Obama’s US-Africa Summit: a case of better late than never?

THIS WEEK United States President Barack Obama is hosting African Heads of State in Washington D.C in what has been dubbed the US-Africa Leaders Summit. The agenda is mainly about fostering business. But you can be sure there will be other issues, such as democracy, minority rights (read gay), security and so on.
Joseph Rwagatare
Joseph Rwagatare

THIS WEEK United States President Barack Obama is hosting African Heads of State in Washington D.C in what has been dubbed the US-Africa Leaders Summit. The agenda is mainly about fostering business. But you can be sure there will be other issues, such as democracy, minority rights (read gay), security and so on.

Many questions have been asked. Why is President Obama holding the summit now, two years before the end of his term? He is perceived to have disappointed the expectations of most Africans who were excited to see what they thought was one of their own in the White House. They thought, wrongly as it turned out, that he would be more understanding and extend a ready helping hand. Instead he has largely remained distant and disengaged. 

So is this a case of better late than never? Or is it, as many commentators are saying, an attempt to remind Africans that the United States matters and their flirting with China will not take them very far? 

To be fair to him, there was very little that Obama could do and the expectations that he would relate to Africa differently from his predecessors was misplaced. 

First, it should not be forgotten that Obama is first and last the president of the United States, not Africa’s big brother. 

Second, he inherited an economy on its knees. His priority was to resuscitate it, not to dish out largesse to his extended African family. 

In addition, the image of the United States had suffered hugely from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The war in Iraq was particularly bothersome because the previous Administration had lied about why it was necessary. The United States was seen, with some justification, as a bully. 

Obama came to the White House with a baggage of diverse liberal interests, each competing for a prominent role in influencing his domestic and foreign policies. The result has sometimes been a disproportionate role for some of them. As regards Africa, some of these interests have succeeded in appending their pet concerns to US policy. As a result, they have tended to behave with arrogance, abuse, threats and intimidation, and a sense of self-righteousness.

Predictably, this behaviour has not gone down well with most Africans and they blame it on the Obama Administration.

Finally, the political gridlock in Washington, where partisan interests reign supreme, has made it difficult for Obama to take any bold initiatives.

To come back to the question: is the ongoing US- Africa Leaders Summit a belated attempt for Obama to redress his assumed neglect of the continent of his father? 

The talk will certainly be about being interested in Africa’s growth and wanting to be part of it. And no doubt there will be gestures of support and cooperation. The US government will give a few countries grants for some projects. And there will be advice to be wary of China. In the end, however, the summit benefits the United States more than it does Africa.

Africa is getting wealthier, too, and that is another attraction, and one of the reasons the emphasis of the summit is on business. Large American corporations are present. African businesses are also represented. But because of their sheer size, capital and wider global reach, American businesses stand to gain more from increased dealings with Africa. This is probably part of the strategy as the American economy recovers from the financial crisis of the last several years, and also to contain competition from the East.

Still, Africans can get something from the summit. They can cash in on renewed interest in Africa mainly because of its resources and future prospects. Today, when talking about Africa, one hears only superlatives – the fastest growing economies in the world, the most profitable investment destination, the most competitive region, the greatest source of natural resources, and so on. There are other laudatory attributes – Africa rising, the next business frontier, and so forth. 

But African leaders cannot be content with hearing the nice things said about the continent only. They should be able to turn them into business opportunities and profit. The Washington summit offers an opportunity to present themselves as worthy business partners, and not alms seekers.

Today’s  leaders, especially those sitting on newly found wealth, must surely know the value of wealth of their continent and not give it away again for next to nothing. They should be able to drive a hard bargain. It is a good thing that the ongoing summit does not involve only politicians, but African business people as well. 

It is doubtful whether the current summit in its form will bear immediate results. It is probably exploratory and can only be the beginning of a process. Still, something can be gained from it.

And may be President Obama’s lack of engagement with Africa is not really a bad thing. In the last six years no African country has collapsed as a result of that. If anything, it has shown that they cannot depend on charity or the goodwill of others, even if they have some blood connection to the continent. They have to work to earn their living.

Twitter: @jrwagatare

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