Reflections on the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit
August 8, 2014
The recently concluded U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit brought Africa to the forefront of the foreign policy agenda in Washington for three straight days. This was an unusual and welcome development for a continent that struggles to make its voice heard inside the Beltway. Too bad that a heavier than usual stack of international crises—including an Ebola outbreak in West Africa—competed for attention and that most members of Congress were not in town to witness the summit, having already departed on their summer break. They missed the participation of 40 African heads of state and senior-level representation from 10 more, along with hundreds of U.S. and African businesspeople and civil society leaders. These diverse groups engaged in a genuinely broad set of conversations at an impressive number of official and unofficial meetings, receptions, and networking events across town. While trade and investment topped the agenda, the range of issues covered during the week captured the diversity and complexity of U.S. interests in Africa; they included transparency, climate change, food security, wildlife trafficking, youth engagement, and security sector reform. Grumbles about road closures aside, there was a genuine buzz of excitement around town and a sense that Africa’s rising importance to the United States was beginning to finally register in public minds.
Summits, however, are not judged merely on the quality of the conversation. While the administration deliberately tried to lower expectations of deliverables, it was eager to prove that all the talk added up to something tangible. During the U.S.-Africa Business Forum—in many ways the headline event of the summit—companies and government officials lined up to pledge new financial commitments to Africa. On paper, the headline figure of $33 billion (with an additional $4 billion announced by President Obama the following day) looks fairly impressive. On closer inspection the package includes a range of pledges by non-U.S. actors such as the World Bank and the Government of Sweden, who together committed $6 billion to President Obama’s signature Africa initiative, Power Africa. U.S. companies undoubtedly held off announcing deals that were already in the pipeline until the summit in order to ensure maximum impact and add to the feel-good atmosphere. Nevertheless, the size of these new investments was significant; they included a $5 billion commitment from Coca Cola, $2 billion from GE, and $5 billion from the private equity firm Blackstone, in collaboration with Nigeria’s Dangote Industries. These companies are already well-established players in Africa. The real test of the summit will be its success in bringing new investors to the table. To that end, new efforts to inform the U.S. business sector about African investment opportunities and facilitate their entry into the African market are welcome, if fairly modest steps. They include doubling the number of foreign commercial service officers in Africa, opening up new offices in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Tanzania; and a commitment to conduct 10 trade missions to Africa and 10 reverse trade missions to the United States by 2020. Efforts to link U.S. companies to investment opportunities under the Millennium Challenge Corporation are another move in the right direction.
The main item on the trade and investment agenda—renewal of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act before it expires in September 2015—is yet to be addressed. If members of Congress had been in town, they would have heard a unified call from the African delegations for a timely reauthorization of AGOA, which affords duty free access to the United States for up to 9,000 African product lines. Certainly the summit drew attention to the need for AGOA not only to be renewed but for the new legislation to enable African nations to take better advantage of the benefits it offers.
A persistent claim by some observers of the summit was that it represented in some way an attempt to challenge China’s market share in Africa. Certainly, the Chinese media coverage of the summit was couched in terms that suggested it posed a threat to its preeminent trading position, worth in excess of $200 billion a year. This is a misreading of the situation. First, China is far ahead of the United States in terms of its overall trade in Africa. Second, the United States is responding to an opportunity in Africa, rather than a threat from China. After all, American companies pursue business opportunities rather than conduct geostrategic maneuvers on behalf of their government. The United States has woken up, belatedly, to the economic opportunities in parts of Africa. China’s presence (along with a host of other external players) merely helped alert them to the possibilities.
Inevitably, questions were raised about the summit guest list. Although four heads of state were excluded because they were either subject to U.S. sanctions or suspended from the African Union, human rights advocates asked why the red carpet was rolled out for dictators like Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Swaziland’s King Mswati III, and the Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh. No doubt this trio were unwanted guests from the Obama administration’s point of view (although Obiang was feted at a corporate function) but it was easier to include them and try to keep them at arms’ length than to exclude them and risk a backlash among their fellow African heads of state. Their visits also exposed them to criticism they are unaccustomed to witnessing back home. President Jammeh spent much of his visit hunkered down in his hotel, trying to evade protestors armed with eggs. He did, however, manage to attend the official White House dinner and get the image-boosting photo opportunity with the President and First Lady that came with it.
