2022 African Leaders Summit: Failing to Move Beyond Lofty Rhetoric?

In announcing the upcoming U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit, President Biden stated that the event would be an opportunity to “reinforce the U.S.-Africa commitment to democracy and human rights” and build shared values, among other laudable goals. A few weeks after his announcement, the U.S. government released a new Africa strategy which underscored a commitment to “stem the recent tide of authoritarianism and military takeovers by working with allies and partners in the region to respond to democratic backsliding and human rights abuses, including through a targeted mix of positive inducements and punitive measures such as sanctions.”

Since before President Obama’s Ghana speech in 2009, there have been consistent calls for the United States to recalibrate its relationships with autocratic African strongmen. In practical terms, little has changed. At the last Leaders Summit in 2014, four African Presidents—Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki and Central Africa Republic’s Catherine Samba-Panza—were not invited. Each was either under U.S. sanction or had been suspended by the African Union. While their exclusion from the summit was important symbolism and confirmation of U.S. posture, their absence was largely inconsequential to setting any new agenda for U.S.-Africa engagement. There is no evidence that the United States is applying a different approach to the invites for the 2022 Summit, so again autocratic government leaders, some with truly awful human rights records, will certainly be in attendance.

And while the United States has issued sanctions in some very limited instances, the timing of such actions has often rendered them of little political or diplomatic impact. This is perhaps illustrated best by the 2019 Global Magnitsky sanctions against notorious Ugandan police leader, General Kale Kayihura, who, by the time the United States took action, was no longer in charge of the Ugandan Police force—a job he had held for over 13 years. Kayihura had fallen out with President Yoweri Museveni, ultimately over issues unrelated to Kayihura’s horrific human rights record.

The reality of U.S. engagement in Africa continues to pay nominal regard to the importance of human rights protections on the continent. In practical terms, action on behalf of human rights has consistently been subordinate to U.S. security policy—in Africa and beyond and no summit has focused on righting that wrong.

This U.S. approach is shortsighted; long-term U.S. interests, as well as those of the continent, especially its youth population, will be better served by a deeper and meaningful commitment to the protection of human rights and promotion of democratic governance. The U.S. deprioritization or delay in enacting difficult targeted sanctions decisions in favor of the political status quo—most obviously in countries where the autocratic strongman rule has been useful to U.S. short-term interests—does nothing to “stem the recent tide of authoritarianism” in Africa.

That U.S. approach has to change; U.S. economic and military cooperation should not be treated as separate from its democratic and human rights protection obligations. To do so is counterproductive and permits autocratic leaders to pick and choose aspects of U.S. cooperation to entrench their misrule. The United States should deploy its development, military, and other fiscal benefits consistently and with greater strategic coherence to raise the cost of human rights violations. Ramping up and enforcing targeted individual sanctions in a timely way against officials involved in gross human rights violations, grand corruption, and subversion of democratic processes will illustrate the United States is on the side of Africa’s citizens and not abusive government officials.

The summit should be an opportunity for U.S. action to live up to the commitments in the new Africa strategy. Without specific and actionable plans to address human rights abusers and greater diplomatic bandwidth to Africa’s human rights deficits from the whole of the U.S. government, the upcoming summit is unlikely to deliver anything enduring for either Africans or the United States. 

Maria E. Burnett is a human rights lawyer and a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program. Nicholas Opiyo is a human rights lawyer, founder of Chapter Four Uganda and a scholar-at-risk fellow at Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

Nicholas Opiyo

Founder, Chapter Four Uganda, and Scholar-at-Risk Fellow, Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy