Africa: Cities as New Agendas and Actors – the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit

Johannesburg — Since assuming office in January 2021, the Biden administration has appreciably walked the talk with regards to robustly re-engaging Africa. Review Biden’s Africa moves over the last twenty-one months, and you will see a pattern to the resetting of relations, one step at a time!

A review of documented U.S. policies towards Africa shows that the new U.S. Strategy Toward Africa, unveiled in August , is the most comprehensive and innovative since formative years of U.S. formal diplomatic relations with then newly independent African nations from the late 1950s onwards.

The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, scheduled for December 13-15 in Washington DC, is the first major stab at implementing the ambitious strategy. The policy recalibrations proposed in the strategy implies new mechanisms in the works.

The question is: will new and innovative agendas and actors written into the strategy find expression at the December Summit? Will new actors envisaged in the strategy be on the discussion panels? What, in any case, as the new agendas and actors?

Before proffering answering to these questions, it is worthwhile attempting a scholarly framework for answering them. For, beyond the practical aspects of the strategy – the domain of policymakers and strategists – the strategy is also a treasure trove for students of Africa-U.S. relations.

Analytical framework

The concepts of inclusion and exclusion, continuity, and change, potentially provide a framework for analyses of linkages between Biden’s Africa strategy and the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit. Looking at the agendas included in the new policy, there are lots of continuities despite the aspirational theme of “change because continuity is insufficient”.

Continuities equals to inclusions of past agendas!

Change can be interpreted in hitherto excluded agendas that make it to a formal U.S. policy towards Africa for the first time. Change equals new priorities! And then there are agendas that could have been included but which remain excluded. Exclusion suggests off-the-policy-agenda!

Inclusion can also be seen on who will be invited to the Summit and who will be excluded. Thus, a good analytical framework is one that combines not just agendas but also actors.

Core political and economic issues as continuity

Try using a marker to highlight broad areas of inclusion-continuity on a mega scale in the seventeen-page strategy document! It becomes apparent that straightforward political agendas will be at the core of the Summit’s agenda. Heads of African states and civil society activists will be on hand to debate, negotiate and ventilate on issues around democracy, human rights, and governance. Equally explicit will be political agendas.

Ministers of trade and finance, businesses executives and officials of international financial institutions will likely meet to hammer out deals. Thus, for the big political and economic themes, change is wrapped in continuity at the meta and micro levels. It is as the level of tactics.

For instance, in the economic sphere the strategy promises to “work with the Congress on the future of AGOA … [and] support the AfCFTA’s implementation”. On the political front the seeming change of “expand digital democracy programming, defend against digital authoritarianism, fightback against disinformation”, is a veritable continuation of democratic agendas in a tech-savvy world. Ditto other changes within continuities.

What could constitute areas of change or novel inclusions are agendas that have been excluded in the past policymaking agendas. Among the newly included issues, cities stand out as innovations in the new strategy.

Cities as areas of change and inclusion

A good starting point to understanding newly included issues, which constitute change, is to look at the Obama strategy towards Africa of 2012. In the strategy, cities specifically and urban issues broadly did not feature at all. Likewise, and perhaps consequently, at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit of 2014, city or urban agendas were conspicuous for their absence on the program of events.

In a “rebalance toward urban hubs” the new strategy acknowledges the reality of Africa-U.S. city relations and corrects the anomaly of muted, unstructured, and informal engagements at local government and community levels. In other words, national or central government levels will now be blended with municipal-level level engagements, not as an add-on but as a policy imperative. The concept and practice of cities as international actors is about to get a shot in the arm!

There are lots of opportunities to build on. The U.S. has had a long arc of city-to-city engagements with African counterparts. A good is example is the Sister Cities International, launched by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. Ongoing research by this author shows that there are at least 165 Africa-U.S. sister city partnerships. These range from the earliest – Los Angeles and Lusaka (established 1968) and Dayton and Monrovia (1972), as well as more recent ones – Praia and Boston and Maryland and Kwa Zulu Natal (Durban), both launched in 2015.

Research by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2020 revealed multiple linkages between U.S. cities and Africa: Quad Cities and Greater Miami and their potential for agricultural and health/medical partnerships respectively; Providence, Rhode Island, and its deep diasporic connections; investments flowing from St. Louis, Missouri-based companies such as Anheuser-Busch InBev (beverages), Bayer and Pfizer (pharmaceuticals) and Boeing (aviation) to African countries; Birmingham, Alabama companies including B.L. International  (diplomatic services),Altec (electronics), and Biocryst (pharmaceuticals), with their contractual work in Africa.

The big businesses in the city-based economic relations include the San Francisco Bay Area tech companies, the Ford Motor Company (Detroit) and Coca Cola (Atlanta) stitching together connections with places such as greater Johannesburg, Lagos, and Nairobi.

Navigating competing agendas and actors

Thus, the proposal to work “with municipal governments; conduct joint analysis … and establish time-bound municipal compacts”is founded in grounded reality. If the Summit keeps faith with the strategy, it can be expected that a session dedicated to cities will be convened. But here is the catch.

City actors have multiplied a great deal over the last couple of years as cities have garnered great purchase as interlocutors in international affairs. City related issued have also diversified: health, environment, security, housing, migration, digital technologies (e.g., smart cities) and others. Just which agenda will be placed on the Summit program? Will the organizers favour state actors such as mayors or include non-state actors such as advocates? What will happen in situations where city leaders are political foes with national leaderships such that invitation of one actor irks the other?

Indeed, some of these issues are subject of an ongoing project by the African Centre for the Study of the United States at Wits University. This includes collaboration with the Washington DC-based Charter Cities Institute exploring the emergence of purpose-built cities and a forthcoming Africa-US cities conference in Sister Cities International and other partners.

The author is Deputy director at the African Centre for the Study of the United States: bob.wekesa@wits.ac.za.   

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