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Joe Biden and Antony Blinken sit before video screens during the opening of the Democracy Summit. U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the White House during the opening of the Democracy Summit, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, looks on, Washington, Dec. 9, 2021 (AP photo by Susan Walsh).

Biden’s Democracy Summit Missed an Opportunity to Engage With Africans

Friday, Dec. 10, 2021

Leaders from government, civil society, journalism and the private sector in 17 African countries have been invited by U.S. President Joe Biden to join their counterparts from nearly 100 other nations at a two-day virtual summit on democracy. While campaigning for his party’s presidential nomination, Biden made the defense and promotion of democracy at home and abroad a cornerstone of his agenda. In particular, Biden pledged to host a summit for democracy in his first year in office, a promise this gathering fulfills. 

Biden administration officials described the summit as offering an “affirmative agenda for democratic renewal” focused on three major themes: promoting respect for human rights, defending against a rising tide of authoritarianism and mobilizing anti-corruption efforts. A second, in-person summit is reportedly planned for next year to follow up on commitments made this week. 

Among the 17 African countries represented at the summit are several nations regarded as the continent’s democratic standard-bearers, including Ghana, Senegal, Botswana, Mauritius, Cabo Verde and Zambia. Traditional U.S. partners like Kenya, South Africa and Liberia likewise made the cut. But also on the invitation list—and perhaps controversially so—include leaders from Niger, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, leading many observers to question the criteria for selecting attendees. Among the more understandable exclusions were leaders from Mali, Guinea, Chad and Sudan, where in recent months military rulers have seized power unconstitutionally; Cote d’Ivoire, where President Alassane Ouattara circumvented constitutional term limits to secure a contentious third term; as well as Ethiopia and Egypt, where a bloody civil war and issues of human rights abuses, respectively, would have made the optics of inviting their political leaders untenable.

For many people in Africa’s different countries, including ones whose leaders were excluded from Biden’s democracy summit, a global conversation on democracy and human rights—no matter how symbolic—comes at a poignant time in the continent’s democratization journey, which began in earnest roughly 30 years ago. Amid fears of backsliding and the return of military rule, the support of democratic principles nonetheless remains strong among African publics. Across 34 countries surveyed by Afrobarometer, large majorities support democracy and reject military rule, one-party domination and personalist leadership. Support for multiparty competition, parliamentary oversight of the executive and presidential term limits also remains high. 

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At the same time, African citizens express considerable levels of discontent with the way democracy is working in their respective countries, with their satisfaction polling as low as 11 percent and 17 percent in Gabon and Angola, respectively. Nonetheless, there is a clear, consistent verdict across the continent that more democracy, not less, would better serve African hopes and aspirations. Equally, the Biden summit’s other themes of defending human rights and fighting corruption find widespread support among African citizens.

The Biden administration insists that the selection process for attendees was conducted objectively and that it consulted with civil society and a range of other stakeholders both in the U.S. and in the countries involved, a claim many observers view skeptically. Chidi Odinkalu, a professor of practice in international human rights law at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, argues that the summit is primarily about U.S. interests and priorities, and its guest list reflects that. “Since the summit is not a multilateral effort, they have no burden to justify their invitations to anyone or to make the criteria for the invitations either coherent or public,” he said. But, he noted, there was little civil society input into the gathering, a view echoed elsewhere. In addition, he alluded to lingering distrust across Africa and much of the Global South over the sincerity of Washington’s commitment to defending and promoting human rights and democratic principles in their countries. 

Odinkalu pointed to growing perceptions of the United States’ decline as an anchor of global stability, as well as its own democratic erosion, as two more reasons many Africans are hesitant to take Washington at its word. “The credibility of democracy in the U.S. is itself being tested to the limits with the outcome of the 2020 elections and its aftermath,” he said. “More than how the U.S. can work with African civil society, the real question should be what kind of attitudes should the U.S. bring? A little more humility and introspection may be needed.” Still, he didn’t rule out the possibility that the summit could be a “leveraging opportunity” for African civil society to secure a more productive engagement from Washington.

Joseph Asunka, Afrobarometer’s CEO, agrees that U.S. outreach to African civil society prior to the summit was limited, which he says may make it difficult to hold Africa’s participating governments to the commitments they make at the gathering. “Will participating African governments, once they make the commitments, follow through with implementation? What would it take from the U.S. side to ensure that these commitments are translated into practical action?” he asked. The answers to these questions, he said, will determine whether African participation in the democracy summit was worth it. To underscore why implementation remains the challenge, Asunka pointed to democracy and governance frameworks covering all three planks of the summit that have already been adopted by the African Union and regional bodies like the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, with decidedly mixed results.

The Biden administration insists it will engage Africa’s 54 countries differently from its predecessors. Now it must put its money where its mouth is and prove its skeptics wrong. That might be easier said than done, given Washington’s confused and outdated approach to Africa.

Keep up to date on Africa news with our daily curated Africa news wire

Politics Watch

President Adama Barrow was declared the winner of last week’s presidential election in Gambia, securing a new five-year mandate in the West African country. Opposition candidates, however, rejected the results, alleging irregularities.

The vote was widely seen as a test of the country’s democratic credentials five years after Barrow’s 2016 victory over longtime dictator Yahya Jammeh, who initially refused to concede defeat until a regional coalition of West African armed forces forced him out of power. Barrow initially pledged to serve in office for three years and step down, but later reneged on his promise.

In his victory speech, he pledged to pursue infrastructure development and constitutional reforms, and implement the recommendations of the country’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission. 

Culture Watch

Lamine Diack, a one-time mayor of Dakar and the former president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (now known as World Athletics), died last week in Dakar, Senegal, at the age of 88.

Diack, who led the athletics’ governing body from 1999 to 2015 and was a member of the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, was said by his son to have passed away at home. His funeral was held last Friday. Senegalese President Macky Sall expressed condolences in a tweet, saying that the country lost one of its illustrious sons. 

Diack led the IAAF at a time when athletics flourished, in large part due to the popularity of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. But behind the scenes, his name became synonymous with corruption in athletics’ administration. In 2015, he was convicted of extorting money from athletes and accused of taking bribes in a vote to choose an Olympics host country. He was later allowed to return to Senegal from France after being detained under house arrest for several years.

Top Reads From Around the Web

The story of Africa’s guitar god Dr. Nico, the Congolese innovator admired by Jimi Hendrix. Alan di Perna writes in Guitar World about Nicolas Kasanda wa Mikalay, a Congolese electric guitarist popularly known as Dr. Nico, who is regarded as a pioneer of Congolese rumba and subsequent genres such as soukous. Dr. Nico went on to find immense popularity across Europe and North America in the 1960s and 1970s, but later left the music industry amid financial difficulties and passed away in 1985. His sounds paved the way for more than two generations of African musicians, including many who, like him, found international fame. 

How Africa’s Cultural Institutions are Leading the Way in Audience Development and Research. Charlotte Ashamu writes in HyperAllergic about Africa’s wave of entrepreneurs launching new models of preserving and showcasing art, across cities as varied as Lagos and Marrakech to Cotonou and Lusaka. At a time where many museums in the West are not only facing challenges in attracting diverse audiences but also scrutiny over debates about the restitution of cultural property stolen from Africa, African museums like Lagos’ John Randle Centre for Yoruba History and Culture, set to open next year, hope to provide a useful blueprint for the way the world thinks about and engages with African cultural institutions.

Chris O. Ogunmodede is an associate editor with World Politics Review. His coverage of African politics, international relations and security has appeared in War on The Rocks, Mail & Guardian, The Republic, Africa is a Country and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @Illustrious_Cee.

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