U.S.-Africa summit: beyond the fanfare

By IAfrica
In Nigeria
Aug 16th, 2014
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On the African side, no amount of money from the United States will bring development to most African countries if the right thing is not done at the right time

Just about a week ago, a momentous event took place in Washington. President Barack Obama invited African leaders (short of a few sit-tight dictators out of many on the continent) to discuss with him and his staff the opportunities waiting to be tapped in relation to increasing trade and investment between the United States and Africa. The event was filled with pomp and ceremony. Now that African leaders have returned to their base, it is advisable that both sides of the summit—the U.S. and Africa—come to terms with why trade and investment has been abysmally low, compared to what the situation is between China and Africa.

Though the United States did not participate in colonisation of Africa (despite the special relationship between Washington and Monrovia since President Monroe settled some enslaved Africans in Monrovia), America has largely followed the model established by the two major countries that colonised Africa: Britain and France, with respect to stimulating trade and investment between the U.S. and Africa in the years following the decade of decolonisation in the 1960s.

Instead of taking the business risk of trading with and investing in African countries, it imitated Britain and France in taking the model of giving aid to Africa. It, like Britain and France and later Portugal, got into the tradition of giving aid to cover all manners of issues in the continent:  population control, food and nutrition, partial democratisation, etc. Most of these efforts first went to African governments during the era of big governments and government doing business and later to non-governmental organisations. Giving aid to Africa instead of trading with the continent has not worked, according to someone who should know, World Bank loan expert in Africa, Robert Calderisi in his book, The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Isn’t Working (2006). It is noteworthy that the United States has finally come to terms with the fears of Calderisi.

It is also good news that the United States has chosen to take notice of China’s aggressive trade and investment in Africa. Pledging to respond positively to what President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden consider encouraging stories from Africa: good growth rate, a very young population, and promise of consolidation of democracy in many countries on the continent, the Obama administration has reasons to shift from the tradition of aid to trade in Africa. While a summit with the theme: “Investing in the Next Generation” shows optimism on the part of the United States, there is need for realistic thinking that separates the promise of commitment to democracy and the rule of law by many African leaders for the reality on the ground in many parts of the continent.

Without doubt, both sides have more home work to do after the elaborate celebration of good intentions in Washington. On the African side, no amount of money from the United States will bring development to most African countries if the right thing is not done at the right time. Proper infrastructure (good roads, regular supply of electricity, functioning rail transportation, and reliable aviation sector for moving goods and services) is a sine qua non if the over $14 billion dollars in investment for the continent is to lead to any progress. Africa had received much more than this in aid over the years, without having anything to show for it. $14 billion dollars looks like a lot of money, but in reality, it is not much for a continent of Africa’s size and population, more so, if it ends up being thrown into an environment of chaotic transportation, lack of security for citizens and foreigners, mounting corruption fuelled by a culture of impunity.

In addition, no amount of investment dollar by itself can bring progress if African governments are not committed and prepared to make themselves to be seen to be genuinely committed to sustaining democracy, particularly free, fair, and transparent elections in non-threatening atmosphere. The problem of poor record of rule of law and independent judiciary in many African countries cannot be divorced from lack of free and fair elections and readiness of elected officials to respect the sovereignty of the people. It is such commitment to the culture of transparency, accountability, and respect of the citizenry that makes political leaders in functioning democracies to aspire to provide good governance.

When government leaders rig themselves directly or indirectly into office, they are not likely to support or encourage independent judiciary and the rule of law. Committing to reforming the way business is done in many African countries without reforming the way elections are conducted may not be enough for creating an enabling environment for good use of new or additional investment from the United States. Generally, businesses are about making profit. American business in Africa will not be an exception, and there may be no profit for such business in an atmosphere of corruption, insecurity, and political instability.

On the American side, there is a need for investors to influence their government to separate the grain from the chaff, with respect to African leaders promising in the most mendacious of tongues good governance and free and fair election. Just as Calderisi has said in his book referred to earlier, the United States must insist on proper internationally-supervised elections in many of the countries that are basically in transition to democracy. Countries that are not ready to play by the rules should be de-listed from the group of countries to receive foreign investment. African leaders that have no respect for their citizens are more likely to waste such investments as they will be unable to empower their citizens to become consumers of goods and services.

The United States needs to pay attention to the kind of subtle racism that has prevented it from recognizing the need to trade with Africa over the years well ahead of China, despite the fact that many of the African countries speak the same language as the United States. But the U.S. must avoid copying the China model of trading with any country regardless of human rights record and level of commitment of its leaders to genuine democracy.

The just concluded summit and the commitment on both sides to increase trade and investment for mutual benefit must give the United States and Africa an opportunity to pay new attention to Africans in Diaspora in the United States. There are thousands of Africans with good American education and training and with rich experience of the culture of rule of law and understanding of American business practices that can be used to add value to the new business between the two blocks. Africans in Diaspora have the added advantage of bi-cultural fluency that is needed to understand the nuances of business practice in both continents.

In short, America and Africa need to pay attention to President Obama’s statement: “Our message to those who would derail the democratic process is clear and unequivocal: the United States will not stand by when actors threaten legitimately elected government or manipulate the fairness and integrity of democratic processes….” (U.S. Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa) and to President Jonathan’s assurance that the era of election manipulation is over and his assurance to African Diaspora: “We will continue to engage your services and expertise when we can.”

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