US-Africa Summit: Another Gesture Politics?

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From August 4 (Obama’s birthday), through  August 6,  President Obama hosted the US-Africa summit, which was  promoted as the largest event any U.S. President ever held with African heads of state and government. All African heads of state or government in good standing with the United States were invited. Prominent business people and the Chairperson of the African Union also received invitations. Leaders of five African countries – Central African Republic, Eritrea, Sudan and Zimbabwe were however not invited. The Presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone excused themselves to deal with the outbreak of ebola virus epidemic in their countries.

The three-day Africa Summit was without doubt  President Barack Obama’s biggest initiatives for Africa even though the event was somewhat overshadowed by the  Ebola epidemic in some West African countries  and  Boko Haram’s terrorism in Nigeria. US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker promised that about $900m (£535m) in business deals would be sealed during the event.

The theme of the Summit – “Investing in the Next Generation” – was officially  meant to strengthen ties between  the United States and  Africa – now touted as one of the world’s most dynamic and fastest growing regions.

But beyond the rhetoric and the sanctimonious proclamations, what was the summit realistically designed to achieve? And what was it really capable of delivering? Opinions differ widely on this including on why Obama chose to host the summit in the first place.

For context, Obama’s popularity rating is at an all-time low, with just 40% of Americans approving of his job performance according to the latest NBC/WSJ poll.  For Obama’s critics, the whole summit was just a move by Obama to divert attention from his struggles at home and abroad. For them, it was simply a jamboree that would not achieve anything, just another gesture politics that world leaders facing difficulties at home often embark upon either to launder their images or to divert attention away from their problems.

Coincidentally when Tony Blair, as the British Prime Minister, launched the Africa Commission in 2004, he faced similar charges of trying to use Africa to humanize his image.  Before setting up the Africa Commission, Blair toured a few African countries and concluded that the poverty and hopelessness he saw in the continent made Africa a scar on the conscience of the whole world. His Africa Commission, he said, would help to change that.  At that time his approval rating had crumbled to an all-time low.   From the start of the War on Terror in 2001, he had strongly supported the foreign policy options of George W. Bush: he participated in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and 2003 invasion of Iraq. The invasion of Iraq was particularly controversial and was widely opposed in Britain, including by 139 of Blair’s Labour MPs.

While Tony Blair’s popularity rating in 2004 is similar to Obama’s poor approval rating today, the global perception of Africa has since changed.  While in 2004, Blair likened Africa to a scar on the conscience of the world, in 2014, Africa is regarded as one of the world’s most dynamic regions, with six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world being in the continent. In fact the IMF projects an average growth rate of 5.4 per cent for the continent this year and 5.8 per cent next year – higher than the global average. This probably explains why the theme of Obama’s Africa Summit is ‘Investing in the Next Generation’. Obama probably needed the Americans to feel that such a Summit is good value for money and has nothing to do with his father being African.

There is a general feeling that there is more to the summit than the Obama administration was willing to admit. There are for instance suspicions that the Africa Summit might have been – at least in part inspired by ‘China envy’. For instance China has emerged as Africa’s biggest trading partner, with a trading volume worth $200bn compared to USA’s $85bn according to United States Census Bureau figures. Despite being the world’s largest economy, the US is still only Africa’s third largest trade partner – behind the European Union. Some therefore believe that American government might have bought into the Africa summit idea as part of its containment of Chinese expansion in Africa. This was probably what Ben Rhodes, USA’s deputy national security advisor had in mind when he reportedly told journalists last week “We chose to do this summit to send a very clear signal that we are elevating our engagement with Africa.”  A recent editorial in South Africa’s Business Day newspaper also argued that “the US government was running the risk of missing the African bus”. If this thinking is right, then the US-Africa Summit was merely playing a catch-up. Even the idea of Africa Summit was started by China in 2001 and Japan, India and Europe had had several Africa summits.

It is also possible that Obama hoped to use the summit to embellish his standing with Africans, aware that his presidency has not really benefitted the continent much. For instance aside from the 2013 tour, he  made only two trips to sub-Saharan Africa during his presidency – one brief stopover in Ghana in July 2009, and a visit to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral. There was also a general belief that during Obama’s first Africa tour in Ghana he talked condescendingly to African leaders (or lectured them on democracy and good governance) – contrary to the conciliatory posture he adopted in his other tours at that time. Though some Africans excused that as an expression of ‘tough love’ – being partly African through his Kenyan father – others felt the slight deeply and began to feel alienated from his presidency.  It is possible that by getting some 35 African Heads of State and governments  to come Washington DC,  with all the media hype and hoopla, Obama might be hoping to make up for all that, including to countries like Nigeria that felt disappointed that he did not visit them during his African tours.

Obama can in fact argue that he brought Africa to Washington DC to promote and market the continent as a good investment destination. In this sense, the Africa Summit is at least in part all about Obama and his legacy. His memoir is certain to talk glowingly about how the summit changed the perception of Africa among American investors. It is, he will argue, his payback for all the support and enthusiasm he got from Africa during his campaign for the presidency in 2008. He can also tout it as the dividend of his presidency to the continent Africa for being partly African. However whether the Africa Summit will do anything to revive his plummeting popularity in the US remains to be seen.

Whatever may be the motives behind the Africa Summit, there is no doubt that it is good for Africa. Coming at a time of unprecedented Afro-optimism, it will only strengthen the new perception of Africa as a good investment destination, though a stronger message in that direction would probably have been made if the Summit was held in Africa.

Whatever may be the real motives for the summit, it was probably an opportunity for the West to interrogate why China has made so many inroads into the continent at its expense. Part of the answer is that not only does China invest in infrastructures in the continent it is also believed to treat the countries it deals with in the continent with more respect than the West does.

The West may not have missed the bus to Africa but the global balance of economic power is increasingly moving away from it.  For instance on July 15 2014, the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) set up a New Development Bank, which would offer low-interest credit for developing countries to actually build necessary infrastructure. This will basically mean that the significance of the two Bretton Woods institutions – the IMF and the World Bank – long used by the West to control the developing countries will diminish.

For Africa, it is nice to be treated as beautiful bride – for once. But the continent needs not be carried away by the attention or the rhetoric. It needs to be smart and play its cards well. It needs to maximize available opportunities without sentiments or undue emotionalism.

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