Top US Africa Official: Summit is ‘Unprecedented’ Chance to Build Ties

Assistant Secretary Thomas-Greenfield Outlines US Priorities for Summit 

Next week’s US-Africa Leaders Summit will be an “unprecedented” opportunity to bolster ties between the United States and Africa, according to the State Department’s top Africa official.  

“This is not a renewal of our relationship with Africa; it is not a new relationship with Africa; it is not a reflection of us determining that somehow we have been out of the game for many years,” said Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield. “This is building on what is a strong, historical relationship with the continent of Africa.”

On August 4-6, Washington will welcome fifty-one African heads of state and hundreds of African government and civil society leaders for the first-of-its-kind US-Africa Leadership Summit. The Atlantic Council’s Africa Center hosted Thomas-Greenfield to preview the summit’s schedule and the Obama administration’s hopes for what US and African leaders can achieve during their meetings. 

Thomas-Greenfield outlined the administration’s two main objectives for the summit: to convey a clear message to the people of Africa “…that the United States cares about the continent of Africa and that we’re committed to an enduring, multifaceted partnership,” as well as greater American investment on the continent that will create jobs for both Africans and Americans. 

Thomas-Greenfield defended the event’s unconventional format, explaining that President Obama insisted that the summit be “designed to be interactive and conversational.” Organizers scrapped lengthy plenary addresses, to the consternation of some invited leaders, in favor of discussion panels centered on major themes such as boosting economic growth, security cooperation, and good governance.  

Due to the summit’s new format, the State Department reached out to and encouraged other organizations to host African leaders for events throughout the week. Thomas-Greenfield expressed her excitement about side events—more than eighty at last count—hosted by businesses, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks, and diaspora groups around Washington. “We’re excited to be a catalyst for all the activity that will take place around the summit,” she said.  

The Atlantic Council’s Africa Center will host events next week to coincide with the summit, including a public address by Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, as well as the launch of publications on Morocco’s burgeoning economy and obstacles to investment in sub-Saharan Africa. The center also will welcome five heads of state over the week for a series of private roundtable discussions. 

Thomas-Greenfield outlined US policy priorities for the summit, including a “seamless renewal” next year of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), passed in 2000 to boost trade and the development of strong market economies across the continent. The State Department will host a ministerial conference to discuss how to improve the bill in its next iteration to better serve African countries as well as American business interests. 

Thomas-Greenfield pointedly criticized Congress’s failure to confirm ambassadors to Africa, including to eight embassies that have been without ambassadors since 2013. “We currently do not have an ambassador in Sierra Leone, where we’re dealing with a major crisis,” she noted. Thomas-Greenfield expressed hope that the summit would send a message to Congress and encourage it to quickly confirm outstanding nominations, adding, “This is an important time to show that strong commitment [to Africa] by getting our ambassadors out.” 

J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said that while he does not expect any landmark deals or announcements to come out of next week’s summit, it will nonetheless provide a key opportunity for the United States and Africa to build momentum toward future opportunities, as well as a chance to “shift the narrative on Africa” away from concerns about security and human rights toward its sustained economic growth and its rapidly improving business environment.

Eric Gehman is a publications editor at the Atlantic Council.

Image: Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield (at left) responded to policy specialists' questions in a discussion moderated by J. Peter Pham (center) the director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center.