No Africans allowed at trade summit on Africa!

I am always encouraged to read about Africans making trips around the world to do business. For me, this signifies a fundamental shift from the usual world of aid handouts by developed nations, to a world of trade negotiations, business deals, equal partnerships, and so on.

I am always encouraged to read about Africans making trips around the world to do business. For me, this signifies a fundamental shift from the usual world of aid handouts by developed nations, to a world of trade negotiations, business deals, equal partnerships, and so on.

Which is why, a few days ago, I was left baffled by news that in California, USA, a three-day African trade conference took place without the presence of a single African citizen.

 

The African Global Economic and Development Summit - a trade summit that has been running since 2013 - was this year scheduled to bring together business leaders from all over Africa to meet and possibly forge working partnerships with their American counterparts during the conference organised at the University of Southern California, United States, from March 16th – 18th 2017.

 

But things did not go according to plan; this year, none of the approximately 60-plus invited guests from African countries including Angola, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda, were able to attend the three-day conference whose topics of discussion included clean energy, climate change, and poverty reduction.

 

And according to the event organisers, the reason why none of the African invited guests were able to attend the trade summit was simple: none of them had been granted a visa!

Notably, although several commentators have suggested that perhaps the recent travel ban on citizens of some African countries travelling to the United States could have been the driving factor for the total rejection, it still doesn’t make sense because none of the invited guests from Africa is a citizen of Somalia, Sudan, or Libya (three African countries on Trump’s travel ban).

And to make matters more confusing, the US State Department provided no explanation on the visa rejections, choosing instead to maintain that “we cannot speculate on whether someone may or may not be eligible for a visa, nor on any possible limitations.”

But here is my take on the matter. Aside from the recent visa rejections for Africans to travel to the United States and attend a trade conference on Africa and therefore present their own ideas - informed by their own experiences and expectation - it is becoming clear that like it was the case in pre-independence Africa, more and more discussions on issues pertaining to Africa, including decisions that affect Africans as a whole, still take place with or without our presence and input.

The World Bank continues to prescribe policies with little regard to country-specific settings; aid still comes with strings; and Western democracy continues to be shoved down our throats.

And now it appears that even in economic terms where we have the opportunity to pitch our ideas depending on country-specific priority areas, when an opportunity like that arises, it is quickly taken away with little need to explain why.

Indeed, in a brilliantly written article, ‘Where is the ‘African’ in African Studies?” by Robtel Neajai Pailey explains how this problem is deep-rooted even in the world of academia teaching about Africa.

He writes that “we need to put the ‘African’ in African studies, not as a token gesture, but as an affirmation that Africans have always produced knowledge about their continent.”

The Liberian academic goes on to explain that “while the early writings and teachings about Africa are based on colonial expeditions, missionary exploits and anthropological ethnographies, contemporary scholarship is dominated by some non-Africans who have strategically positioned themselves as the authoritative voices in a 21st century scramble for influence, as if Africa were a tabula rasa with no intellectuals or knowledge production of its own.”

And away from academia, the same level of contempt is at play; every year at various conferences and round-table meetings held in Europe or America to discuss issues pertaining to Africa, rarely do you find Africans given the opportunity to express their thoughts where it matters.

In fact, those that are permitted to do so, are tightly controlled to talk about issues that do little to advance Africa. They are encouraged to talk about conflicts, dictatorships, human rights abuse, while ignoring trade opportunities, investment, and partnerships.

It is as if there is a behind-the-curtains mission to keep Africa focused on a conveyor belt talk of conflicts, dictatorships, and human rights abuse.

But what can we do to leverage our position as a continent with resources and a continent with over a billion people (to be read as a one billion market-place)? Well, there is one place we can certainly start from; telling our own stories from where we are.

There is an absolute necessity to tell our own stories so that we can challenge negative perceptions that have masked Africa as a charity basket for so many decades. We have an obligation to strike a balance in reporting Africa by exposing what isn’t working while at the same time crediting our society for the good that is taking place.

We cannot sit by while foreign policies of other nations take away opportunities to advance our continent whether it is stating the case in California or challenging the status quo inside world institutions like the IMF and World Bank.

Perceptions about Africa cannot continue to be curved by those most unfamiliar with the true setting of the continent; after all, most do so because that side of the story facilities efforts to exploit the continent.

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