Seventeen African countries are taking part in a two-day Democracy summit hosted by US President Joe Biden, billed as an event to discuss ways to defend against the rise of authoritarianism. Observers say it highlights the contrasting priorities of the US and China on the continent.

The summit comes just over a week after the triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (Focac) was held in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, which has grown in significance as China became the continent’s largest trade partner.

China’s President Xi Jinping announced investments of at least $40bn (£30bn) in projects spanning agriculture, digital economy, climate change, industrialisation, as well as one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines in donation and joint manufacturing.

“It appears counterintuitive, but the more democratic a country, the closer they get to China,” said W Gyude Moore, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development.

“The biggest need in Africa happens to be infrastructure, and the funder to turn to in the last 20 years has been China,” he added.

Infrastructure for elections

At the Focac event, a photo of Sierra Leone Foreign Minister David John Francis handing over an artist’s impression of a yet-to-be-built 7km (4 mile)- long bridge to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi demonstrated China’s important role in Africa.

The estimated $1.2bn (£900m) Lungi bridge linking the peninsula capital Freetown to the main airport will offer a quick alternative to ferries which take hours and can be unreliable.

Some observers say President Julius Maada Bio sees the bridge project as key to his 2023 re-election campaign, although others say there is no economic justification for it, pointing out that the money could be better spent on dealing with social challenges like illiteracy and maternal death.