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As Africa went to Washington

By Marshall Van Valen, and Patrick Smith in Washington
Posted on Thursday, 7 August 2014 15:17

Some 50 African heads of state and government, together with hundreds of ministers, were due in Washington DC on 4-6 August for the first US-Africa Leaders’ Summit. The administration wants the summit to boost its diplomatic and commercial efforts at a time when Africa, the world’s fastest-growing region in economic and demographic terms, faces suitors from across the world.

This is historic for us, so we’re kind of setting the stage

Among policy-makers, think tanks and businesses, the initiative prompted a mixture of enthusiasm and scepticism. The enthusiasts see the value of high-level networking, while sceptics argue it can do little to address policy imperatives.

“This is historic for us, so we’re kind of setting the stage and hopefully it’ll be something that will be picked up by the next administration,” US assistant secretary of state for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield tells The Africa Report.

The main event is a day-long meeting on 6 August between President Barack Obama and his counterparts about education, governance, investment and security. Other events include a forum of business leaders hosted by billionaire Michael Bloomberg and seminars on youth leadership, civil society, trade, health and food security.

Before the summit, some officials expressed frustration about the format for the talks. Adonia Ayebare, deputy head of the African Union (AU) mission to the UN, explains: “I think there is some disappointment about the lack of bilaterals.

There has also been concern about structure and style. Washington wants a more free-form and interactive style, but the AU wanted to use the summit to communicate the AU/Africa position on some of the key issues. We want to get our views across clearly.”

When ranked against summits organised by Beijing and Tokyo, which regularly produce headline figures for a new era of trade and investment, there are concerns about the “measurable outcomes” of the summit, says Ayebare.

For Obama, with just two years left in his second adminstration, timing is critical. More so than other presidents, Obama faced expectations that he would pay more attention to Africa, as his paternal family is from Kenya. His first term, consumed by reviving the economy, the military withdrawal from Afghanistan and healthcare, had little space for Africa.

Two eloquent speeches, one in Accra and one in Cairo, envisaged a new engagement, but history intervened. China is now Africa’s dominant economic partner, its $200bn a year trade with the continent more than twice the US figure. However, with the international crises in the Horn and the Sahel, security has risen on the US agenda.

Transnational threats

Todd Moss, chief operating officer of the Center for Global Development in DC, argues that Africa occupies a greater position in US policy because “the 21st-century transnational threats that are going to dominate the US national security landscape – this includes terrorism, illicit trafficking, cross-border disease – there, Africa is a focal point in all of those areas.”

Although the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) does not have its headquarters in Africa, the US military presence there has risen steadily since 2008. AFRICOM commander General David Rodriguez said in April that there are typically 5,000-6,000 US troops on African soil. The Pentagon announced in July that it has maintained a presence of about 120 military advisers in Somalia since 2007.

We have Africa and China summits, Japan, India, Europe, US and Australia. But what are we using these for?

John Campbell, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, does not see a decisive shift, saying that Africa policy still comes several notches below Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Russia and China. “It is fairly easy to overstate the degree of American security involvement in Africa,” he says.

The Nigerian government does not want a larger role for the US military, according to Campbell. Kenya’s foreign ministry, however, said security cooperation was President Uhuru Kenyatta’s top priority for the summit.

With the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rebels, the US policy of using drones and support for national security services has shown its limits. The Washington think tank’s Moss explains: “Mali is a good example of this. We have been using a very similar recipe time and again, combining very technical training that does not give us the outcomes we like. The need for a lot more experimentation on the security side is clearly necessary.

How many times have the US and Europeans retrained the Malian military from scratch? Are they still even able to provide basic security functions?”

More finger-wagging

Secretary of State John Kerry was in Ad- dis Ababa with Thomas-Greenfield in May to push for a peace deal in South Sudan. Washington, through its backing for the peace deal in 2005, had played a leading role brokering the country’s independence referendum.

In Addis, Kerry spelt out the US priorities of good governance, human rights and the fight against corruption – themes on which China is at best agnostic. The rise of states following a ‘developmental authoritarian’ strategy – such as Rwanda and Ethiopia – counters US influence.

In Addis, Kerry raised the subject of the imprisonment of six bloggers with the Ethiopian government and called on the DRC’s President Joseph Kabila to respect the country’s constitution and step down at the end of his second term in 2015. “African leaders are running out of patience with being lectured to about democracy,” according to Moss. “I think they want to see real partnership rather than finger-wagging.”

Like much in Washington these days, Africa policy suffers from a lack of bipartisan cooperation and ever more stringent constraints on public spending. Ahead of the August summit, 14 African countries were without US ambassadors because Republicans in the Senate wanted to punish the Democrats for their decision to limit filibusters.

The separation of powers in the US system complicates policymaking as in the fight over its Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank, which lends to US firms selling overseas. Ex-Im Bank has supported deals worth $5bn in sub-Saharan Africa since 1999; although that pales in comparison with the $10bn framework deal that Ghana signed with China Exim Bank in 2010.

When campaigning in 2008, Obama called Ex-Im Bank “corporate welfare”. The Tea Party group in the Republican Party has taken up the charge to close down the bank. Congress has to reauthorise the bank before the end of September if it is going to continue to operate. Stephen Hayes of the Corporate Council on Africa (CCA) concedes there are legitimate criticisms of Ex-Im Bank but says business wants it to continue. He adds that the Obama government “has got it right on the issues” in Africa.

But Hayes argues that Obama’s policies “will not succeed without the private sector […] which is starting to look at the possibilities [that African economies offer].” The CCA is organising a business programme alongside the summit bringing together African delegations and the US’s top companies. Those encounters could provide the most tangible outcome of the summit. Compared to European and Asian companies, American corporates are rare in Africa.

That may change with some of the government’s new policy initiatives, including Power Africa, which aims to boost electricity generation in six countries; Feed the Future, a global agriculture initiative; and Trade Africa, which is focused on strengthening the business climate in the East African Community.

Before the fracking revolution allowed companies in the US to exploit gas and oil trapped in shale rock, the authorities had predicted the country would grow to rely on Africa for as much as 25% of the US market’s needs.

In contrast, oil imports from Africa have dropped by about 90% since 2010, pushing down trade. US-Africa trade shrank to $85.2bn in 2013, from $125.9bn in 2011. Despite the changes in US energy security, Washington hasn’t toughened its line with countries like Equatorial Guinea, which hosts oil majors but whose officials are widely accused of grand corruption and human rights abuses.

Membership of the CCA has continued to increase in recent years. Beyond General Electric and IBM, which have announced new commitments to in- vestment in Africa, US companies like Caterpillar, Bechtel and Procter & Gamble show a renewed interest in agriculture, infrastructure and consumer goods.

Hayes says that the inter-agency co-operation necessary to make Power Africa a success is “not happening”. He argues that “what is lacking is a strong appreciation of the private sector in some key areas of the administration”. He says that the impact of Power Africa has been limited to “an increase in sales for Symbion and General Electric”.

Although AU Commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is to attend the summit, her organisation is debating the value of such events and structured partnerships. Former prime minister of Guinea Lansana Kouyaté explains to The Africa Report: “We have Africa and China summits, Japan, India, Europe, US and Australia. But what are we using these for? The responsibility for the development of Africa is in Africa not elsewhere.” ●

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