Obama’s Africa summit: Too little, too late?

The US-Africa summit trails behind Africa engagement initiatives led by other global powers.

The US-Africa Leaders Summit brought almost 50 African heads of state and government to Washington DC [EPA]

In 2013, I was in the audience  at the Oxford Union for a taping of Al Jazeera’s Head to Head  featuring Thomas Friedman and his thoughts on US Foreign Policy. The show’s focus was entirely focused on the Middle East, and the United States’ strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific region . During the Q&A session, I sought to highlight that Africa  was   not   mentioned  once   over the course of the show. The fact that Africa was left out of the discussion is a clear illustration of the US’ tepid strategy towards the continent in recent times. 

Realising that its position in the fortunes of Africa and its rapid economic growth is  increasingly marginal , the US government has recently sought to revamp its Africa strategy. A number of initiatives have been launched to that effect, including the US-Africa Leaders Summit. 

This renewed engagement is a reflection not  only of fears over the influence of other rising powers, but also of changing narratives about Africa and the continent’s deeper integration into the global economy. 

Africa in the spotlight

Even before the Summit commenced in Washington, there was a real risk that  it would be  characterised by  outdated assumptions. The perception of Africa as being a monolithic entity and not a continent of 54 nation-states with divergent growth drivers, political systems, and policy priorities all  held strong during the summit.  

The fact that there were no direct bilateral discussions with President Barack Obama created the impression that Washington was summoning leaders of sovereign states to be collectively lectured and chided. This was in sharp contrast with China’s  Fifth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC)  in 2012 which featured  15 minute one-on-one talks  between the Chinese prime minister and several African leaders. Vice-President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s gaffe in referring to the ” nation of Africa ” further reinforced the initial scepticism held by many observers.

These timeworn assumptions notwithstanding, it  is a welcome change to have  Africa in the  spotlight   of US and international media for bullish reasons rather than for famine, conflict, military coups, IMF bailouts, and wildlife poaching. President Obama’s emphasis on “Africa’s rise”, “business opportunities”, and “equal partners” as opposed to the paternalistic donor-recipient mindset of decades past is indicative of Washington’s eagerness to jump on the bandwagon of those shifting their perceptions of Africa, and to regard the continent as a business partner and a land of opportunity. 

Indeed deals such as Blackstone Group’s $5bn partnership with Africa’s richest man , Aliko Dangote, for energy projects, and other trade and investment partnerships worth $33bn concluded at the three-day summit, reflect such changing perceptions.

Africa is no longer the “heart of darkness” on the margins of the global economy, but increasingly at the heart of it, and so courted by major economic players.

Falling behind  

The Summit facilitated not only business deals, but also discussions and action on development. A commitment was made of $12bn towards Power Africa – an initiative targeted at addressing electricity shortages, a core element of the continent’s infrastructure deficit and a major bottleneck to productivity. USAID and others committed $38m to establish leadership centres for young Africans – a demographic set to hit  400 million by 2045 .

These and several other outcomes of the US-Africa Leaders Summit barely scratch the surface of the continent’s developmental needs. The $12bn   commitment to Power Africa  covers five countries  over a five-year period – a drop in the ocean of the continent’s infrastructure needs, estimated to be  $93bn annually  over the next 10 years. 

Counting the Cost – The US Africa summit

Besides, rather than funding multiple power projects, the US could have focused resources on a single transformative project, such as the Grand Inga Dam . At a cost of $80bn, the hydroelectric project has the potential to produce roughly 40,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than half of Africa.

In terms of matching the scale and depth of Africa’s ties with other regions around the world, the Summit pales in comparison. China, Japan, and the European Union have made significant headway in strengthening their engagements with Africa with several rounds of  high-level  economic and political talks. India, Brazil, Turkey, and other emerging powers have followed suit with strong Africa strategies.

But the US can get ahead by declaring its commitment to long-overdue reform of global governance institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the United Nations Security Council to make them more representative of the “Global South”.

Although the US is far behind other world players in engaging with Africa, it is still significant that it is attempting to strengthen and deepen its ties with the continent; it is one indicator of the Africa’s relevance to the functioning of the global economy.

In what appears to be a 21st century rendition of the Scramble for Africa , different parts of the world eagerly court the attention of African countries, for their natural resources, their middle class’s growing appetite for consumer goods, and high rates of returns on investment. 

Today’s African political leaders, u nlike those of the late 19th century, are sovereign leaders of independent territories.  They have a wide latitude to use leverage to attain the most beneficial partnerships and shop for the best deals from the wide array of options available. African businessmen and women are ambitious, informed, and assertive. Ordinary Africans are increasingly more educated with greater capacity for socio-economic vigilance thanks to social media tools.

Finally, the US attempt to shift the paradigm in how it engages with Africa is indicative of the continent’s steady integration into the global economy. What will largely distinguish the countries that will benefit from this integration from those that will not will be the choices their leaders make in the realms of politics, business, and civil society.

Zainab Usman is a writer, political analyst, and a doctoral candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford. Her research assesses political institutions, the oil economy and economic reform in Nigeria since the transition to democracy in 1999.

Follow her on Twitter:  @ MssZeeUsman