11 Aug 2014

A discordant summit that breached protocol

Written by  Adekeye Adebajo

No. 306: A discordant summit that breached protocol / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
11 August 2014

Barack Obama, a Kenyan-Kansan and the first black president of the US, hosted 45 African leaders in Washington last week in the first ever US-Africa summit. This empty summit embarrassingly exposed the widespread myth across Africa that Obama's 2008 election would help transform Africa's political and economic fortunes. Amidst cheap flattery about "Rising Africa" and empty slogans about "good governance", the summit was effectively a talking shop unlikely to produce concrete results.

By hosting it, the US is merely catching up with China, Japan, France, and the European Union, which have all hosted periodic meetings with African leaders. There is a sense that Washington is particularly concerned about Beijing's growing presence on the continent, which has made it Africa's largest bilateral trading partner at over $200bn. The summit focused on investment; peace and regional stability; and governance. A US-Africa Business Forum was also convened. Other sideline events included forums with youth, faith-based groups, and civil society; and sessions on trade, women, health, food security, and wildlife trafficking.

The summit was dogged by controversy. There were damaging allegations of Obama treating African leaders like supplicant "tribal chiefs" being summoned to Washington to pay obeisance to America's "commander-in-chief". Unlike African summits with Japan and China, Obama refused to have any bilateral meetings with the 45 African leaders.

Following much criticism, his vice-president, Joe Biden, met the leaders of South Africa and Nigeria.

In a further breach of protocol, American cabinet ministers were asked to host African leaders at private dinners without Obama's presence. Leaders from Zimbabwe, Sudan, Eritrea, Central African Republic (CAR), and Guinea-Bissau were excluded for not being in "good standing" with Washington, even as autocrats from Gambia, Burkina Faso, Equatorial Guinea, the Republic of Congo, and Chad made the guest list. The presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone cancelled the trip to deal with the Ebola crisis.

There were other discordant notes that put Obama's diplomatic orchestra out of tune. Senegal's Mackie Sall and Tanzania's Jakaya Kikwete criticised US media for continuing to stereotype Africa; Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim berated US companies for dodging taxes in their African operations; while hundreds of demonstrators protested against the leaders of Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The dinner that Obama hosted for his African guests was not an official state dinner.

One cannot assess this summit without providing the broader context of Obama's Africa policy over the past six years. The president has continued several of the truculent George W Bush's most egregious policies. About 1,500 American soldiers remain in Djibouti to track terrorists. US drones continue to be used in Somalia and Mali. Despite the killing of about 1,000 Muslim Brotherhood protesters, and the sham elections by the Pharaonic military strongman Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Washington has continued to supply arms to the regime and condoned its human rights abuses.

Rather than challenging French neocolonial interventionist policies in Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, and the CAR, Obama has instead legitimised the continuing treatment of parts of Africa as a Gallic "sphere of influence". In the critical area of health, Washington drastically cut HIV/AIDS funding to Africa by $200m in 2012. About 75% of American imports from Africa still consist of oil.

Part of the problem of past African summits with powers such as China is that the continent's leaders have often failed to define their own interests clearly, and have consequently had plans which lack "ownership" foisted on them by external powers. The Washington summit followed a similar pattern. The gathering saw pledges of $14bn from America's private sector. Obama's "Power Africa" also unconvincingly promised to provide electricity to 20-million Africans two years after he has left office. The proof of such promises is in their delivery. As with any such bazaar, Africans should sensibly adopt the mantra "Buyer beware!", as much of these investments are unlikely to materialise. They should instead insist on the American saying, "Show me the money!"

As Obama leaves the White House in two years, his foreign policy towards his ancestral homeland has mirrored the tradition of "malign neglect" of the continent of his presidential predecessors. The fact that no substantive final document was produced from this Washington summit is the clearest sign, if any were needed, that this "photo-op" gathering represented a triumph of symbolism over substance.

Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution.

This article is part of a series of fortnightly columns written by Adekeye Adebajo for Business Day every other Monday.

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