President Barrack Obama’s upcoming date with African presidents is likely to signal renewed scramble for the continent as large economies seek new growth opportunities.
At least 47 African presidents converge in Washington on August 5-6 on Obama’s invitation as the US seeks to widen trade ties with the continent, but the selective invitation criteria that left out other African leaders is a cause for concern.
Some have even questioned the rationale of African presidents flying to Washington to meet Obama. “I find it funny, especially in Kenya’s case, when Obama visited Africa, he shunned Kenya because President Uhuru Kenyatta is on trial at the ICC, yet now he turns around to invite him to talk business,” said Hamza Wale, a Nigerian doctorate student in Beijing.
Wale holds that if Obama wants to do business with Africa, he should come to Africa and talk to the African Union.
Obama says his country wants to trade more with Africa but this is not accurate as it appears that he is not interested in those that don’t meet his democratic governance yardstick.
The countries that are ‘currently not in good standing with the US will not be welcome and going by the invitation list, those would include Zimbabwe, Egypt, Sudan and Madagascar.
Observers reacting to Obama’s selective invitation pointed out that this ‘conditional’ approach to doing business with Africa will not help America’s efforts to catch China on the continent due to Beijing’s observance of non-interference policy with governments’ local politics which has endeared it to many African leaders.
But this sharp contrast in approaches means African leaders have the freedom to choose whom to do business with between Washington and Beijing.
“Successful business is done based on mutual respect of all parties involved, this America-Africa relationship seems to place African leaders lower than Obama which casts a doubt on the kind of discussions they’ll hold,” Wale said.
Obama will talk trade and investment but also democracy, a subject which many African leaders are reluctant to be lectured on.
Then there’s the matter of Zimbabwe’s long-standing sanctions which many Zimbabweans believe were illegally pressed by USA yet Obama is using them to starve Mugabe of trade benefits.
Can African leaders stand up to Obama and push for a release of Zimbabwe from America’s imposed economic jail?
Jade Kalekela, a Zimbabwean post-graduate student in China, says: “the AU and SADC have in the past pronounced their position that the sanctions on Zimbabwe should be lifted unconditionally, however, it is easy to issue a statement than to act on it as a continent.”
However, Kalekela adds that America’s “carrot and stick” method of dealing with Africa could slowly be losing its effectiveness because of the presence of China and other emerging economies on the continent.
African leaders can also pick a leaf from what the 33-member countries of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) did early this week when they met in Cuba, a country that has endured American sanctions for decades.
In a conference that was also attended by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, CELAC members condemned sanctions against Cuba which they said are holding back the region’s fight against poverty.
Sanctions are hurting Zimbabwe with the World Food Programme reporting early this week that over two million people are in urgent need of food aid.
Observers say that it would be in Africa’s interests to organise into a formidable trading bloc of 50 member states and close to a billion people.
For example, CELAC’s establishment in 2011 was pushed by former Venezuela president Hugo Chavez, as an alternative to the Organization of American States (OAS) regional bloc, long seen by leaders in the hemisphere as being disproportionately responsive to US interests.
Today, it’s composed of 33 sovereign countries in the Americas representing roughly 600 million people and during their summit early this week; they sent an invitation to Puerto Rico.
When they meet Obama, African leaders will have one assurance at the back of their minds: If the proposals don’t favour them, they will shun him and tighten their embrace of the Chinese string-free relationship.
President Robert Mugabe’s famous quote that Zimbabwe has decided to do more business with the ‘East where the sun rises and less with the West where it sets,’ is shared by many African leaders and there’s statistical evidence to it.
Beijing’s white paper on “China-Africa Economic and Trade Cooperation” released in August 2013 indicates between 2009 (when China became Africa’s No. 1 trade partner) and 2012, China’s direct investment in Africa increased from $1.44 billion to $2.52 billion, with an annual growth rate of 20.5%.
Over the same period, China’s accumulative direct investment in Africa increased from $9.33 billion to $21.23 billion.
In 2012, China-Africa trade reached $198.49 billion. Of this, $85.319 billion consisted of China’s exports to Africa while $113.171 accounted for China’s imports from Africa.
By May 2012, China had approved concessional loans worth a total of $11.3 billion for 92 African projects and the China-Africa Development Fund set up to accelerate investment had by the end of 2012 agreed to invest $2.385 billion in 61 projects in 30 African countries.
Currently, there are over 2,000 Chinese enterprises in more than 50 African countries and regions in areas ranging from agriculture, mining and building industry to intensive processing of resource products, industrial manufacturing, finance, commercial logistics and real estate.
But Faridah Namukasa, a Ugandan post-graduate student in Beijing, notes that Africa needs both the East and West. “It is an opportunity for Africa. The leaders should get the best out of it,” she said.
But that opportunity may depend on a choice by African leaders between Obama’s conditional proposals and China’s trade relationship with no strings attached.