Opinion

Much ado about all things Africa

Jonathan Faull

Whatever the US-Africa summit's outcome, the US seems sincere about new investment and trade, writes Jonathan Faull.

US President Barack Obama at the summit of the Washington Fellowship for the Young African Leaders Initiative in Washington DC, which preceded the US-Africa Leadership Summit. (Mandel Ngan, AFP)

Divining the impact of the United States-Africa Leadership Summit, convened in Washington DC this week, will require a strong hyperbole detector. The government flacks and talking heads of the beltway’s Africa establishment have painted the summit as “unprecedented” and a “game changer”; the “largest Africacentric meeting held by any US president” intended to “send a clear signal that we are elevating our engagement with Africa”, and a harbinger of a “[strengthened] commitment to peace and prosperity” in both Africa and the US.

At every turn, there seems to be a US official opining about “care”, “engagement”, “partnership”, “peace” and “security”, or droning on that “seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are in Africa”, and the “tremendous opportunities for investment” for American firms.

It’s an impressive show of force on the part of the US government and Africa: over 50 African heads of state were invited to attend the summit. Only Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, Sudan’s Field Marshal Omar al-Bashir, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki and the interim president of the Central African Republic failed to crack the nod. The vast majority of those invited attended, many bringing large ministerial and business delegations in tow.

That Africa came to town has not been missed by the District of Columbia’s residents. Talk shows have been clogged with callers irate about the congestion caused by road closures and the motorcades ferrying the principals about town. More than 1 600 journalists were accredited by the state department to attend the summit and hundreds of civil society activists descended on the district to participate in a fringe programme of more than 80 panels and events.

But will the summit substantively reshape the US’s engagement with Africa?

August is very much downtime in Washington DC. The House of Representatives and the Senate are closed for business. Many officials from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund exercise their welfare-state-like benefits and use August to indulge in month-long, European-style vacations. And, with the schools and universities closed, and the temperature and humidity making any activity not associated with air-conditioning almost intolerable, those who can afford to flee the district head for the beach or milder climes.

It is not the ideal time to be showcasing a new commitment to an entire continent, especially when many of the cornerstone initiatives – Power Africa and Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), to name two worth billions of dollars – pivot on support from an awol Congress and financing from the US government’s Export-Import Bank, which conservative House Republicans are determined to torpedo at the end of next month.

The domestic media has not been much enamoured with the goings on in DC. Not one of the August 3 Sunday morning political talk shows, an important medium of record in the US, previewed the summit, reserving what coverage they had of Africa for breathless reporting on Ebola.

As one grizzled hack said: “This summit is essentially a powwow and a photo op.” Cynics will find significant evidence to buttress such a view.

Hosting a “leadership summit” with an entire continent smells a little like a back-handed compliment as it is. Some North African attendees have openly bristled at what they perceive to be a programme primarily orientated to sub-Saharan Africa, and President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania in a panel on Tuesday gritted his teeth at talk-show host Charlie Rose, insisting that Africa be treated as 55 distinct countries, not one.

Sudanese telecoms billionaire Mo Ibrahim used several podiums to pillory the chorus line promoting economic opportunity on the continent: “Everywhere in Africa there are Chinese businesspeople, there are Brazilian businesspeople,” he said. “None of us went to Brazil, or to Asia, or to China, to tell them ‘Look, come and invest in Africa’ … Why do we need to come and inform these misinformed American businesses?”

The secretary of state, John Kerry, maintained a heroic schedule, meeting 12 heads of states, or their proxies, as well as Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chairperson of the African Union Commission, in the first two days of the summit alone. But these interactions, on average, lasted just 30 minutes and were sandwiched between other meetings with civil society, discussions with business representatives and the opening of a World Bank forum on Agoa.

US officials have been at pains to emphasise that the summit is not a response to competition from China or Europe, both of which have held similar summits in the recent past, or that it reflects an incoherent Africa policy by the Obama administration.

But it is clear that the US’s commercial, and contingent political, clout is waning: China surpassed the US as the continent’s largest trading partner in 2009, and the US’s trade in goods with the continent shrank by 32% between 2011 and the end of 2013. Projections from trade data for the first five months of 2014 suggest a further potential year-on-year decline of 12.5%.

But much of the US’s decline in trade with Africa is accounted for by the country’s shale boom and its diminishing reliance on imported oil. The incumbent administration, aware that reduced trade will negatively affect the US’s influence, has been energised to negotiate a renewed Agoa and the Power Africa initiative to diversify the US’s trade basket and increase the value of its interests and trade in agriculture, manufactured goods and infrastructure development.

The final numbers are still being massaged but it is likely that more than $30-billion in new (and some rebranded) investments will have been announced by the end of the programme. Obama has passed an executive order to form an advisory council on doing business in Africa, the US government has announced new initiatives, backed by funding, to promote agriculture and trade, and, although high-level interaction between heads of state across the Atlantic divide may have been limited, the sum of their parts demonstrate a seriousness on the part of the US’s political leadership for increased political and economic engagement.

The continent’s leaders will welcome the terms of a new conversation premised on trade and investment and not aid and dependence.

A true assessment of the summit will require the benefit of a few years’ hindsight but, undoubtedly, things are looking up.

Jonathan Faull is an independent political and public policy analyst based in Washington DC. Follow him on Twitter @jonjonfaull.

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