Is it fair to criticize Biden for hosting dictators at US-Africa Leaders Summit?

A spokesperson for the State Department tells theGrio that the Biden administration took an “inclusive approach toward invitations in close coordination with the African Union."

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This week, President Joe Biden hosted 49 African leaders in Washington, D.C., for the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit since the inaugural summit was hosted in 2014 by former President Barack Obama.

Among the leaders invited to the three-day summit were a number of African heads of state accused of operating as dictators and committing human rights abuses. 

Two leaders, in particular, were Uganda President Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda. 

U.S. President Joe Biden (C) poses with African leaders during the U.S. – Africa Leaders Summit on December 15, 2022 in Washington, DC. The Summit brings together heads of state, government officials, business leaders, and civil society to strengthen ties between the U.S. and Africa. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Kagame was condemned by the U.S. and the United Nations for the September 2021 conviction of Paul Rusesabagina, a Rwandan exile living in the U.S. who is a vocal critic of Kagame’s regime, on terrorism and murder charges. Former President George W. Bush in 2005 awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rusesabagina, who sheltered Rwandans targeted for murder in that country’s 1994 genocide.

Rusesabagina, portrayed by Don Cheadle in the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda,” was arrested in 2020 and later sentenced by a Rwandan court to 25 years in prison. The Biden State Department concluded that Rusesabagina was being “wrongfully detained,” a status it also gave in the case of Brittney Griner in Russia.

Kagame has also been accused of rigging his country’s elections and stifling democracy. Not to mention, his political opponent, Patrick Karegeya, was found murdered in a South African hotel.

Similar claims have been lodged at Museveni, accused of illegally detaining and torturing his political opponents and Ugandan civilians. African protesters stormed the streets of Washington in protest of his participation in the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Protesters called the Biden administration “hypocrites” for welcoming Museveni and demanded that the Ugandan president be arrested for abuses.

When asked about criticisms of the invitees, a State Department spokesperson told theGrio that the Biden administration took an “inclusive approach toward invitations in close coordination with the African Union.” The spokesperson noted that the leaders of four countries — Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sudan and Mali — were not extended invitations because they had been suspended from the African Union. 

Biden additionally did not invite leaders subject to U.S. sanctions or representatives of territories that the U.S. government does not recognize. Invitations were not offered to countries that do not exchange ambassadors with the U.S., such as Eritrea, the spokesperson added. 

The Biden administration’s diplomatic decision to invite every member of the African Union was “the most credible way to invite the entire continent,” says Dorothy Davis, who consults political leaders and organizations on matters of Africa and foreign affairs as president of the Dorothy M. Davis Consulting. “It shows respect for the African Union,” she tells theGrio.

Davis explains, “The U.S., by deciding to only invite those members of the African Union or those members in good standing with the African Union, is basically saying that is an internal African issue [and] that, at this point, that’s not what we’re trying to highlight.”

Joseph Tolton, executive director of Interconnected Justice, a Pan-African advocacy group, noted that the countries suspended by the African Union had experienced political coups in recent years. 

By not inviting the leaders of those African nations, Tolton said, ​​the administration signaled “to some degree” a message to the region that “we will not have presidents that do not have a particular sense of legitimacy — even if they’re autocrats — and a sense of really representing their people.”

U.S President Joe Biden delivers remarks alongside U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen at a closing session on Food Security at the U.S. – Africa Leaders Summit on December 15, 2022 in Washington, DC.(Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

At least ten of the 49 African leaders invited to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit are active dictators, Tolton estimates, including ​​Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, whom the Human Rights Watch has criticized for suppressing his critics, which has allowed him to remain in power for more than 40 years. 

Tolton described the decision to invite and meet with known dictators as a sort of “political quagmire,” though doing so gestures to the citizens of those nations that the U.S. government respects the will of the people, he said.

“They do represent their countries, and if you were to visit their countries, as much as there’s resistance and as much as there are political figures who are challenging these dictators … there’s still a large percentage of the country who perceives this man, in most cases, as their leader,” Tolton explained.

Davis said Biden’s diplomatic strategy was likely to increase the “visibility” of the African Union, particularly “in the minds of the U.S. citizenry.”

“You’re educating the U.S. side who, frankly, doesn’t know a whole lot about Africa by portraying Africa in this very positive light, because the image of Africa in general … you’re always seeing negative things,” Davis said.

U.S. President Joe Biden talks to fellow leaders during the group photo at the U.S. – Africa Leaders Summit on December 15, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Tolton said conversations about the perils of eroding democracies and the rise of dictatorships cannot happen in a vacuum, as the U.S. is currently witnessing a political leader (and current presidential candidate) of its own who has trafficked in anti-democratic values in former President Donald Trump.

“We’re talking about a former U.S. president who recently said that the U.S. Constitution should be suspended. I mean, what statement could someone make that was just more clear of his own fascist and autocratic, not only tendencies but now stated intentions,” Tolton said. “I think that we really have to kind of look at [the debate over African dictators] in the context of our own experience.”

Trump is currently under federal investigations for his roles in trying to overturn the 2020 presidential election and inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol building, and for his mishandling of classified documents.

Controversy aside, he remains popular within the Republican Party. A recent USA Today/Suffolk University Poll found that among registered Republican voters, nearly half want Trump to run for president for the third time. 

The aforementioned as a backdrop both domestically and abroad, “you have to give the U.S. government a little bit of room” as it relates to its invitations of African autocrats, Tolton said.

In its statement to theGrio, the State Department said that the administration’s approach to the summit “creates an opportunity for the president to make progress on U.S-Africa policy through engagement.”

A spokesperson said Biden’s foreign policy is “rooted in values” that promote “respect for human rights,” adding, “Human rights will always be on the agenda, and the President will not shy away from raising these issues with any foreign leader anywhere in the world.”

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