Historic US-Africa leaders summit aims to shift focus to continent's promise

With the largest gathering ever of African leaders in the US, President Obama wants to move away from a view of Africa as defined by war, pestilence, and extremism to one that amplifies economic opportunities and strengthens democracy.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
On the eve of a historic US/African leaders summit, Michelle Obama speaks to the Summit of the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders in Washington on July 30.

For the past decade, Africa has been a tale of two continents: the Africa of economic expansion, a growing middle class, and solidifying democracy; and the Africa of entrenched poverty, debilitating epidemics, unyielding despots, and advancing extremism.

It’s the first Africa that President Obama wants to highlight and advance America’s relationship with as he holds the first-ever US-Africa Leaders Summit, assembling the heads of state and government and other high officials of more than 40 African countries in Washington beginning Monday.

The president’s summit, the largest gathering ever of African leaders in the US, also aims to signal a shift in the traditional focus of US interests in Africa from security concerns to the economic opportunities for both Africans and Americans in a closer US-Africa relationship.

It’s a shift that’s been slow in coming, some Africa experts say, and one that will need more than a one-time gathering of leaders to keep it going.

“The summit suggests that the administration wants to shift the focus of the US-Africa relationship more towards economic engagement and trade,” says Larry Hanauer, a senior international policy analyst with expertise in Africa at the RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va.

“But it will be a long-term process, and the pressure will be there” to keep the US focus on security interests, he adds, “and to continue to leave interests like commerce and economic development and democracy promotion in the back seat.”

Mr. Obama, senior leaders from Congress and key federal agencies, plus top US business leaders, will spend three days discussing Africa’s opportunities and challenges – and how the US can most effectively encourage and participate in the rise and expansion of that first Africa.

“Today’s Africa is not at all the same place it was” just a couple of decades ago, Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, said in a recent speech previewing the summit at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. “In the space of one generation, even as major challenges remain, Africa has witnessed remarkable change,” she said.

How to encourage and sustain Africa’s progress and how the US public and private sectors can best participate in that are the questions underlying the summit, Ambassador Rice said.

Yet even as the gathering gets under way, the other Africa is threatening to grab center stage. African leaders will deplane in an America associating their continent with the ebola outbreak in West Africa, the rampaging Boko Haram militant group in Nigeria, as well as instability in Libya that prompted the recent evacuation of the US diplomatic corps there.

Underscoring the lingering reality of Africa’s dark side is the fact that the White House found it necessary to create a list of the continent’s uninvitable leaders. Five leaders ranging from Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe did not receive invitations based largely on their poor human rights records, authoritarian rule, or wanted status with international criminal authorities.

The point of the summit is not to ignore today’s bad news about Africa, Rice says, but to concentrate on the solutions that work to address these and other challenges.

Noting that discussions will focus on three key priorities – investing in Africa’s future, advancing peace and stability, and governing for the next generation – she says, “We’ve deliberately focused the summit beyond the crises of the moment to envision the future we want and how we can work together to achieve critical goals 10 and 15 years from now.”

For some Africa analysts, the US is a bit behind the curve in what has been a growing global interest in Africa. France has held summits with African leaders for decades, and China in recent years has developed deep ties across Africa as it has sought to build pipelines for the resources China needs to feed its booming economy.

Mr. Hanauer -- who recently authored a RAND blog post entitled, “In Africa: US promotes security, China does business” – says it will be up to the US government and US business to build a new relationship with Africa and sustain a shift in emphasis to mutually beneficial economic relations.

“The question will be what the US government and businesses do after the summit to sustain this effort,” he says. China is often criticized for having a one-way relationship with Africa based on natural-resources extraction, but Hanauer notes that about 80 percent of Africa’s exports to both China and the US are in natural resources. “So there’s a lot of work if the US is going to build a new relationship,” he says.  

White House officials say one point of the summit is to demonstrate that not only is the US increasing its attention to Africa, but it is doing it by focusing on how a stronger US-Africa relationship can be a plus for both sides.

The summit aims “to send a very clear signal that we are elevating our engagement with Africa,” says Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Noting the summit’s theme is “Investing in the next generation,” he says, “I think that’s a symbol of the forward-looking and future-oriented nature of our engagement with Africa.”

Saying the president established early on in preparatory discussions that he wanted the summit to focus on what is “unique” about the US relationship with Africa, Mr. Rhodes says, “What we believe is unique about the American contribution is our focus on African capacity-building and integrating Africa into the global economy and security order.”

One example administration officials like to cite is Power Africa, Obama’s initiative aimed at bringing electricity to millions of African households through billions of dollars in private investment. As part of the summit, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt will host a half-day event Monday for leaders and businesses to address the challenges of expanding electricity access in Africa.

GE executives are expected to use the event to announce several significant investments in Africa – part of the nearly $1 billion in investments in Africa by American companies that Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker will announce at the summit’s US-Africa business forum.

In addition to such private-sector investments, the administration will announce a new initiative to promote trade among African countries by expanding border trade infrastructure, and a doubling in size of Obama’s fellowship program for young African leaders to visit the US.

It’s these kinds of initiatives that the administration says will not only help transform the US-Africa relationship, but assist in the continuing emergence of that more prosperous and stable Africa as well.

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