This week will be all Africa all the time for the White House, State Department, and Washington’s broader foreign policy community. For just the third time since 2014 and the second time in Biden’s presidency, the United States will host a summit dedicated to the U.S.-Africa partnership.
There has been an element of organizational chaos to this exercise. The criteria for invitation has been inconsistent; the White House said it based its invitations on African Union policy, but the top National Security Council official for Africa misstated how the African Union actually operates. Until the last week, the guest list was unclear, especially with regard to Eritrea (disinvited) and Ethiopia (invited).
The spotlight will be on the mainstage, but side events have already begun at a number of think tanks, activist organizations, media outlets and law firms. Beyond this, however, another dynamic is at play. The coming week will be like the World Cup for various K Street lobby firms who must prove their mettle to lobbying clients as they scramble and compete for key Congressional meetings.
Unclear amidst the confusion of the White House planning process is the degree to which the National Security Council has prepared the legislative branch. The answer to this question will be the make or break factor for the summit.
Certainly, many African presidents, prime ministers, and private sector leaders have legitimate business to discuss. Others, however, might wish to use a photograph with a key official to suggest endorsement where they have none. This, for example, was why after Liberian President George Weah received no high level meetings during the UN General Assembly, he kept photobombing delegations and officials in order to imply to those back home that the United States and other international delegations received him with respect rather than as a rogue leader.
Certainly, some leaders now hope to use senators as a backdrop to whitewash their own human rights records. Consider the West African country of Benin: The Washington Post has reported on its slide toward autocracy. In its most recent report, Freedom House assesses, “Benin had been among the most stable democracies in sub-Saharan Africa, but President Patrice Talon began using the justice system to attack his political opponents after taking office in 2016, and new electoral rules and a crackdown on his political opponents enabled him to consolidate his power in 2021.” He now seeks to change the constitution to allow a third term.
Talon reportedly hopes to rub elbows in Congress. On December 9, opposition leader and former Justice Minister Reckya Madougou wrote to Sen. Chris Coons from her cell in the Civil Prison of Akpo-Misérété where she is serving a 20-year sentence for having challenged Talon in elections urging Coons to reconsider his meeting. If Coons, perhaps Biden’s closest friend in the senate and a voice whose counsel Biden values to the extent that Coons often acts as a shadow secretary of State, meets with Talon, he will effectively launder the Beninese dictator’s image and signal to Talon and his constituency back home that U.S. rhetoric about rule-of-law and good governance is empty. Democracies are messy, and men like Weah and Talon know how to play the press in order to sidestep truth with well-crafted photos. Nor is Talon the only ruler to imprison opponents. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who built his career on ethnic and sectarian cleansing if not genocide, is also on his way to Washington. Buhari too has a penchant for using photo-ops to sidestep accountability.
Coons is sophisticated. He and his aides know the importance of vetting meetings, though it can be hard to resist a photo-op with a foreign head of state. Many other senators and congressmen do not follow African affairs closely, however. They either may not know how African officials seek to use them or the White House may not have adequately briefed them to ensure that, on consensus issues of U.S. foreign policy and national security concern, all American officials talk from the same page. The parties might have legitimate policy disputes with regard to Iran, Israel, or climate change, but when it comes to Africa, there is no reason why U.S. policy cannot be bipartisan. There is no reason for either Democrats or Republicans to excuse the corruption and democratic backsliding in Liberia and Benin, or Nigeria’s religious freedom violations and ethnic cleansing.
If, however, the Biden administration and State Department’s Africa hands have briefed senators—from both parties—they might enable senators to hold their interlocutors’ figurative feet to the fire. Senators could ask Weah, for example, about his two-month absence from Liberia amidst a food shortage and why he reneged on standing up an economic crimes court as demanded by Liberian law. Every senator should hound Talon about Madougou’s imprisonment with the same verve with which they do partisan battle with each other. Buhari should not have a single meeting where senators do not force him to defend his legacy of terrorizing the Igbo people or the illegal detention of Nnamdi Kanu, one of their most popular leaders.
The Founding Fathers separated the branches of government for good reason, but this does not mean the executive and legislative need to act in opposition to each other. Biden and the press may focus on the main stage during the summit but, if the White House and State Department have done their legwork, they might amplify the summit’s success and demonstrate to Africa’s biggest human rights and democracy backsliders, not only in Ethiopia but also in Liberia, Benin, and Nigeria, that Washington speaks with a single voice.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).