Biden Signals New Tone on US-Africa Relations

President Joe Biden delivered a message to African leaders meeting virtually this weekend at the African Union Summit 2021, hosted from Addis Ababa.

“The United States stands ready now to be your partner in solidarity, support and mutual respect,” Biden said in a video address, his first speech to an international forum as U.S. president.

In his remarks, Biden outlined what he called a shared vision of a better future with growing trade and investment that advances peace and security.

“A future committed to investing in our democratic institutions and promoting the human rights of all people, women and girls, LGBTQ individuals, people with disabilities, and people of every ethnic background, religion and heritage,” Biden said.

Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat welcomed the message and said the African Union looks forward to “resetting the strategic AU-USA partnership.”

Moussa Faki Mahamat@AUC_MoussaFaki·Thank you for your good wishes, @Potus. The @_AfricanUnion looks forward to resetting the strategic AU-USA partnership on the basis of mutual respect & our shared values of international cooperation for a safer, healthier and a more just world.

A new tone

“President Biden wanted to signal the desire of the United States to rebuild a strong partnership with the continent, its people, the diaspora, as well as other AU stakeholders,” a senior administration official told VOA on background, adding that the administration is committed to “reinvigorating relationships throughout Africa from a position of mutual respect and partnership.”

On his first day in office, Biden repealed the Trump administration’s ban on travelers from Muslim-majority and African countries, including Libya, Somalia, Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania.

Biden’s moves represent a significant departure from the previous administration, which largely framed its Africa policy within the context of U.S. competition with China or as a theater for fighting violent extremism.

In January 2018, President Donald Trump was criticized for allegedly using a derogatory term in describing African nations.

“Just the very fact that Biden did it [addressed the African Union] changes the tone immeasurably from the previous administration,” said Michael Shurkin, a senior political scientist focusing on Africa at the RAND Corporation.

Shurkin said Biden, in his address, did not mention China or violent extremism.

“By focusing on Africa for Africa’s sake, Africans for Africans’ sake, that’s actually a far more effective way to compete with the Chinese,” he added.

China is the continent’s largest trading partner, and Beijing has massive influence through its financing of infrastructure projects and coronavirus vaccine diplomacy.

As Biden deals with the pandemic and domestic economic recovery, few details have emerged about his Africa policy. However, three weeks into the new administration there is a renewed focus on humanitarian issues.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and expressed concern about the ongoing armed conflict between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and forces supporting the government. The State Department is also considering actions against President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, a staunch U.S. military ally who recently won his sixth term through a bloody election.

“We’re going to see a revival of a focus on democracy and governance, which was sorely lacking under the Trump administration,” said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Some African governments are not going to be thrilled about that.”

A return to multilateralism

Biden’s remarks to the African Union also signaled a return to multilateral engagement, a message he emphasized in his speech at the State Department on Thursday, his first foreign policy speech since taking office.

“America is back, diplomacy is back,” Biden said. He pledged to reinvest in alliances, framing his approach as a reset after four years of Trump’s mostly bilateral strategy and America First agenda.

“Whereas former Secretary of State (Rex) Tillerson snubbed the AU chair, Moussa Faki, in 2017, Biden’s video and an earlier call from Secretary Blinken indicate that the new U.S. administration intends to take this important regional body seriously,” Devermont said.

In his address to the summit, Biden said he wants to work with regional institutions to defeat COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, fight climate change and engage in diplomacy with the African Union to address conflicts across the continent.

The administration joined COVAX, the global mechanism to ensure lower-income countries have access to the coronavirus vaccine on Jan. 21, the same day it rejoined the World Health Organization. In December the U.S. Congress approved $4 billion funding for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, one of the co-leaders of COVAX.

Beyond regional engagement, Devermont said that Biden’s decisions to rejoin the Paris climate accord and support COVAX will also positively impact African countries.

However, with the return to multilateralism, the future of potential bilateral deals, such as the free trade agreement negotiated by the Trump administration between the U.S. and Kenya is now uncertain, particularly if the Biden administration decides to focus instead on cooperation with the African Continental Free Trade Area.

Another uncertainty is the U.S. role in mediating disagreements among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Despite Trump’s personal interest in pushing a U.S.-brokered agreement based on Cairo’s request, months of negotiation have failed to produce results. In October, Addis Ababa issued a blunt statement denouncing “belligerent threats” over its massive hydropower dam on the Blue Nile river, following Trump’s statement that Egypt “will end up blowing up the dam.”

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