Hard bargains, no lectures: What Africa needs at Biden’s summit

The US knows what it wants from Africa — it is not democracy. Does Africa know what it wants from the US?

U.S. President Joe Biden talks with South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa as they arrive for a working session during G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, Britain, June 12, 2021. Leon Neal/Pool via REUTERS
US President Joe Biden, seen here with South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa during the G7 summit in Cornwall, UK, on June 12, 2021, is hosting his first summit with African leaders in Washington from December 13-15, 2022 [Leon Neal/Pool via Reuters]

Starting on Tuesday, United States President Joe Biden is hosting African presidents, prime ministers and monarchs for a US-Africa Leaders’ Summit. In the past, such glittering meetings have often devolved into neo-colonial lectures, with African leaders passively listening to the US president hypocritically say out vague notions of spreading “liberal democracy” values.

But times have changed. For all its challenges, Africa’s global stature is at its most attractive in modern history – and our leaders must drive a hard financial bargain with the US, extracting maximum value for the continent through their negotiations and discussions with Washington.

They must not let the summit ebb into waffling lectures from the US on “values” it does not itself practice at home or abroad. Instead, African leaders must grab the microphone – and, if needed, be uncompromising about the continent’s economic interests.

Africa is in demand

For decades the US did not prioritise Africa – Washington adopted an “anchor states” model to Africa, working primarily via a handful of powerful, regional actors to leverage influence. It could afford to do that, in good measure, because its supremacy on the continent, as in other parts of the world, was largely unchallenged – especially since the end of the Cold War.

That is no longer the case: China is the continent’s biggest trading partner, with mounting influence.

The US and European Union covet what Africa could offer: support on the war in Ukraine, cooperation in climate change reduction and access to rare earth minerals critical to the West’s competition with Beijing on everything from computing to sophisticated weaponry.

Which brings me to the strategic leverage that Africa today enjoys. The US-led West is keen to reduce Chinese and Russian military forays into Africa. For instance, in November, Central Intelligence Agency Deputy Director David Cohen met Teodoro Nguema, heir to the throne in the oil-rich, deeply autocratic Atlantic Ocean state of Equatorial Guinea.

The US’s supreme interest in Equatorial Guinea is to prevent China from establishing a naval base on Africa’s vital Atlantic coast – and thus facing the US East Coast. Never mind democracy.

In other words, the US knows exactly what it wants to gain from Africa. Here is the question, though: Does Africa know what it wants from the US?

Neutrality on Ukraine

When it became apparent that many African nations would take a neutral position on the war but aggressively lobby all sides for an immediate end to hostilities, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, began circling Africa trying to diplomatically upstage Russia. On this front, African leaders need to tell Biden that they will stick to their current course, balancing relations between the West and Russia, while calling on all sides to stop dangerous weapons build-ups and, of course, the war.

Turkey and India can serve as examples. After all, the US and Russia are both weaponising the “pornographic” spectacle of food shortages in Africa to soil each other’s image.

On the money

If there is one area where Africa today can negotiate harder with the US, it is on commodities, rare earth minerals and their economic partnership more broadly.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, is home to the world’s largest-known deposits of cobalt and is a major source of lithium — both of which the US craves in its fierce quest to beat China in next-generation computing, decarbonisation, and electronic wargaming.

The US Defense Department has opened talks with Malawi’s miners to avoid leaning too much on China, which by 2019 was supplying 80 percent of America’s precious earth minerals.

The EU, which is Washington’s closest ally, is so desperate for energy amid the war in Ukraine that Mozambique started shipping liquified natural gas to Europe in November. This partly helps lessen pressure on the US to fill up the EU’s Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) storage tanks.

At a time when Russia is doling out mercenaries, and China cash, to African leaders in exchange for strategic influence and resources, the US and its allies know that they cannot afford business as usual with the continent. So it is important that African leaders speak – as best as possible – in one voice to negotiate preferential trade regimes and access to finance at fair interest rates.

There is already evidence that this can be done: Consider the case of Zambia, which counts China as its biggest trading partner. As Lusaka looks to restructure its sovereign debt, the US has asked Zambia’s creditors like China and France to accept their losses. As Stephen Chan, a professor at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies, said in November, we may now see “competitive posturing” from the US and China to demonstrate who is “more generous” towards Zambia.

The Biden administration has already announced that it will use the summit in Washington to pledge support for the African Union to be included in the G20 – a sign that the US recognises the growing clout of the continent. But African leaders should press for more than just a seat at the global high table.

They can learn from supposedly staunch allies of the US, like Saudi Arabia, which drive hard bargains with Washington to protect their national interests, even if that means limiting oil production to keep crude prices high. Saudi Arabia does not easily tolerate intimidation from Washington. Nor should African nations.

Go big or go home

At the climate talks, COP27, in Egypt in November, there was a glimmer of optimism that emerged in the manner in which Africa carried out its climate diplomacy. Presidents from Africa took to the podium to lambast the US and other industrialised nations for creating the climate crisis and demanded tangible billions in climate reparations funds.

Biden’s summit in Washington is an opportunity to build on Africa’s status as an influential geopolitical player. Our leaders need to look their US counterparts in the eye, secure the best deals possible for the continent and its individual nations, and not let the US set the agenda with its hypocritical preaching on liberty and democracy.

The US might be the world’s biggest power. But this could be Africa’s moment.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.