US-Africa Leaders’ Summit: why now?

PRESIDENT Barack Obama has just concluded the first-ever US-Africa leaders summit – a three-day meeting which saw nearly 50 African leaders gather in Washington, D.C, from August 4-6, to discuss matters concerning trade, security and governance.  

PRESIDENT Barack Obama has just concluded the first-ever US-Africa leaders summit – a three-day meeting which saw nearly 50 African leaders gather in Washington, D.C, from August 4-6, to discuss matters concerning trade, security and governance.  

Like Europe and Latin America, the US is playing catch-up with China over the realisation that Africa is a continent with great economic potential.

This was elaborated clearly when President Obama observed that “I do not see the countries and peoples of Africa as a world apart; I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world – partners with America on behalf of the future we want for all of our children.” 

He added that US-Africa partnership “must be grounded in mutual responsibility and mutual respect.” 

So, why is it that America is only just waking up to the realisation that Africa has been open for business for quite some time now? In fact, the first significant recognition that Africa is open for business was first made during the forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing in October, 2000.

Since then, there have been four similar summits, two in Africa; Ethiopia in 2003 and Egypt in 2009, respectively.  Since then, Japan, India and Europe have all followed suit to entice African nations to do more business with them instead of giving it all to China. 

To understand what really prompted President Obama to become the first American president to convene the first-ever US-Africa Summit, one has to take two factors into account; 1) Africa’s future economic outlook, and 2) the threat of China’s influence in Africa.

To begin with, Africa remained resilient during the 2008 global financial crisis, which crippled most of the developed world. Few analysts expected African countries to register any sort of economic growth, and yet, a handful of countries have continued to post impressive economic development figures. 

For instance, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Africa is currently home to six of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies, namely; Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Chad, Mozambique and Rwanda. 

Equally, by 2015, IMF forecasts that the number will rise to seven, albeit some countries will be replaced by new entrants. 

Crucially, IMF officials are confident that the economies of Sub-Saharan Africa will continue to grow at an average of 5.4 per cent this year and 5.8 per cent in 2015, which is faster than the global average. 

Secondly, it is clear to see that America is increasingly frightened by China’s trade share with Africa. It is estimated that China’s annual trade with Africa as a whole is about $200 billion, about twice the volume of US-Africa trade.

This is a significant increase when compared to $6 billion as the trade figure between China and Africa twenty years ago. China’s trade with Africa is largely based on the former’s imports of oil and minerals, and the latter’s imports of electronics and textiles. 

Also, Chinese companies are building infrastructure at much cheaper rates, albeit at relatively poor quality. 

On the contrary, despite being the world’s largest economy, the US remains Africa’s third largest trade partner behind the EU and China. Consequently, President Obama along with Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg led the efforts on Day Two to convince African leaders that doing business with the US was more desirable.  

All things considered, President Obama’s courage to play catch-up with China is commendable. Similarly, the $900m worth of deals between American companies and African nations as announced by Secretary Pritzker, are a step in the right direction. 

However, the United States must always consider two important factors when dealing with Africa; 1) Africans can no longer be told what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. This is especially relevant when it comes to internal political affairs. 2) The current outlook dictates that Africa has a lot of partners to choose from unlike in the past. Brazil, Russia, India, China and Europe are some of the strong competitors that America must outdo to gain our attention.

The writer is a UK Parliamentary Intern and holds a Master of Science in Public Services Policy.

Twitter: @Jsabex

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