BARACK Obama is convening the largest ever gathering of African leaders in Washington on Monday – 50 have been invited – for a summit billed by the White House as “elevating our engagement” with a continent increasingly under China’s influence.
But it’s likely to prove a challenging few days for a president viewed with a mix of pride and frustration in African countries, where he is sometimes less well regarded than his predecessor in the White House and accused of taking insufficient interest in the continent in which his father was born.
Obama has visited Africa just twice during his presidency and his administration has been accused of lecturing rather than listening to the leaders of nations being rapidly changed by democratisation, trade and technology.
Some African delegations are disgruntled before the meetings have even started because Obama has ruled out one-on-one talks with heads of state who wish to press interests not necessarily of concern to the wider continent.
Washington has invited all but five African leaders. The presidents of Zimbabwe, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Eritrea and Western Sahara were excluded because of objections by the US or the African Union.
It is not clear how many will turn up, although the presidents of some of the most important nations to the US – Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya – have confirmed their attendance. Three west African leaders cancelled because of the Ebola outbreak in the region.
The summit agenda is heavily focused on business and trade. Ben Rhodes, a US deputy national security adviser, denied it was an attempt to play catch-up with China – which has vigorously pursued political and economic ties with the continent.
“We do believe we bring something unique to the table. We are less focused on resources from Africa and more focused on deepening trade and investment relationships,” he said.
But Melvin Foote, founder of the Constituency for Africa, a group promoting African interests in Washington, said it was disingenuous for the White House to claim the summit was not in large part a response to China.
“The administration won’t tell you that but it’s at the front of their mind. America is losing influence and respect in Africa,” he said. “I hear it whenever I travel there.”Advertisement
The US has good reason to be concerned. China’s trade with Africa rose to $200bn last year – largely made up of Beijing’s imports of oil and minerals, and export of electronics and textiles – more than double the US and far ahead of the EU. Twenty years ago trade between China and Africa was just $6bn.
But Beijing’s influence has been greatly enhanced by the large numbers of Chinese now living and working in Africa, from factory managers to traders, and by big construction projects that have rapidly transformed parts of the continent when decades of western aid was often directed to propping up authoritarian cold war allies, not development.
“Africans say ‘why do we need the United States’?” said Foote. “When I travel around Africa, I’ve seen airports, I’ve seen roads, I’ve seen railroads, I’ve seen ports, I’ve seen all kinds of things that are really impressive built by China, that you have to say the United States refused to build.”
But the US remains dominant in security issues, which will be a strong undercurrent at the summit.
“We are very focused on the threat of terrorism in Africa,” said Rhodes. “We see it as particularly acute in … North Africa, Somalia with al-Shabaab, and of course Boko Haram in Nigeria,” he said.
Security is a tricky issue for the US and African states alike. While Washington is involved in joint operations with Uganda against Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, directly assisting the armies of countries including Kenya and Ethiopia against Islamic extremism, and training several militaries for peacekeeping operations, it could not find any country on the continent willing to host the US’s Africa military command, Africom.
John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria, said Washington also wanted to avoid being drawn in too close to confrontations such as Abuja’s battle with Boko Haram because it risks becoming associated with widespread abuses by government forces, including the killing of civilians and destruction of property.
“The United States has to be careful not to get too identified with the regime in Nigeria which is identified with human rights abuses. That’s the face of the Abuja government in parts of Nigeria,” he said.
Human rights groups want to see a strong emphasis at the summit on issues such as spreading anti-gay legislation and increasingly authoritarian regimes in US allies such as Rwanda and Uganda. The White House says there will be “straight talk” about human rights but it has sent a mixed messages by ignoring the international criminal court’s indictment of Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, for election violence by inviting him to the summit.
Perhaps watched most closely of all will be how Obama is received by the visiting presidents.
Sub-saharan Africa is possibly the only region of the globe where his predecessor, George W Bush, is held in high regard as the result of a multibillion dollar programme supplying anti-Aids drugs to millions of people. The president’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) is estimated to have saved well over a million African lives, transformed health systems and provided education to the children of people living with HIV.
There was a wide expectation in Africa that Obama would build on Bush’s successes on the continent – a belief more rooted in the fact that the future president’s father was born in Kenya than anything he actually said.
Foote said that six years later Obama’s reputation was mixed. While “there is a lot of pride” in having a president of African descent in the White House, Foote said he had been confronted at African Union summits with claims that Obama should have done more for the continent.
“I tell them Obama is the president of the United States not Africa,” he said. “When they say Obama hasn’t done much to help Africa, what they were talking about was more aid. You’ve got major corruption rampant. You’re giving away major resources for a pittance. You’re misspending your natural resource revenues. I think a lot of them point the finger at Obama when they should point the finger at themselves.”
Obama conveyed much the same message in an address to a Young African Leaders meeting in Washington last month.
“There are a lot of countries that are generating a lot of income, have a lot of natural resources, but aren’t putting that money back into villages to educate children. There are a lot of countries where the leaders have a lot of resources, but the money is not going back to provide health clinics for young mothers,” the president said. “At some point, we have to stop looking somewhere else for solutions, and you have to start looking for solutions internally.”
Campbell said it was unreasonable to expect Obama to make Africa a priority when he came to power confronted with an economic crash, two wars and difficult relationships with China and Russia.
“I don’t think he has lived up to the expectations of many Africans on the street but I would like to suggest that their expectations were probably misplaced. They seemed to be based on the fact that the president has an African father and not much more than that,” he said.
Still, the White House has not endeared itself to its guests by saying that the president would not hold any one-on-one meetings with the visiting African leaders because there would not be time. Foote thinks that’s a mistake.
“I can’t for the life of me understand why they would do that. Even if it were 10 minutes in duration to shake Obama’s hand and lay out your priorities. Even to just get a picture with the president in the Oval office and show the picture back home. A lot of African countries are very upset about this,” he said.