgent crises, some of which are having catastrophic effects on Africa. The continent is grappling with a food shortage worsened by both Russia’s war with Ukraine and supply chain problems arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.
But U.S. officials say they also want to discuss forward-looking topics such as commercial investments and technology that can have long-term benefits for the continent.
“Over the next few days, we will be announcing additional investments to make it easier for students to participate in exchange programs between our countries, to increase trade opportunities for members of the African diaspora and to support African entrepreneurs and small businesses,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said at the summit’s opening event, a forum for what the State Department called “African and diaspora young leaders.”
“Each of these investments is guided by one overarching goal: to continue building our partnership so that we can better address the shared challenges we face,” Mr. Blinken said.
The first day’s meetings were centered on critical topics including the environment, public health, democratic governance and security. The governance and security session was hosted by Mr. Blinken; Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III; and Samantha Power, the administrator of the United States Agency for International Development. Katherine Tai, the U.S. trade representative, led a ministerial conference on trade.
In the morning, Mr. Austin and Mr. Blinken discussed military cooperation with the leaders of Djibouti, Niger and Somalia. “We recognize that African leadership remains key to confronting our era’s defining challenges of peace, security and governance,” Mr. Austin said.
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President Biden is expected to give speeches on Wednesday and Thursday, and he and Jill Biden, the first lady, are scheduled to host the heads of the delegations at dinner on Wednesday night.
The Biden administration is trying to repair relations with African nations after President Donald J. Trump largely ignored them and famously disparaged some in a White House meeting in 2018.
American officials are concerned about Chinese and Russian influence on the continent, as well as instability caused by famine, climate change, epidemics and wars. U.S. officials say they also want to help African countries create economic opportunities for their growing youth populations. And at a forum on Tuesday on outer space, Nigeria and Rwanda became the first African nations to sign onto the Artemis Accords, an agreement that aims to establish guidelines for space exploration.
Mokgweetsi Masisi, the president of Botswana, said at the Brookings Institution on Tuesday morning that many African nations were wary of the intentions of world superpowers and sought to exert some agency over those larger countries’ policies.
“The world has not been extremely kind to Africa,” he said. “It’s almost as if the carving out and colonization of Africa assumed a new form without the labels of colonization — but some measure of conquest. And we’re trying to move away from that and engage so that they work with us and not on us and through us.”
In an Africa strategy unveiled in August, the White House stressed the need to strengthen democracies across the continent and help them deliver for their citizens, with the aim of undergirding stability. Mr. Blinken emphasized the same themes in a policy speech he delivered in South Africa before visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
The Biden administration’s efforts to promote democracy have included anti-corruption programs and support for independent journalism. The U.S. government arranged for 25 journalists from Africa to attend the summit.
Leaders from 49 nations as well as the African Union were invited. U.S. officials did not invite leaders from four nations that have had recent coups and that the African Union has suspended from its member roster: Mali, Sudan, Guinea and Burkina Faso.
“We continue to work separately with those countries to encourage a return to a democratic transition, to move to a democratic track, so we’re in a better position to have a strong partnership with those countries,” Molly Phee, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said in a briefing with reporters on Dec. 7.
Mr. Blinken had separate meetings on Tuesday afternoon with Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia, and Félix Tshisekedi, the president of Congo.
Mr. Abiy is a particularly complicated figure for U.S. officials. Awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for making peace with neighboring Eritrea after decades of war, he was seen as an international hero. But Biden administration officials watched with alarm last year as Mr. Abiy’s forces ruthlessly put down a growing rebellion by the country’s ethnic Tigray people.
Mr. Blinken testified in March 2021 that Ethiopian government forces had committed “atrocities” and “ethnic cleansing.” U.S. officials feared Africa’s second-most-populous country after Nigeria might collapse into violent anarchy.
But Mr. Abiy arrived for his highest-level encounter with the Biden administration weeks after signing a cease-fire with Tigrayan rebel leaders that has ended, for now at least, the country’s two years of civil war.
In a sit-down with the Ethiopian leader on Tuesday, Mr. Blinken told Mr. Abiy he faced a “historic moment” to move his country toward lasting peace.
The United States is also navigating thorny issues with Congo. When Mr. Blinken visited Kinshasa, the capital, in August, he expressed concerns to Mr. Tshisekedi and other officials about civil conflict in the east, which involves neighboring nations, and about a plan by the country to auction off vast parcels of rainforests and peatlands for oil and gas extraction. The two countries agreed to form a working group to assess the plan and the environmental impact.
Congo is important for Mr. Biden’s climate change policy in another way: It is the world’s leading source of cobalt, an important material for electric-car batteries. But U.S. officials are concerned about mining practices there, as well as the growing presence of Chinese companies in the industry.
On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Blinken presided over the signing of an agreement with officials from Congo and Zambia in which the United States pledged to form an “electric vehicle battery council” with those two nations to assess investment mechanisms and supply chains.
Christophe Lutundula, the foreign minister of Congo, said his country was working to “contribute with our natural resources and strategic minerals to the collective management of the world’s fate and future in this day and age with climate change.”
American officials have been careful not to frame this week’s summit or Mr. Biden’s Africa strategy as being about rivalry with China, which has been expanding trade on the continent for years. U.S. officials say they want to deal with African nations on their own terms. In reality, discussions in Washington about Africa often revolve around China.
On Monday, China’s ambassador in Washington, Qin Gang, said at a talk hosted by the media outlet Semafor that Beijing was focused on its own interests in Africa, regardless of Washington’s concerns.
“We are not interested in the views of any other countries on China’s role in Africa,” he said. “And we believe that Africa should be a place for international cooperation, not for major-power competition for geopolitical gains.”