From the 4th – 6th August 2014, President Obama hosts 48 African Heads of State, diplomats, lobbyists and investors in Washington for the first US-Africa Leaders’ Summit. What does this mean and why now? The aim is said to discuss ways to improve civil society forum, investing in women, peace, and prosperity, investing in health: investing in Africa’s future, resilience and food security in a changing climate, combating wildlife trafficking. Do you need a summit for these issues? The significance of this summit is that it’s the first ever held hosted by the first ever black American president. Your blogger does not see the need for this summit.
On face value, the summit is presented as an economic summit but it’s not. America has dealt with Africa from a humanitarian and security lens, and it will continue to do so. The problem with this summit is that it has nothing to do with economics but with aid and more aid. Although, the economic foundations are not there for there to be a US – Africa link, the continent is too divided for there to be a collective Africa economic approach, caused by the lack of infrastructure for interconnectivity between and within countries. Besides aid has its limitations and the US don’t have the appetite to pump money into the continent.
President G.W Bush has been the most proactively involved United States president on the continent. He can be credited with the debt relief to many African countries and US aid during his presidency was instrumental in the eradication of polio, the spread of HIV and malaria. No American president can match this record on the continent. President Clinton waited for up to a million people to die in Rwanda before there was any form of intervention in the civil war. President Nixon and Reagan were too occupied in the cold war politics; propping up dictators was more important.
The story of Africa has been pathetic. In the early 1960s, newly independent African nations were the toast and hope of the black world. Civil rights activists in the Americas courted countries like Nigeria and Ghana. JFK accorded state visits to African leaders in an effort to boost the hope of the actualisation of black people all over the world. Many black intellectuals in the Americas and the Caribbean flocked to Africa to be part of the so called African renaissance. African Americans began adopting popular African names as a form of endearment. In the thick of the civil rights struggle, there was talk of African Americans getting their homeland; many hoped of moving back to Africa and many moved.
Sadly, following independence, there were coups and counter coups; civil wars and genocides. Africa lost its fervour. The continent was used as a pawn in the cold war between the West and the East. Although many African countries claimed to be non-aligned, they played the East and the West against themselves. Successful western powers, most notable America propped up dictators all over the continent: many of them regarded as friendly dictators. These dictators looted their countries silly. Corruption and lawlessness was the order of the day. The continent became the hopeless continent, rife with war and disease.
So why has it taken Obama so long to focus on Africa? Why does President Obama feel it’s the right time to engage with Africa after almost six years in office? When China, Japan, India and Malaysia have found inroads into the continent. In fact, China hosted its first Africa summit 14 years ago – four more have followed after that. Trade between the United States and the entire African continent is smaller between trade between the US and any European country. In fact, the US doesn’t want trade with Africa. President Obama has suggested African trade should be focused within the continent.
Yet, you also have to feel sorry for Obama, his personality and identity cannot be separated from his presidency. He got a lot of hassle from his opponents for having a Kenyan father, who was a Muslim. He then sought to politically distance himself from that identity to be that all American who was black. He was also preoccupied winding down foreign wars and rebuilding America’s broken economy. He then paid lip service to issues in Africa. However doing more with regards to Africa wouldn’t have gotten him too much hassle.
Many who had lauded his entry into the White House feel disappointed. President Obama has barely travelled to Africa. He has visited just 5 countries in 2 trips in his last 6 years in office compared to 16 in Europe, 13 in Asia, 8 in the Americas and 7 in the Middle East. In his first term in office, his only visit lasted less than 24hours in a one-stop trip to Ghana. Now, what this summit shows is that the continent, long ignored in Washington is finally in the spotlight.
President Obama’s African policy has been a very dull and summits do not make it any more interesting. On the whole, his foreign policy makes him come across as aloof at best. His critics say he won’t defend his friends nor will he fight his enemies. Being the first black President, having a Kenyan father and family does not make him responsible for the development of Africa. However, if he feels that he has to take responsibility for issues on the continent, he should do so not because he is the first African American or black president but because he is the American president. Even if he harbours those tribal sentiments, he simply needs to surpass the achievements of his predecessor.
As things stand, he’s about to go down in history as the first American president to have no impact whatsoever in Africa. That will be a first.