WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden promised to visit Africa this year, but 2023 is drawing to a close with no trip in sight yet. Nor has Biden given any public indication he plans to attend the U.N. climate change conference that starts next week in Dubai.
U.S. presidents tend to reveal their priorities through their calendars. Biden has pledged a closer relationship with African countries. He similarly has stressed the importance of global leadership on climate change.
Presidential trips can come together very quickly if necessary. Biden has pulled off last-minute trips to Israel and Vietnam as well as a secretive journey to Ukraine. But the travel deadline is getting tight and there have been no obvious signs of preparation.
Staring down what could be a tough 2024 reelection campaign, Biden is juggling a mix of other domestic and foreign concerns. Africa seems to have been pushed to the back burner despite effusive claims that Biden made last December at a Washington summit with 49 leaders that it would be a strategic focus as the U.S. made political and financial commitments.
“I’m eager to visit your continent,” Biden said at the summit almost a year ago. “I’m looking forward to seeing many of you in your home countries.”
Mvemba Dizolele, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that if Biden failed to go to the continent this year, it “kills the momentum quite a bit.”
“It was a crescendo, and then we leave our potential partners in Africa hanging,” he said. “What are they supposed to make of this?”
Others saw the possible trip as largely symbolic in any event, having little impact with African leaders.
Such visits are often made as a political gesture “to make people feel good,” said Jideofor Adibe, a professor of political science and international relations at Nigeria’s Nasarawa State University.
Rather than look for state visits, Africa should use its increasing global appeal — as evidenced by the African Union’s new membership in the Group of 20 leading economies –- “to put its house in order and make effective representation in a manner that will amplify African voices,” he said.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said this week he had no updates on when the president might go to Africa. Administration officials declined to preview any trip plans after The Associated Press separately asked, but they did stress Biden’s commitment to reducing fossil fuel usage and hopes for a productive climate summit.
Biden has been through a hectic year and that has made planning for travel difficult.
The president just met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and attended a summit of Asian Pacific leaders in California. Strikes by autoworkers and Hollywood writers and actors were just settled. Biden is ramping up his reelection campaign and facing the risk of a federal government shutdown at the start of next year.
In addition, he’s dealing with wars on two continents, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and fighting between Israel and Hamas.
“At some level, the crisis in the Middle East, combined with the ongoing Ukraine crisis, offers a little bit of an alibi,” said Daniel Russel, vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
Biden went to the 2021 U.N. climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, and the 2022 climate conference in Egypt. Officials involved in preparations for the 2023 summit seemed to acknowledge that world leaders this year were confronting an array of challenges because of the wars.
U.N. Environment Programme Director Inger Andersen said the agency would like to have as many heads of state as possible at negotiations but “we all understand the pressures and other crises that are happening across the world.”
She said the U.S.-China climate agreement struck earlier this month is a good beginning and that both countries have veteran climate envoys so that will compensate.
Still, the idea that Biden might skip the Dubai summit was stinging to some.
“Joe Biden claims to be a champion when it comes to the environment but from Africa, where I am, it looks cowardly and cruel,” said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa. “We need to see our green political champions stepping up and pushing each other to act.”
African leaders welcomed the idea of a Biden visit to their continent in the months after his announcement. Among the other officials who have gone to Africa this year are Vice President Kamala Harris, first lady Jill Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
With its young population and natural resources, the continent is set to drive economic growth in the coming decades. Africa has emerged as a key arena in the geopolitical competition between the United States and China, with both countries trying to court allies in Africa through money for economic development.
When Harris went to Africa in March, the leaders she met with often emphasized the importance of a follow-up from Biden.
President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana noted that former President Donald Trump — the Republican front-runner for 2024 — had failed to visit the country, unlike Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
“We’re hoping that President Biden will also be here to restore that trajectory,” he said.
Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan told Harris that her country was excited for a Biden visit.
“Tanzanians are now anxiously waiting for President Joe Biden’s visit in Tanzania,” she said to the U.S. vice president. “And please kindly convey our greetings and our invitation that Tanzania is waiting to host him.”
AP writers Seth Borenstein and Chinedu Asadu contributed to this report. Asadu reported from Abuja, Nigeria.