In the twilight of Obama’s presidency …
By Keffyalew Gebremedhin*
The US-Africa Leaders Summit (ALS) of August 5-6, 2014 in Washington D.C. is coming in the waning days of Barack Obama’s presidency. The ALS also coincides with a number of events, including the president’s birthday – August 4. The latter has even tempted some to wonder if next week’s event could be an exercise in building the president’s legacy.
Some of the unconnected coincidences or concerning developments also include uncertainties in the global economy. These are caused by anemic growths in the rich world that have had strong economic implications to the economies of developing nations. This preoccupation in mind, Stephen Hayes, president & CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa, in his Obama’s High-Risk Summit observed that the ASL might be the “most critical of all to U.S.-Africa relations”, i.e., in helping find foothold for US investors in the buzzing African market, whose reputation has gone far and aroused curious interests.
The Obama strategy
Putting the above together, one gets the sense that the Obama Administration may have seen wisdom in resuscitating its Africa approach through the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, which the White House released in June 2012. At the time, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to show it the light of day in an 11-day a tour of Africa in July/August 2012. She did her best to explain its four pillars to Africa and why the United States would be different and better than China for Africa, for example, in advocating transparency, accountability and responsive governance, protecting fundamental freedoms and human rights and supporting credible democracy.
To the best of my information, any policy based on that document by the United States has barely taken off the ground, despite Mrs. Clinton’s best efforts. She even pleaded with policy-makers and academicians, quoting President Obama. He had once acknowledged that, she recalls, historically Western powers had too often seen Africa as a source of resources to be exploited or as a charity cause in need of patronage. As a secretary of state ready to exit, she left it there as the president’s challenge to Africans and Americans alike that Africa needed partnership, not patronage – as she put it – a challenge on which that strategy builds.
Another take in the minds of the organizers of the summit is the growing concern about and the continuing threats to peace and security in many nations, especially in Africa. Some of these arise from the designs of Al Qaeda-inspired Islamic extremists, such as those in the Maghreb, parts of West and Central Africa and Al Shabab in East Africa.
Already ever since the aftermath of the September 2001 tragedy in the United States, Washington has attached huge importance to its military and security interests in its relations with the rest of the world.
Accordingly, such focus for over a decade now has remained the main driver of United States diplomatic, political and economic relations with other nations i.e., – capturing and/or eliminating terrorists, sharing intelligence with friends and allies and providing military training to weaker states and supplying them with weapons, fostering mutual security interests between African states and the United States.
Consequently, in Africa today the US military and intelligence presence has preeminence more than any time before – including at the height of the Cold War. For instance, it is reported that today the United States has active military presence in 20 African states (see the map), with 11 of them (Central African Republic, Chad, Congo DR, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Niger, Mali, South Sudan, Uganda) having US military boots on the ground.
Another revelation is that 10 of the 20 states on the map are on the Fragile States Index – four under Very High Alert, one under High Alert status and five under general Alert, whose muffled participation in the Washington summit cannot be of any significance.
In March 2014, The Los Angeles Times observed that the US Africa Command from Stuttgart in Germany is responsible for coordinating US defense programs in 38 African states, with 5,000 or more US troops on frequent operational missions or trainings within Africa. Much in line with that, in 2013 AFRICOM is reported to have carried out a total of 546 ‘activities’, according to Nick Turse – a possible code word for military operations.
All this is in response to 911 and the threats Al Qaeda and its offshoots have posed to both Western nations and African states.
Catching up with China?
As the US long focused on its defense needs, China has had the entire African economic arena all to itself. In these years, China has managed to raise the number of its firms operating in 50 African states in 2013 to 2,372. Its direct investments are reported to be $2.52 billion in 2012, its trade volume soaring to $198.49 billion.
The comparison with US investments and trade volume in 2013 shows $24 billion in exports to Sub-Saharan Africa and imports worth $39.3 billion during the same period. In terms of spread by countries, 30 percent of US exports went to South Africa and the rest was divided between Nigeria, Angola, Ghana and Togo. Similarly, US imports in Africa are also concentrated on fewer countries, mainly from Angola, Chad, Congo Nigeria and South Africa.
US investment in Africa is much weaker, estimated at one percent of its global investments.
In the light of the foregoing, clearly there is scope for huge improvements in all aspects of the relations between African states and the United States. This should happen within the remaining 17 or so months of Obama’s presidency, late in the day as that might be.
Understandably, this delayed effort in the form of the ASL has not sat well with many, i.e., the president now telling African leaders his desire for Africa and America to become partners “on behalf of the future we want for all of our children … grounded in mutual responsibility and mutual respect.”
In addition, as a good host, the White House has also pointed out in its program of events, the “Discussions will center on how to encourage progress in key areas that Africans define as critical for the future of the continent.”
Nonetheless, the above has not superseded the January 21, 2014 announcement by the White House which underlines the summit’s aim is to “build on the progress made since the President’s trip to Africa last summer, advance the Administration’s focus on trade and investment in Africa, and highlight America’s commitment to Africa’s security, its democratic development, and its people.”
In fact, this same statement has been reproduced word for word in the summit‘s agenda.
Where to now?
Frowners see the ALS as just another toothless gathering of dignitaries with protocol on their mind. There is also the good excuse of the summit’s format not expected to help in any way possible most of the 50-odd presidents and prime ministers. There surely is concern that it would turn out to be an ineffective gathering of VIPs that barely have little or none in their chest pockets as common position.
It means that the guests may not have much to chip in, in terms of concrete and substantive ideas during the dialogue with the president, especially on the give and take from such an amorphous forum. Most of all, these presidents and presidencies behave and think passively and defensively in such a forum, under the pretext of not to be seen acting non-deferentially and undiplomatically toward the host.
The fear of many however is that the summit may not hear the real problems of Africans; politicians lack the eyes to see and hearts to feel the real hunger of Africans for their genuine share in the economy, sense of security and respect for their human dignity.
The time we live in has necessitated the evolution of mutuality of security interests between several African states and the United States. This has enabled the United States to push adoption of anti-terrorism laws in almost all countries, without the necessary constraints.
Therefore, while the objective of such law is clear, most of the times it is directed against innocent people doing their jobs, such as journalists and opposition activists. The law’s capture by illegitimate elites has made it an effective tool in the hands of those that want to rule with iron fist. Its purpose has now become to help strongmen end up in power until the Second Coming.
In that, the law has helped silence critics and get rid of bona fide political opposition, bloggers and journalists, teachers and students and farmers defending their lands sending them to prisons, thereby denying the real anti-terrorism efforts citizen base. In other words, the African state today from where many of Washington’s guests come are on war footing against civil society. By no stretch of the imagination is that good for economic growth, or for poverty reduction or good governance, democracy or combating corruption.
That is why the measure of President Obama’s seriousness and the success of ALS now depends on how much of the heavy lifting he would be doing next week in favor of openness and transparency, where necessary leading the way in that regard. That is when and how key and critical issues of real interests to the peoples of Africa could prevail in the open, solutions could emerge and mutual interests with the United States are sealed.
Washington should never forget that it is the United States’ longstanding tradition and image as beacon of innovation, freedom and democracy that as much has helped in bringing to its knees the might of the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War – not its undivided loyalty to strongmen of power that are strangers and outsiders to their own peoples.
* Mr. Keffyalew Gebremedhin is a former diplomat and international civil servant with the United Nations. In retirement, he is doing research mostly on development issues and writes his blog: The Ethiopia Observatory.