Obama’s Africa summit: Why now?

What is the significance of the Africa summit in Washington DC?

US President Barack Obama is hosting the first US-African summit in Washington DC [AFP/Getty Images]

“Really, this is big, Nii.  Your decades of activism may have jaded you. Consider: The capital of the globe’s only superpower is being plunged into its own Africa Week. You should be excited,” my colleague and former student insisted. My enthusiasm remained curbed.

Still, I do now concede that she may be raising an important question: Just how significant is Obama’s August 4, 5 and 6 Africa Summit in Washington – especially since, days ago, he hosted and mingled with 500 brilliant young Africans?

“Very significant” has been the clear answer of America’s politically connected, especially the foreign policy establishment. That includes Congress. A few days ago, it passed Senate Resolution 522 welcoming the African summiteers. And on the summit’s very first day, Congress  threw a Capitol Hill reception for delegation heads.

Even America’s mainstream media have been caught in the DC excitement.  That is remarkable, given its long-standing disdain and ignorance regarding Africa and given its sour attitude towards Obama’s two trips to sub-Saharan Africa.

To no one’s surprise, the Obama Administration, from the president on down, is bubbling with summit enthusiasm. As African leaders began arriving, Obama personally told the White House press corps, “We are really looking forward to this and I think it’s going to be a great success.”

Earlier the same day, Secretary of State John Kerry had gushed in a letter to his entire department: For so many of us who have spent decades working on issues central to Africa, theres something especially exciting about this moment and exhilarating about Africas transformation. . . . Africa [is today] one of the most creative, exciting, and promising places on the planet.

One other group is even more enthusiastic than Obama’s own team. That would be Africa-focused civil society and activists. Africa activists have been dreaming of something like this for decades. Their moment having arrived, they are holding (without anybody’s permission) at least 100 events – conferences, panels, media sessions, receptions, dinners, lunches, breakfasts, film shows, online petitions and yes, street demonstrations.

Given all the excitement, there are three important questions to be asked: why did Obama organise the summit; what is the summit’s one real shortcoming; and how is it going to impact US relations with Africa?

Empire – The New Scramble For Africa

First, why? What motivated Obama to gather, at this particular time, virtually all the African leaders in Washington, something none of his 42 predecessors even did? His fully embraced African roots constitute a small factor, I believe. Given Africa’s low level on the totem pole of America’s policy priorities, Obama’s second term freedom from re-election anxieties must be another small factor.

I am convinced security cooperation is a much bigger motivator. In the West Point speech and in others, Obama has been explicit about his grand strategy for fighting resurgent global terrorism at the very time the American people are dead set against going to war: systematically train and equip African militaries to do the fighting (in addition to drone strikes).

And then there is global economic competition. Africa’s international relations remain driven by this dominant fact: Even after five centuries of plunder, the continent remains a treasure trove of natural resources that foreigners covet – very badly.

Fast economic growth is the newest ingredient: Coming out of the great recession, Africa is today the fastest growing among the continents. This growth has been fuelled mostly by China’s gargantuan appetite. Not surprisingly, Beijing is the pioneer of the radical new tactic for grabbing Africa’s resources. The tactic advises use of flattery, instead of the Atlantic slave trade and colonialism, to woo Africa’s rulers, especially by giving them the red-carpet treatment in the Chinese capital. The tactic has been quickly copied by Brussels and Tokyo. It should be no surprise then that Washington is now hurrying to catch up.

So how does Obama’s Africa summit stack up? Compared to the ones held in Tokyo, Brussels and Beijing, is it as shambolic as early commentators in Africa and in the US have charged? I think not. Unquestionably, the Washington summit is far from perfect. I believe however, that its real imperfections are not the criticisms most frequently stressed in recent US as well as African commentaries.

Consider the three most popular gripes: Obama should have avoided cherry picking and should have emulated the Chinese by inviting every African leader regardless of governance record; that he showed disrespect by inviting Africans to DC instead of him going to Africa; and that he should hold face-to-face bilaterals with the Big Two, the Nigerian and South African presidents, since all 51 leaders cannot be accommodated. Without going into details, my succinct judgment: All these three gripes are dead wrong.

Insufficient emphasis on democracy, in my further judgement, is the greatest substantive shortcoming of this first US-African Leaders summit. It should be clear to all close observers, as it is to me, that deals for making money and deals for getting African militaries to fight terrorism are getting the lion’s share of the summit resources. To repeat, democracy issues – governance, human rights, rule of law, etc – are getting short-changed. This is a serious error.

Finally, what of the summit’s impact? In what way, if any, will it change US-Africa relations? This vital assessment cannot be done now. A proper, in-depth evaluation must wait years, even decades – after initiatives and programmes have been planned and implemented. Still, even at this early stage, a few signs of the summit’s impact can be gleaned. An example is the excitement and increased attention in Washington. These suggest that the summit has shifted US relations with Africa into higher gear and Obama will pay greater attention to Africa in his final two years.

If that happens, then perhaps my former student may be right and I should un-curb my enthusiasm.

Nii Akuetteh is a DC-based democracy activist, essayist and student of Africa’s international relations who often testifies before and briefs the US Congress. He has run and created several NGOs in Africa and the US and taught for several years at Georgetown University in DC.