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The U.S. welcomes leaders from Africa, where China and Russia are making inroads

LAGOS, Nigeria — Nearly 50 African leaders and delegates have arrived in Washington this week for a key summit hosted by President Biden. It is the centerpiece of a major effort to reset and improve U.S. ties with African countries, whose relations with China and increasingly Russia have drawn scrutiny.

Over the last decade, the continent's geopolitical profile has grown to be seen as a vital region, with the fastest growing population in the world. A quarter of the Earth's projected 9.5 billion people will be in Africa, up from 10% of the global population in 1950.

On Monday ahead of the summit, the White House announced plans to commit $55 billion in economic, security and health investment in Africa over the next three years, as well as naming a new special envoy to focus on these issues.

Here are some keys to understanding the issues at play in the gathering.

Why is the summit important?

While China, Russia, the European Union, Japan and Turkey have held many similar gatherings with African diplomats, businesspeople and civil groups, this is only the second such summit the U.S. is hosting in the last eight years. The meeting was inaugurated in 2014 under President Barack Obama. It is also not clear when the next one will be.

African diplomats have described U.S. policy and engagement on the continent in recent years as drifting as relations under the last administration were strained. Former President Donald Trump infamously referred to the continent and Haiti as "shithole countries."

The then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was seen by some African diplomats as being more concerned with warning against investments and loans from China, which has poured $700 billion in infrastructure loans across the continent, than engaging with African policymakers on shared aims.

What has changed in U.S.-Africa relations this year?

There's been a concerted pivot in tone from U.S. diplomats this year, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. A new Africa strategy document released in the summer emphasized Africa's agency and partnership. Statements by Biden administration officials have emphasized the U.S.' intent is to listen, not lecture countries.

The pivot has followed years when African diplomats described U.S. policy as ignoring the continent's own objectives and hampering its freedom to form ties with both America's allies and adversaries like China and Russia, particularly following its invasion of Ukraine. U.S. diplomats say listening has been a key part of their diplomacy this year.

"In the last six months or so, we've really ramped up our engagement," Judd Devermont, an adviser to President Biden on African affairs, told NPR. "What we have tried to focus on in this administration is to treat African countries as major geopolitical players not just the subject of geopolitics or some sort of junior partner."

But what that change in tone really amounts to in terms of policies and new agreements will be seen during the summit.

President Biden has already announced U.S. support for the African Union to join the Group of 20.

And in another sign of engagement efforts, the White House says it will appoint Johnnie Carson, a longtime foreign service officer, to a new role of special representative for Africa.

What will the summit achieve?

Improving trade will feature highly, with many African countries seeking a renewal and expansion of the U.S. African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which expires in 2025. The act allows access to the U.S. market under conditions, and has become an important part of economic growth in countries like Ethiopia. The U.S. blocked the East African country's access to the AGOA this year following the Ethiopian government's civil war with the northern Tigray region. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in Washington, D.C., for the summit, will hold talks with Blinken and access to U.S. markets could be discussed.

The three days will see several meetings between business and civil society groups. Leader-to-leader talks are expected but have not been confirmed.

"The Africa leaders summit will really be a kick-off party for what we're trying to achieve in this term," Devermont said.

In numerous briefings, U.S. officials said the administration would seek new trade opportunities and closer cooperation on fighting terrorism and strengthening democracy, but offered few details on what signature aims they were hoping for. Whether any major policy emerges from the summit remains to be seen.

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Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.