By FRANCESCA EBEL

TUNIS - African heads of state, representatives of international organizations and private business leaders gathered in Tunisia on Saturday for the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, a triennial event launched by Japan to promote growth and security in Africa.

Economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, a food crisis worsened by Russia’s war in Ukraine, and climate change are among the challenges facing many African countries expected to define the two-day conference.

Tensions among African countries also weighed on the meeting: On Friday, Morocco announced a boycott of the event and recalled its ambassador to Tunisia to protest the inclusion of a representative of the Polisario Front movement fighting for independence for Western Sahara.

The conference comes as Russia and China have sought to increase their economic and other influence in Africa.

While 30 African heads of state and government attended the event in Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, many key talks are being held remotely, including those involving Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the summit.

The Japanese government created and hosted the first TICAD summit in 1993. The conferences now are co-organized with the United Nations, the African Union and the World Bank. The summits have generated 26 development projects in 20 African countries.

This year, discussion around an increase of Japanese investments in Africa is anticipated, with particular focus on supporting start-ups and food security initiatives. Japan has said it plans to provide assistance for the production of rice, alongside a promised $130 million in food aid.

Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an academic institution of the U.S. Defense Department, compared the conference’s format to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, “where government, business, and civil society leaders participate on an equal basis.”

However, this weekend’s summit has sparked controversy in Tunis, which faces its own acute economic crisis, including a recent spike in food and gasoline shortages.

Critics have spoken out about organizers’ alleged “white-washing” of the city, which has seen cleaner streets and infrastructure improvements in preparation for the conference summit. One local commentator said the North African capital looked like it had applied makeup to impress participants.

Meanwhile, the journalists’ union in Tunisia issued a statement Friday condemning restrictions on reporting and information around the summit.

Morocco’s complaint stemmed from Tunisia inviting the Polisario Front leader to attend. Morocco recovered Western Sahara from Spain in 1975, and the Polisario Front fought to make it an independent state until a 1991 UN-brokered cease-fire. It is a highly sensitive issue in Morocco, which seeks international recognition for its authority over Western Sahara.

“The welcome given by the Tunisian head of state to the leader of the separatist militia is a serious and unprecedented act, which deeply hurts the feelings of the Moroccan people,” Morocco’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Morocco announced its withdrawal from the conference and the recall of its ambassador for consultations. But the ministry said the decision does not “call into question the commitment of the Kingdom of Morocco to the interests of Africa.”