Africa and the Biden Administration’s Summit for Democracy

A shorter version of this article was originally published in the Wilson Center's Africa: Year in Review 2020 report on January 12, 2021.

The Biden administration has an early opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to sub-Saharan Africa at its Summit for Democracy. During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden committed to “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World” by hosting a global Summit for Democracy during his first year in office. This not only is an important signal after four years of neglectful U.S. policy toward Africa, but also represents a moment to redefine U.S. engagement and reimagine its approach to democracy promotion in Africa and elsewhere. A new U.S. relationship with sub-Saharan Africa—defined by the region’s global sway and strategic importance—will find its roots in how this first summit is conducted: which African countries receive invitations, what engagements are promoted, and how Africa features in the conference’s commitments.

President Biden’s Summit for Democracy promises to mark a turning point in an era when democracy is facing a global decline. Africa has the potential to play a prominent part at this marquee event, moving from sideshow to center stage.

Q1: Which governments, opposition parties, and civil society actors should receive invitations?

A1: Since this is a global summit, there almost certainly will be a food fight over who receives an invitation. For Africa, it is unlikely to be as inclusive as the 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, from which only four African countries were excluded. In determining which African countries to invite to the global summit, the Biden administration should favor a mix of countries from across the democratic spectrum. In addition to Africa’s established democracies, it should include countries on the cusp of a breakthrough, including Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Niger, and Sudan. Moreover, the summit organizers should use the promise of an invitation to extract reforms; for instance, it could offer a spot to Nigeria if the security services are held accountable for human rights abuses perpetrated during the #EndSARS protests.

The Summit for Democracy is expected to invite civil society organizations, presumably including environmentalists, women’s groups, students, entrepreneurs, and investigative journalists. However, it is also essential to open the summit to opposition parties. A democracy requires commitments from the opposition as well as ruling parties. The summit should include both ruling and opposition parties where possible, and, to make a point, invite opposition leaders under threat from repressive governments—for Africa this would include Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

Q2: How should the summit feature African contributions and issues?

A2: Africa’s role in tackling global democratic challenges should be showcased at the summit. Too often, Africa is treated as separate from the rest of the world. It is factually untrue. Cabo Verde, for instance, recently arrested Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro’s financial fixer, and The Gambia in 2019 filed a lawsuit against Myanmar for alleged genocide against the Rohingya. The continent holds three nonpermanent seats at the UN Security Council, and it represents the largest and most unified bloc at the UN General Assembly. African positions on global challenges, including digital authoritarianism, democratic backsliding, and human rights abuses will carry significant weight. At the summit, African representatives should be asked to chair sessions and be pressed to talk about xenophobia in Europe and the crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong.

In addition, Africans should be urged to confront mounting problems in their own region. While almost 70 percent of Africans say democracy is their preferred form of government, it is increasingly in short supply. Ivorian president Alassane Ouattara and Guinean president Alpha Conde secured third terms while several governments, including in Benin, Niger, and Senegal, disqualified their chief rivals from contesting elections. African governments also are routinely shutting down the internet to limit civil society and political opposition from organizing. Chad, Burundi, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Tanzania, Togo, and Zimbabwe have restricted access to the internet or social media in 2020. During the pandemic, several leaders used health restrictions to hamper their opponents or selectively distributed food and medical relief to their supporters.

Q3: How should African issues fit into the summit’s deliverables?

A3: The summit should prominently feature Africa in the event’s outcomes. In addition to anticorruption goals and private sector pledges, the summit organizers should establish a commission of leading civil society activists to elevate their voices as well as insulate them from future government repression. Specifically, there should be a focus on LGTBQ+ communities, which continue to face harassment and government-sanctioned violence throughout the region. Relatedly, the United States should facilitate conversation between U.S. domestic movements, including Black Lives Matter, and African counterparts to share best practices. Finally, there should be partnership programs in which countries from different regions agree to hold themselves accountable for shared commitments. For instance, Senegal and Romania—ranked 47 and 48, respectively, in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedoms Index—could work together on the role of the media in democracies.

Judd Devermont is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Judd Devermont