U.S.-Africa Summit: No Magic Wand in Washington!

By IndepthAfrica
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Aug 7th, 2014
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- Olusegun Adeniyi

Ever since I arrived Washington DC last Thursday, I have lost my identity as a Nigerian to a country that does not exist: Africa! While it is no secret that most Americans are ignorant about our continent and its makeup, the situation has not been helped by the first U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit which ended yesterday.

Aside the nonagenarian dictator of Zimbabwe, Mr. Robert Mugabe, who is bad news in Western Capitals and had to be kept out, three other African leaders were also not invited: Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki and the Central African Republic’s President Catherine Samba-Panza. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and her Sierra Leonean counterpart, Mr Ernest Bai Koroma cancelled their trips as a result of Ebola outbreak in their countries and it was just as well given the hysteria about the disease here in Washington in the last one week. All the other leaders, including our own President Goodluck Jonathan and South African President Jacob Zuma were in town.

That African leaders would all agree to come to America at the invitation (the word being frequently used is summon) of President Barack Obama has, quite naturally, hurt the feelings of some critical stakeholders within the continent who consider the whole idea demeaning. But against the background that China, Japan, India and even Turkey (yes, Turkey) have all had this sort of interactions with leaders from our continent, also at their instances and in their countries, I wonder why anybody would take offence at the first US African-American President inviting leaders from Africa for some homilies on good governance.

Interestingly, whether by accident or design the opening of the Summit on Monday coincided with the 53rd birthday of President Obama though I am not sure any of the African leaders was aware or perhaps had the presence of mind to bring him a birthday card from home. And this time, Muammar Ghadafi, the man who used to call himself Obama’s “father”, was no longer around to add some drama to the occasion in the way only him knew how.

At his press conference on the eve of the summit last weekend, President Obama made it clear that he was not inviting African leaders for a free meal in Washington, describing the continent as strategic to the economic calculations of the United States. “You’ve got six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in Africa. You have all sorts of other countries like China and Brazil and India deeply interested in working with Africa—not to extract natural resources alone, which traditionally has been the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world—but now because Africa is growing and you’ve got thriving markets and you’ve got entrepreneurs and extraordinary talent among the people there”, said Obama.

Africa, according to Obama, also happens to be one of the continents where America is most popular while hinting that the forum would provide an opportunity to tell their leaders some hard truths about security, in the long-term interest of America: “It (the summit) also gives us a chance to talk to Africa about security issues — because, as we’ve seen, terrorist networks try to find places where governance is weak and security structures are weak. And if we want to keep ourselves safe over the long term, then one of the things that we can do is make sure that we are partnering with some countries that really have pretty effective security forces and have been deploying themselves in peacekeeping and conflict resolution efforts in Africa. And that, ultimately, can save us and our troops and our military a lot of money if we’ve got strong partners who are able to deal with conflicts in these regions.”

So, whichever way one looks at it, Obama did not conceive the idea just because, as he said at the dinner in the White House on Tuesday night, the blood of Africa runs in his family “as the son of a man from Africa” but rather to further the economic and security interests of the United States. Even at that, I believe the Summit was worthwhile, all factors considered; at least to the extent that African leaders would know now that there is no solution in Washington, or any other place for that matter, for the problems that plague our continent. Our salvation is in our own hands to build a future envisioned by Obama as one “without war or injustice, without poverty or disease.”

Indeed, the merit of the summit stems from the fact that for years, African countries have asked the world to deal with them on the basis of partnerships in which emphasis would be on trade rather than aid. That was the spirit behind the Washington summit though the message should also not be lost on our leaders that there are impediments to such partnerships and these impediments were well highlighted by the Obama administration in most of the engagements.

The tone was set by the Secretary of State, Mr John Kerry, who noted that fighting corruption is essential for the promotion of “economic growth that is shared by all Africans,” even as he added: “I will say to you fighting corruption is a definitive, critical part of that process. To do so will take courage, and yes, it sometimes means assuming risks. But fighting corruption lifts more than a country’s balance sheet. Transparency and accountability attract greater investment.”

Apparently assuming that the African leaders may not have gotten the message, Kerry decided to elaborate: “Transparency and accountability create a more competitive marketplace, one where ideas and products are judged by the market and by their merits, and not by a backroom deal or a bribe. The market always works better with transparency, with the sunshine of accountability. That is an environment where innovators and entrepreneurs can flourish, and I guarantee you it is an environment where capital makes a decision to move according to its sense of security and its sense of risk.”

However, African leaders did not have to come to Washington to realize the enormity of the challenges confronting the continent and the failings of those in authorities. In his lecture at the 5th Thabo Mbeki Foundation Africa Day in Johannesburg in May this year, former AU Secretary General, Dr. Salim Ahmed Salim, after assessing the post-colonial promise of most African countries, concluded that “at a certain juncture of the past few decades; we seem to have lost that compass, with all its attendant implications.”

According to Salim, there are soul-searching questions which African leaders need to ask themselves and they include: “Why is it that a continent, which is one of the richest if not the richest in terms of resources both human and material, continues to have the poorest people? How can we rationally explain the continued and in some cases escalating internal conflicts in some parts of our continent with attendant loss of millions of lives, human misery and destruction as well as forcing millions of our people to vote with their feet? How do we erase the image of a continent where corruption is considered endemic? How do we sustain and better utilize the current decade old achievements of economic growth into a shared prosperity for all?”

These no doubt are questions that confront African leaders and jumping from one world capital to another would offer no solution while time seems to be running out for our people. For instance, available statistics indicates that Africa has the youngest population in the world with people between the age of 15 and 24 accounting for about 200 million while the working age population is growing so exponentially that by the year 2040, it is projected that we could be looking at a population of a billion people who are active in the job market.

It is within the context of such potentially disruptive demographics, which could also be a blessing that Salim argues that “it is imperative to ensure that policies and actions, which constitute the agenda of the future, make effective use of this dynamic. Quite often this is considered as the time bomb but it is a time bomb if we do not make use of it positively. Hence we must invest whatever is necessary to ensure we effectively nurture and utilize this comparative advantage we hold not only to our greater success in the struggles for equitable prosperity but also for our survival from potential conflicts.”

In his intervention at the session on climate change impinge on food security organised by the World Bank on Monday, Kerry quoted the famous refrain of the late Nobel Laureate, Norman Borlang that “you can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.” While expressing optimism that Africa can be the marketplace of the future because of its huge resources and human capacity, Kerry nonetheless added that “the questions Africa faces are similar to those confronting countries all over the world: Is there the political will, the sense of common purpose to address challenges? Are we all prepared together to make the hard choices that those challenges require?”

I hope African leaders will ponder over those questions as they go back home after what many would consider another jamboree in Washington.

Written by Olusegun Adeniyi

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