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Biden to call for African Union to permanently join G-20

Move comes as U.S. seeks to engage Africa on climate and Ukraine, and to counter China’s influence

President Biden talks with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa outside the White House following their meeting in September. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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President Biden next week will announce U.S. support for the African Union to become a permanent member of the Group of 20 nations, a step that would give African nations a long-sought prize and could make it easier for Biden to secure their cooperation on issues like Ukraine and climate change.

The G-20 is a highly influential forum for the world’s most powerful economies, and South Africa is the only member from the continent, joining multiple participants from Europe, Asia and the Americas. Biden will make the announcement during next week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, said Judd Devermont, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for African Affairs.

The African Union represents the 55 member states on the continent.

“It’s past time Africa has permanent seats at the table in international organizations and initiatives,” Devermont said in a statement. “We need more African voices in international conversations that concern the global economy, democracy and governance, climate change, health, and security.”

African leaders have for years expressed frustration at being left out of discussions on global affairs and crises that affect them, from the coronavirus to food security, saying they often feel like bystanders while Western countries drive most international bodies.

Those frustrations came to a head during the coronavirus pandemic, when African countries were hit particularly hard by the fallout. Despite the extensive experience of African countries in disease surveillance and protocol, they were not included in decisions on questions such as when to mask, whether to ban travel, and when to test before traveling, said Mvemba Dizolele, director and senior fellow at the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

African countries also have felt left behind in the distribution of coronavirus treatments and vaccines, often receiving them just before they expire and without sufficient storage and distribution capacity.

While the United States has donated more vaccines than any other country — and ramped up vaccine aid early this year — a far smaller share of Africans are vaccinated against the virus than in the United States, Europe and much of Asia. There are myriad reasons for that, including limited distribution capacity and vaccine skepticism, in addition to insufficient supply from countries that produce the vaccines.

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Africa is also home to countries that are among those worst hit by rising temperatures, droughts and other extreme weather events fueled by climate change.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Macky Sall, president of Senegal and chair of the African Union, have pushed Biden to increase their representation in the G-20, Devermont said. “The president is following through on his commitments and is listening to our African partners,” he added.

Ramaphosa directly asked Biden to support African Union membership in the G-20 when he visited the White House in September, while Sall has also pressed Biden on the issue and has written him several times.

While the G-20 is made up mostly of individual countries, the European Union is a member, in addition to three European countries — Germany, France and Italy.

Beyond covid and climate, Biden’s move comes as African countries and other nations in the global south have borne the brunt of the economic impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Those countries have been hit hard by a global food crisis, as well as rising fertilizer and fuel prices, making it difficult for the United States to secure their support during U.N. votes that have condemned Russia for the invasion because they often blame Western sanctions for their plight.

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Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, expressed support for Biden’s expected announcement, saying African leaders deserve the ability to influence decisions that affect them.

“African nations should have more opportunities to present their insights and propose solutions on global challenges that impact them, from climate change to food security to public health,” Van Hollen said in a statement.

White House officials said the move also makes sense because Africa’s population, 1.3 billion people, is growing faster than that of any other continent. It also has among the youngest populations, with a median age of 19. By comparison, the median age in the United States is about 38, while in Europe it is about 44.

“The greatest resource of Africa is its people. If we don’t tap into that, then the world is going to get some turbulence going forward,” Dizolele said. “The world system is run on the basis of institutions that were set up almost 80 years ago. Those were set up without the voices of Africans. … They’ve been asking for this space at the table.”

White House officials also framed the decision as building on Biden’s call earlier this year for a more representative U.N. Security Council, where each of the five permanent members — the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and France — hold veto power.

Russia is the most frequent user of that authority, and in February it vetoed a resolution calling for its forces to withdraw from Ukraine. Critics also say the United States has repeatedly uses its veto to shield Israel from criticism.

Some African leaders contend that Western countries often expect them to sign on to goals that they view as important, even if those aims are detrimental or impractical for African countries. Western climate activists, for example, are pushing to cut back on nonrenewable energy sources, but some African countries rely on natural gas to help develop their economies.

Administration officials said that next week’s Africa summit, to be held in Washington on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, reflects a recognition that the continent is critical when it comes to global issues like health, climate and the economy. Several sessions will focus on agriculture and agribusiness, issues that are of greater concern since the food crisis and wheat shortage caused by the war in Ukraine.

But the summit is also unfolding as the United States mounts a concerted push to form and strengthen alliances around the world that will allow it to counter the influence of China.

Beijing has dramatically increased its investment and lending activities in Africa over the past 20 years, in the process becoming its biggest trading partner. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a multibillion dollar plan to invest in infrastructure in nearly 150 countries, includes dozens of African countries.

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U.S. officials have long viewed China’s investment and lending activities in Africa as a threat to their own influence on the continent, and many experts have raised concerns as to whether China’s loans are predatory or could later be used to extract concessions from countries that took them.

Biden has yet to make a state visit to Africa since taking office in January 2021, and some diplomats say such a trip could convey a level of U.S. respect and seriousness about engaging African leaders. Biden briefly visited Egypt last month and met with President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi when the country hosted the U.N. climate conference.

Responding to the arguments of leaders from Africa and elsewhere, representatives of industrialized countries struck a historic agreement at that conference to help developing countries pay for the catastrophic consequences of climate change.

Still, several high-ranking Biden administration officials have traveled to the continent. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda over the summer. Samantha Power, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, has also traveled to Africa, as has U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

The U.S.-Africa summit next week is the first one in eight years, after President Barack Obama last hosted it in 2014. Obama, whose father was Kenyan, had traveled to Africa twice by that point, Dizolele noted, one visit to Egypt and another to Ghana.

“The United States cannot be absent in this space,” Dizolele said. “The next summit should not take place in eight years. It should take place next year, it should take place in Africa, and the president should go to Africa.”