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President Biden to host more than 40 African leaders at U.S.-Africa summit

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Delegations and leaders from nearly 50 African countries have arrived in Washington for a key summit hosted by President Joe Biden. The U.S.-African Leaders Summit is the centerpiece of an effort to reset and improve U.S. ties with the continent at a moment when ties with China and increasingly Russia have attracted scrutiny. To hear more, we're joined now by NPR's new West Africa correspondent Emmanuel Akinwotu in Lagos, Nigeria. Emmanuel, welcome.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Good morning, Rob.

SCHMITZ: So happy to be speaking with you. Emmanuel, how important is this summit to U.S. officials?

AKINWOTU: It's really important in that it's kind of a central part of resetting U.S.-Africa relations. You know, over the last decade, we've seen the importance of Africa to other powers like the EU, Turkey, Russia really grow. And we see that particularly with Lagos. And everything from the train lines to the new port to new agriculture plants are being built from Chinese loans and assistance. And this kind of thing is happening all across Africa.

Meanwhile, U.S. engagement has really lagged behind. You know, it's been eight years since the last summit in Washington was held by President Obama. And African diplomats I've spoken to recently - they say there was a lot of promise at that summit, but it largely went unfulfilled. And then there was the Trump years - President Trump's years and his America First policy, and obviously, his disparaging comments about some African countries...

SCHMITZ: Right.

AKINWOTU: ...Which weren't helpful. So this really is a moment where the U.S. are hoping to reboot and reframe that relationship.

SCHMITZ: Reboot and reframe - who will be at this summit, and what do we expect to see over the next few days?

AKINWOTU: Well, there'll be over 40 African heads of state, most likely. And, you know, an interesting figure who will be there is Ethiopia's prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. You know, he's led a two-year war in his country that has effectively seen a blockade of the northern Tigray region in Ethiopia by his government. And Abiy's going to meet Secretary of State Blinken. And the U.S. played a part in bringing about the recent cease-fire agreement in Ethiopia. And then there are some leaders who have not been invited, like, for example, leaders of Sudan, Burkina Faso, Guinea, because the African Union have - has expelled them and, you know, following coups and rights abuses.

SCHMITZ: Wow.

AKINWOTU: But it also highlights another challenge for the U.S. because countries like Russia and China aren't as sensitive to human rights concerns in the same way as the U.S. is. And what we expect from the summit, Rob, is the U.S. is going to announce its support, as it kind of has touted in recent days, for the African Union's seat at the G20 and for a multi-country trip from President Biden to Africa in the next year. But something that has been quite striking is there's not really been a focus on a single policy or a signature policy. And so we'll see whether that emerges.

SCHMITZ: Right. Now, Emmanuel, you mentioned China and Russia. How much competition do these countries pose when it comes to what the U.S. is hoping to do in Africa?

AKINWOTU: I think the U.S. sees China and Russia as being in competition for influence and access to Africa's rapidly expanding market, natural resources economy and really China and Russia - the U.S. sees China and Russia as attempting to be more integral to developing this huge and vitally important continent. And there's a concern that a lot of this money and infrastructure might shift the balance of power towards Chinese and Russian interests. You know, Russia's influence isn't as extensive, but it is significant, maintaining relations with African countries over a period where the U.S. has drifted. But on the other hand, African countries really aren't interested in being drawn into a wider rivalry between the U.S., China and Russia. And they see this as an opportunity to, you know, put their foot down and engage with the U.S. on their terms.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. That's Emmanuel Akinwotu. He's NPR's West Africa correspondent in Lagos. Emmanuel, thank you.

AKINWOTU: Thanks, Rob. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Emmanuel Akinwotu