US-Africa summit: much fanfare, but measuring its success will take time

Obama's US-Africa Leaders Summit garnered pledges of $34 billion in trade and investment initiatives and agreements on security and good governance. Skeptics are withholding judgment.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama listens to a question during his news conference at the US-African Leaders Summit, Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014 at the State Department in Washington. The three-day event, which drew the leaders of more than 40 African nations to Washington with the idea of transforming the way Americans – and American business in particular – think of Africa.

President Obama’s unprecedented US-Africa Leaders Summit wrapped up Wednesday night with pledges of $34 billion in US trade and investment initiatives – including new commitments to the critical push to expand electricity access.

The participants also reached agreements on security cooperation and fostering good governance.

The three-day event, which drew the leaders of more than 40 African nations to Washington with the idea of transforming the way Americans – and American business in particular – think of Africa, even managed to overcome the Ebola fixation of US news channels.

But human rights activists and advocates of a “true economic partnership” with Africa say such lingering problems as authoritarian leadership, weak recognition of basic human rights in too many countries, and a US economic relationship with Africa still based on the extraction of resources, got short shrift in the administration’s upbeat narrative of US-Africa relations.

Some skeptics of Mr. Obama’s summit approach to Africa are withholding judgment, saying the validity of the president’s initiative can only be tested over the medium term when its impact on US-Africa trade levels, economic development programs, and good-governance practices can be measured.

California Republican Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, lamented that the administration didn’t use the summit to press some of Africa’s democracy laggards (the worst offenders, like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, were simply not invited) on rights and electoral abuses, and told reporters that the summit’s success or failure could only be measured in a year or so.

Obama appeared to agree. At a press conference at the summit’s close, the president called the largest gathering ever of African leaders in the US “an extraordinary event” and said the new US-Africa relationship would be kept moving forward by another such meeting in the future – although he left the door open for the torch to be handed off to whoever follows him in the White House.

“I’ll strongly encourage my successor to carry on this work, because Africans must know they will always have a strong partner in the United States of America,” Obama said.

Announcing a new security initiative, Obama said the US will spend $110 million over the next five years to help six countries, including Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Ghana, build “rapid-response” peacekeeping forces to intervene in conflicts. One idea is to work closely with the African Union to help provide the expertise to move in early on simmering conflicts before they spiral out of control.

As if anticipating that the initiative would raise eyebrows among rights advocates, in particular for deepening security ties to some criticized governments – Ethiopia, for example, is accused of abusing its antiterrorism laws to muffle rights and democracy advocates – Obama said the US has learned the value of working with, rather than shunning, less-than-perfect partners.

“We find that in some cases, engaging a country that generally is a good partner but is not performing optimally when it comes to all the various categories of human rights, that we can be effective in working with them on certain areas [while] criticizing them and trying to elicit improvements in other areas,” he said.

Africa experts who lament what they say is an overriding military focus in the increased US interest in Africa in recent years are likely to fault the new security plan as perpetuating the trend. Economists who counter the administration’s claims that the US has a different relationship with Africa than other world powers point out that more than three-fourths of US imports from Africa are still in natural resources and raw materials, like oil, precious stones, and coffee beans.

In other words, not much different from China, the big global power in Africa.

Some African leaders in attendance were clearly dismayed at all the attention in the US to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. For a summit that was supposed to change America’s image of Africa, the seeming ubiquity of Ebola in the media left some leaders wondering if the American stereotype of a monolithic, trouble- and pestilence-prone Africa had changed.

At one summit forum Tuesday, the moderator, journalist Charlie Rose, asked a group of African leaders to “tell me what your fears are about the Ebola virus.” The clearly-miffed president of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, retorted, “Right now the epidemic is in West Africa –Tanzania is in East Africa.…The whole of the African continent is being perceived as if everywhere, everybody is suffering from Ebola.”

But by Tuesday night, the African leaders and hundreds of American guests were dancing together to Lionel Ritchie at the White House.

Some summit participants said it was another Obama initiative – not the new security plan, not even business agreements, but the president’s Young African Leaders Fellowships program – that will have the biggest impact on US-Africa relations in the long run. This year, the first year of the program, 500 young Africans spent six weeks in the US. Obama announced that next year the program will double to bring 1,000 young African leaders to the US.

At a pre-summit speech laying out America’s vision of a new relationship with Africa, Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, vaunted the potential of the fellowship program for connecting a new generation of Africans – academics, entrepreneurs, activists, politicians – with American and universal values, and helping them build on their own good ideas at home.

To illustrate her point, Ambassador Rice told the story of James Makini, a Kenyan and one of this year’s Young African Fellows. At age 8, James began selling the eggs of a chicken his grandmother had given him and using the proceeds to help buy his school uniforms and repair his family’s hut. That gave James an idea.

The Kenyan farm boy started giving hens to others to develop a family income source. Gradually that grew into James’s One Hen Campaign, which in the last three years has helped provide 50,000 women with hens that have generated more than $3 million in income for those women and their families.

With a beaming James Makini listening as the American national security adviser told his story, Rice said the young Kenyan planned to use the contacts and exposure to entrepreneurship of the fellows program to expand the One Hen Campaign to other African countries. In his own way, Rice said, James was an example of the new kind of relationship the US is building with Africa.

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