US-Africa Leaders Summit: What is it for?

By Désiré Assogbavi – 30th July 2014

Next week, over 50 African Heads of State and Government of Africa and the African Union Commission will be heading to Washington DC to participate in the US-Africa Summit to be held on 4 – 6 August 2014. Although this summit will be the first of its kind to be hosted by an America President, African People have already seen their Presidents going all together to meet just a President of another country. The French Francois Hollande hosted an Africa Summit in December last year but I have also seen our Presidents invited to China, Turkey, Japan just to mention a few, to discuss African issues. Recently, strategy against the terrorist group Boko Haram’s operations in Nigeria has been discussed in Paris  where Heads of State of the region were summoned to report to. Some of those gatherings have even been institutionalized to happen on a regular basis. I participated in the last Tokyo International Conference for Africa Development (TICAD V) and I was surprised to see that more African Heads of State travelled to Japan than I have seen in Addis Ababa during the Summits of the African Union. In November 2006, 48 African delegations including 44 Heads of State lined-up in front of the Chinese presidential palace to shake hand of the Chinese President, then Turkey, then Paris… Next week, they will be around 50 African Presidents flying 50 airplanes from different African countries – with all what it means cost wise for their country’s budget – with a huge delegation to do the same in Washington DC.

I am preparing to  join other partners to participate in some of the side events of the Summit but I would like to share a few personal thoughts about it.

A Summit for Africa not the African Union?
President Obama has drawn the line by deciding who will come or not to Washington DC. At the time of Africa-EU Summit in Lisbon in 2007, African side made it clear to Europe that under no circumstance the EU could not choose which African leaders will be invited and they threatened to cancel the Summit if Robert Mugabe was not allowed to participate. Similar issue was raised around the recent Brussels Summit with a weaker conviction. However, even though this is a different kind of meeting, the upcoming US-Africa Summit gives no room for such a discussion. President Obama’s Administration invited who they wanted and some African Heads of States such as the Sudanese, the Zimbabwean, and the Eritrean are not invited for obvious reasons. A  4th member of the African Union  – the Western Sahara –  is not invited for a different reason.  As a Human Rights activist, I personally agree on the exclusion of those of African  leaders with terrible Human Rights record. This will send a strong message in favor of democracy, the rule of law and the respect of human dignity. I must however confess that many of those invited are not clean neither… But, I have a problem of seeing such a gathering not being organized in the framework of the African Union.  With all its current challenges, Having represented Oxfam International  at  the African Union  for the last 8 years, I believe that the  Union remains a promising organization, a hope and a driving force then the best framework to discuss key issues on this Summit agenda with American partners. These issues include: Investing in Africa’s Future, Peace and Regional Stability and Governing for the Next Generation. A number of current AU programs and structures fit with and work on those.

Civil Society/Citizens ‘Space
I am glad to note that Civil Society has been invited to join various aspects of the upcoming Obama Summit. In addition, there are many CSOs side events being organized around the Summit and this opens door for engagement with leaders from both side. I have seen the same during the TICAD in Japan where, as a CSO representative I happened to seat just beside two African Heads of State in a discussion on peace and security in Africa. This totally contrasts with the ongoing closing of CSO space in a number of African countries and during the African Union Summits. The last AU Summit held in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea end of June 2014 did not allow CSOs participation and this was really disappointing. There have been a lot of discussions and protests around this issue and the African Union Commission was tasked to prepare recommendations for observers’ participation in the AU Summit to be discussed in January 2015.
I must confess that CSOs are more and more invited to a number of important policy debates in the AU framework at various levels but there is no reason to close the actual AU Summit to them as it creates opportunities for important informal interactions with decision makers.
See events during the US-Africa Summit here: http://www.interaction.org/us-africa-leaders-summit-side-events

This week, President Obama met 500 hundreds  African young people invited to the US in the framework of Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) launched in 2010. ( http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2014/07/28/empowering-africas-next-generation-leaders).  This initiative must be commended, encouraged and duplicated by other leaders. I have a number of friends who are participating in it. It creates important interactions and learning opportunities between talented young people and professionals from different backgrounds.

No Bi-lateral meeting with President Obama in Washington
The white House is not accepting bi-lateral meetings with African Heads of States during the Washington gathering. The reason is that President Obama could not manage all the multiple requests for one on one meetings. There will be 3 thematic presidential sessions and he will attend all.
Bill Clinton will moderate the opening session of the US-Africa Forum and some other prominent personalities such as Secretary of State John Kerry, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Security Adviser Suzane Rice and the World Bank President Jim Yong Kim are expected to be among those to give welcome remarks.

Issues on the Summit Agenda
The planned three presidential sessions will be on Investing in Africa’s Future, Peace and Regional Stability and Governing for the Next Generation. President Obama will surely find a place to raise issues of unconstitutional change of government, change of constitution for unlimited presidential terms, the growing terrorism, youth employment etc. I also suspect that the issues around homosexuality and the anti-gay laws in Africa will be brought into the remarks.
There will also be a Spousal Program to be hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama, Mrs. Laura Bush, and the Bush Institute.

Cost and Political Meaning of the Obama Summit
This Summit will mean a lot for President Obama in terms of foreign policy particularly towards Africa.  It will also create a number of vital opportunities between actors from both continents economically, politically, socially etc… But I seriously have a problem seeing our 50+ African leaders flying to a country to meet a President no matter how powerful that president may be. This is neither politically correct nor economically advantageous for African countries. Let’s imagine 50 Presidents flying 50 airplanes from their countries to Washington with huge members of delegation who will spend money in DC on accommodation leaving cost (and of course shopping !) for 3 to 4 days or more. Meetings are always necessary for diplomatic relations and economic cooperation but wouldn’t it be less expensive to host such a meeting at the African Union in Addis Ababa and have President Obama and his politicians and business men and women to come in? The same Heads of State will be flying back to New York in a month to attend the United Nation General Assembly Meeting. Why couldn’t they ask Obama to host his meeting just before or after the UNGA? African national institutions, citizens and the Media should be challenging leaders on these…

As usual, there will be a signed off join declaration with some more promises and commitments but I am not sure how much the US is ready to pledge for Africa again on those issue but let’s wait and see…

I will be tweeting during the US-Africa Summit @assodesire

Summit Hashtag: #AfricaSummit

 Official Website: http://www.whitehouse.gov/us-africa-leaders-summit

2 thoughts on “US-Africa Leaders Summit: What is it for?

  1. There is a big difference between Africa – EU Summits and Africa – US Summit. The former being one that is governed by specific ‘AGREED’ guiding principles i.e. participation of all and equity – its a summit emanating from a JOINT strategy… The US-Africa Summit was an invitation, a mere expression of courtesy….nothing binding, and Obama as the invitee is free to choose who should attend!

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