The broader question of whether the summit’s focus on business was pushing out considerations of democracy and human rights was a constant, unresolved tension. Civil society representatives complained they were largely kept at a distance from the official activities. The administration was clear from the outset that the tone of the summit was to be upbeat and positive about Africa. At the same time, it did not try to gloss over the challenges. Included on the agenda for President Obama’s day-long session with his African counterparts were discussions on security, transnational threats, and governance. The result was a program that was broad, unwieldy, and struggled to convey a clear overarching message on Africa. It did, however, capture the multitude of U.S. interests in Africa. Whether it addressed the priorities of President Obama’s African guests is another matter.
At times, there was a jarring disconnect between the messages relayed to different audiences. In his speech to the Civil Society Forum on the summit’s opening day, Secretary of State John Kerry told his audience: “Strong civil society and respect for democracy, the rule of law, and human rights—these are not just American values. They’re universal values.” In the readouts of bilateral meetings held the same day with leaders who have minimal respect for these values, such as Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaoré, Angola’s Vice President Manuel Vicente, and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, the emphasis had shifted emphatically toward economic prospects and security issues. There were justifiable reasons for this. The administration was keen to avoid the impression of lecturing African leaders on human rights. For one, there is little likelihood they would listen, given America’s waning influence in the region and the fact that African governments have a host of other partners to choose from. And second, a hectoring tone would not jibe with the approach President Obama has been trying to promote in Africa, where the U.S. engages with nations on equal terms rather than talking down to them in a paternalistic manner. Furthermore, diplomatic engagement on sensitive issues is arguably more productive when it is conducted behind closed doors. It can only be assumed—and hoped—that these discussions did take place but the lack of public pronouncements left human rights campaigners and many African citizens downcast. These unresolved tensions underline the presentational challenges and dilemmas of pursuing a foreign policy that takes account of values as well as interests.
The Obama administration made efforts to square the circle by attempting to affirm the links between good governance and economic growth. In his post-summit press conference, President Obama argued that “good governance...is a foundation of economic growth and free societies,” and that “nations that uphold these [human] rights and principles will ultimately be more prosperous and more economically successful.” The point was made time and again, that Africa’s economic growth hinges on good governance; in the willingness of governments to nurture an environment where investors feel confident that they will be safe, where rule of law is in place, contracts can be enforced, and where citizens are free to pursue their livelihoods, make money, forge trading links with U.S. companies, even buy U.S. goods, without fear of discrimination from their governments.
It is highly unfortunate, therefore, that this rhetorical emphasis on good governance is not being backed up by a continued, robust financial commitment to democracy and human rights. USAID’s Democracy and Governance portfolio is facing a 50 percent cut to its budget in 2015, with additional cutbacks threatened. Africa will bear the brunt of these cuts. The slashing of D&G programs while other USAID-administered projects like Power Africa receive new funding creates the impression that promoting business and promoting democracy is a zero-sum game; you either do one or the other. This is the very notion that the Obama administration has been trying to dispel in its public messages around the summit.
These kinds of policy inconsistencies and challenges were never far below the surface of the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit but they did not succeed in puncturing the largely positive tone of the proceedings. President Obama closed the summit by expressing his hope that his successors will consider repeating the initiative. His view was echoed by many of the African delegations. It remains to be seen whether the summit will turn out to be a fleeting moment or the beginning of a new, deeper and broader U.S. engagement with Africa. Hopefully it will be the latter because regular, high-level engagement with Africa’s political, business, and thought leadership offers the best prospects of getting the American public to sit up and take notice of the Africa that exists beyond the impoverished, conflict-ridden one portrayed by sections of the U.S. media and advocacy community. If the administration can succeed in shifting the narrative on Africa toward a more nuanced, realistic view that does not exclude the ongoing challenges but also recognizes the opportunities, it will have made an important contribution to U.S.-Africa relations.
Richard Downie is deputy director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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