New York – Afua Prempeh says she will never wash her frock again. She was hugged by Michelle Obama during a feel-good event for young African go-getters in Washington last week, and Prempeh does not want the US first lady’s impressions to be rinsed away.
It speaks to the allure that the Obamas retain in Africa, despite their waning approval ratings at home. The couple’s charisma, together with President Barack Obama’s Kenyan lineage, will be used to full effect at the first US-Africa Leaders Summit, which begins in the US capital on Monday.
“I’m still recovering from the excitement of hugging Michelle,” says Prempeh, 28, a Ghanaian environmentalist who won a six-week study tour in Florida.
“The Obamas are a symbol of hope, that people can look beyond the colour of my skin or the fact that I’m a woman.”
Prempeh was one of 500 participants in the Young African Leaders Initiative, a scholarship programme that Obama unveiled in South Africa last year to kick-start the US charm offensive on a continent where Europe and China are bigger traders.
Almost 50 African heads of state plan to attend Monday’s three-day summit on business, security and governance. The four dozen presidential motorcades circling downtown Washington could cause traffic gridlock reminiscent of Nairobi, Lagos or Johannesburg.
US officials say they hope to boost business with the continent. European Union trade volumes with Africa hit $200bn in 2013. China’s rocketed from $10bn in 2000 to more than $170bn in 2013. In recent years, US-Africa trade has stagnated at about $60bn.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has praised a “continent on the move”. In Washington last week, he said that wages have risen and many countries are achieving middle-income status thanks to less-corrupt leaders; and AIDS transmissions and malaria and other diseases are killing fewer Africans each year.
There isn't much scope for the US to radically boost economic links today.
J Peter Pham, head of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, said Africa’s population could eclipse China and India with two billion people in 2050, consisting of one quarter of the world’s working-age population. “It’s the place to do business,” he told Al Jazeera.
It’s not all talk, either. Power Africa, a USAID programme launched during the president’s African safari in 2013, has already secured $9bn in private commitments to install electricity for 20 million African homes.
Christopher Wood, an analyst with the South African Institute of International Affairs, spoke of the need to “get in early in the Africa rising story”. A bigger US footprint in Africa is far cheaper than pivoting to Asia, he said.
“There isn’t much scope for the US to radically boost economic links today,” he told Al Jazeera. “But a small bit of effort now could mean better market access and closer economic ties in 25 years, when Africa will be better positioned to buy the goods and services that America is best at producing.”
The US may lag in trade, but it has more African diplomatic posts than any other country and is stealthily expanding its military presence. Last month’s revelations of US secret military advisers in Somalia added to the list of known hotspots where US trainers, spies, drones, and commandoes operate.
American forces track al-Qaeda fighters in the sandy Maghreb, scour Ugandan forests for Joseph Kony, and are helping Nigeria’s efforts to bring back hundreds of schoolgirls abducted into the bush by Boko Haram.
Camp Lemonnier, a sunbaked US military base in Djibouti, now hosts Predator drones. The Horn of Africa and the east African coast has become a new frontier of oil and gas exploration – part of Africa’s abundance of natural wealth that includes metals, gems, coltan and other minerals.
“Many Africans were originally against it – but a lot have realised they need help countering these new and evolving threats,” said Scott Firsing, a research fellow in international politics at South Africa’s Monash University.
No photo opportunities
Still, the US-Africa Leaders Summit continues to attract controversy. Visiting leaders cannot trumpet their feats in the plenary speeches of typical multi-lateral events. Worse still, they won’t have one-on-one time with Obama, unlike the guaranteed presidential face time at Beijing’s triennial Africa meets.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US State Department’s top Africa diplomat said it was difficult to convince “our very formal African counterparts” to attend a summit from which dignitaries leave without having their photos taken in the Oval Office.
It's time to stop working with these big men of the past who use oil and terrorism as trump cards.
In addition, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan were not invited. Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta appeared on the guest list because he cooperated with the International Criminal Court over his role in the ethnic bloodletting of 2007-08.
The banned list is not long enough for Jeffrey Smith, an advocacy officer from the Robert F Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. The long-serving leaders from Angola, Uganda, and Equatorial Guinea get seats at a table that are more deserved by reform-minded African campaigners, he told Al Jazeera.
“Human rights, the rule of law and good governance – which underpin security, trade and investment – are not at the top of the agenda,” Smith said. “It’s time to stop working with these big men of the past who use oil and terrorism as trump cards to reject criticism of their human rights abuses.”
Despite talk of African growth, the continent’s woes are overshadowed by a deadly West African Ebola outbreak that has already claimed over 700 lives and is “out of control”, according to the aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres.
Meanwhile, the death toll from wars in Somalia, DR Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic continues to rise.
Thomas-Greenfield admitted that the “Africa rising” story comes without guarantees. Even the spike in the number of youth, the would-be workers, can be a curse, she said. “If growth is not achieved, the continent will have the largest unemployed youth population on Earth … millions will live with the potential of being attracted to extremist ideologies or criminal activities.”
This point is felt by the young scholars who have returned to Africa before their leaders touch down at Joint Base Andrews. Adebayo Alonge, 27, said it will be tough to use the skills he gained at Yale University to grow his business distributing low-cost drugs across Nigeria’s countryside.
“Nigeria’s political elite need to unite, act beyond their personal interests and build a stable political system for business to thrive,” Alonge told Al Jazeera. “If not, we will see political instability, conflict, and a breakup of the country.”
Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl