US-Africa summit: Leaders need to get their act together

Occasional trips to Washington, Beijing, and Brussels by presidents cannot solve major problems.

The US is the latest country to have extended an invitation to African leaders [EPA]

This past week has been action-packed in terms of news: Ebola is testing the woefully inadequate public health systems in West African nations and claiming hundreds of lives there; Uganda’s constitutional court nullified the anti-homosexuality law (passed amid condemnation by Western nations and rights groups); and the first US-Africa summit took place in Washington. We have done our best to cover these events online and on air.

The US-Africa summit, though, remains the subject of animated conversation among many Africans. It was the largest and the first of its kind to be hosted by an American president.

Although Sierra Leone’s president was forced to skip it because of the Ebola crisis in his country, 50 other African heads of state and government managed to attend, along with their spouses. The event organisers have called it a success.

But what is in it for African leaders and their people? Although headlines spoke of billions of dollars the US has earmarked to strengthen the partnership between Washington and Africa, many Africans have questioned the logic behind African leaders travelling to one country to be met by just a few leaders of the host country. What bothers many is that African leaders have never invited world leaders to discuss important matters, such as trade and investment, on African soil. It is traditionally China, India, Japan, the EU, and now the US, making the invitations.

China in Africa 

While African leaders lose nothing by attending these summits, they need to take cognizance of the fact that no amount of these trips – labelled “photo ops” by critics – are going to tackle the real problems facing ordinary people. China, for example, has done a fine job building infrastructure in places like Angola, Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia.

But the Chinese import not just machinery used for infrastructure development, they bring in Chinese workers, too. The jobs that should go to unemployed locals end up going instead to the Chinese. It seems that Africa’s partnership with China is doing little to solve this problem.

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This is why African leaders need to get their act together. It is all very well to build partnerships, but the knotty problems like unemployment and poverty will remain unsolved if the leaders fail to do enough to focus attention on these challenges.

Barack Obama, the summit host, called on Congress to renew and enhance the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows African nations to sell products in US markets without quotas and tariffs. Republicans and Democrats have voiced their support for such a move, and so Obama is once again urging Congress to ensure this is done before AGOA is set to expire. But few African countries have taken advantage of AGOA. In Uganda, for example, a textiles firm that was started with government funding and was to export ready-made clothes to the US came to nothing.

Uganda gay law

Outside of the summit, Uganda’s constitutional court brought some relief to homosexuals when it nullified the law outlawing homosexuality on the grounds that parliament had passed it without a quorum. There have been scenes of jubilation on the streets of the capital, Kampala, and gay Ugandans managed, for the first time, to hold what has been described as a “pride rally”. But Uganda remains a deeply homophobic country and news agencies have reported that parliament is preparing to reintroduce the anti-gay law. We have ears on the ground and will report the story, should it happen.

This week, Africa Web Desk’s Safeeyah Kharsany posts an interview with film-maker Rehad Desai. His documentary, “Miners shot down“, which examines South Africa’s fatal Marikana mining strike, will air on Al Jazeera from August 12, at 20GMT. Our report from the southern African country of Botswana discusses two foreign inmates who are suing the government for denying them HIV/AIDS treatment. We also travel to the West African state of Ghana to meet a young female footballer who is challenging cultural and religious norms in pursuit of her passion: football.

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