THE first ever US-Africa Leaders summit which runs from August 4-8 in Washington DC can easily be construed as a demonstration that the US and Africa both value their relationship and that a new era in US-Africa relations has been born. However, looking deeper at the presidency of President Barack Obama, a different picture emerges.
Having 55 heads of state in one place and expecting to achieve tangible results in four days is slightly optimistic for a president who spent the best part of his two terms literally ignoring the continent.
China overtook the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009, the same year when Obama started his first term as US president. The past years under Obama’s rule saw US trade with Africa decline.
Obama, despite his African origin, has been a less frequent visitor to the land of his ancestors than Chinese leaders. He made his first substantial visit to Africa only last year, while in the same year Chinese President Xi Jinping embarked on a three-nation African tour merely one week after taking office.
Obama started his presidency on a wrong footing with Africa, saying the continent’s leadership should forget about colonialism and look inward; yet was preaching a different story for the Middle East crisis.
Obama clashed with the likes of president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who said western neo-colonial domination of Africa had impeded development.
This current ‘speed dating’ with African leaders is unlikely to do in four days what could not be done in five years.
The fact that there has been no threat of an African boycott to the summit is no demonstration of the value of this summit. No one expected President Mugabe to be invited to Washington, and it is clear that he would have accepted had he been invited. He would have taken the opportunity to remind the US of many home truths.
President Mugabe has been quiet over this summit, but it is clear what his perception of it is.
It is rooted within the foreign policy of Zimbabwe and in the various speeches he has made at the United Nations.
Zimbabwe’s foreign policy aims are the safeguarding of the country’s sovereignty and the maintenance of territorial integrity; the protection of the country’s image and prestige; the pursuit of policies that improve people’s standards of living and the creation and maintenance of an international environment that can support these goals.
The government of Zimbabwe said in pursuing these foreign policy aims, is guided by six fundamental principles: promotion and protection of national and economic interests of Zimbabwe; self-determination and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, as well as respect for the territorial integrity of other states; respect for international law and the provisions of the United Nations Charter; peaceful co-existence with other nations; the settlement of disputes by peaceful means; and the promotion of pan-African identity and the economic integration of Africa.
It is therefore clear that if President Mugabe had been invited to the summit, he would have re-emphasized these principles.
The questions then are: Are these principles in sync with US foreign policy? Are Africa leaders going to benefit from this summit? Is the unfinished business of decolonialisation and African empowerment going to be served by this summit?
Will the African leaders remind the US of its obligations under international law or will simply sit through President Obama’s lectures?
Unlike many African leaders who do not want to risk their relationship with the US, President Mugabe would rather risk it if Zimbabwe’s foreign policy aims are not protected or respected. The president has been very vocal about his vision for Africa, in line with the thinking of Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and other iconic African liberators.
Zambian and Algerian presidents have declined to attend and the Angolan president, probably because he was not offered bilateral meetings with President Obama. The Sierra Leone and Liberian presidents withdrew due to the deadly Ebola outbreak in their countries.
This speed-dating exercise with President Obama is unlikely to yield the advantages of bilateral diplomacy because it is modelled as another talk-shop or lecture series. Africa leaders will not give presentations as is done at the United Nations, but will sit through lectures,
The Corporate Council on Africa summed up the likelihood of this summit being a success when it voiced concerns about the lack of one-to-one audiences with President Obama.
Simply put, this summit lacks depth and that fact is obscured by the fact that there are 45 out of 55 African leaders attending it. That number gives it credibility and lends the summit some form of legitimacy, but legitimacy for what? The United Nations attracts many more leaders from Africa, even ones like President Mugabe, who are on the sanctions list.
President Obama could simply have an audience with African leaders alongside a UN summit.
It seems like an afterthought by President Obama before he leaves office that he did not do much for a continent from which his father came.
He — through the White House — broached the idea of a US-African leaders’ summit, not the US government.
It is therefore not surprising that there have been turf battles over it between different US government agencies.
The three broad topics: Investing in Africa’s Future, Peace and Regional Stability, and Governing for the Next Generation, seem not to have anything to do with US foreign policy, but Obama’s African heritage and legacy.
Africa has been a low priority so far during the two terms of the Obama Administration. His three visits to the continent, excluding his father’s Kenya, have brought little promising programmes such as the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) in 2010, the African Food Summit in 2012, and the Power Africa Initiative in 2013.
These initiatives have yielded very little and are now being overshadowed by this summit
If this is about African development, why are sessions chaired personally by President Obama at the White House?
The business and policy meetings will be held on the fringes, but even those do not seem to have any depth.
This is where the real speed dating exercise will take place with an a la carte menu where business people will choose who to meet out of the 45 African countries all promoting themselves favourable investment destinations.
African states have been doing this anyway on many multi-lateral and bilateral platforms, so what is the point?
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been collecting intelligence on Africa since November 3, 1961 when it was set up. There is not much this summit will yield that is not known by USAID or various UN specialist organs.
If President Obama is indeed sincere about Africa’s development, he is a little late.
His procrastination is described well by Sara Fegan — a former George W Bush advisor — who said: “He’s a lame duck and it’s not even lame-duck time.”
For a president who is ensconced in many international problems, this summit is mere tokenism.
The world has become a dramatically more problematic place during his second term and his indecisiveness or bad judgement has worsened international problems.
The Israeli pounding of Palestinians in Gaza, his ill-conceived support of sanctions against Russia, failures in Iraq where government territorial gains have been reversed, are all situations that have dented his leadership and threatened his legacy. He only has Africa to salvage that legacy.
The summit demonstrates one thing: that the Obama administration procrastinated on important issues and is playing catch up.
This is nothing new or exclusive. Africa summits are increasingly commonplace. The EU, China, India, France and Japan have been holding them regularly. There are other summits that will take place in the later part of this year in South Korea and Turkey.
It is also said that there will be no final document or action plan from Obama’s summit, so what’s the importance of it, if it is not to massage Mr Obama’s ego?
Starting on his birthday, 4 August, this summit is an African birthday party for a US President who comes from Africa. Retrospection has 20/20 vision. This is in no way US foreign policy.
We all know how US foreign policy works and who drives it. It’s not Mr Obama. Our only hope is that the heads of states in the US this week do not expect much from this summit and that they realise that they have simply paid their way to their brother’s birthday party.
President Mugabe would have ruined that party by discussing politics and African renaissance, no wonder he was not invited.