What ordinary Africans might want prioritized during U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit


President Obama participates in a joint news conference with President Macky Sall of Senegal at the Presidential Palace in Dakar, Senegal, on June 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Monday marks the official start of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the first event of its kind. The White House outlines what President Obama and his advisers hope the summit will cover:

Discussions will center on how to encourage progress in key areas that Africans define as critical for the future of the continent: expanding trade and investment ties, engaging young African leaders, promoting inclusive sustainable development, expanding cooperation on peace and security, and gaining a better future for Africa’s next generation.

Who is coming?

Most African heads of state will be in attendance. Important exceptions are the leaders of Liberia and Sierra Leone, who have said they’ll skip the summit so they can devote their attention to the Ebola outbreak in their countries. (Guinean President Alpha Condé is expected to attend.)

Also absent will be those leaders who weren’t invited, including a few notorious autocrats: Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea. But as Jeffrey Smith and Todd Moss point out in an op-ed for Al Jazeera America, being a long-standing dictatorial ruler does not necessarily exclude you from the invite list. Below is a table of African leaders invited to attend the summit, sorted by their country’s most recent Polity IV scores, measures that some political scientists rely on to characterize how democratic or autocratic a state is. (Countries scored as “democracies” were excluded for brevity.)


Data: White House and Polity IV. Table: Erin McDaniel/The Monkey Cage

Will the people’s interests be represented?

Since the summit was announced, there have been calls to broaden the agenda. Non-governmental organizations lamented that civil society leaders weren’t originally part of the event. Analysts and activists have called for expanding discussion to include human rights and democratization issues.

Given the number of leaders expected to attend who govern countries not rated by Polity IV as “democracies,” we might expect that few of the attendees will actively represent their citizens’ interests during the summit. Political scientist and executive director of the Afrobarometer E. Gyimah-Boadi implored that the U.S.-Africa Summit “listen to voices of the people.” The problem is, the people have a lot to say – even if we limit ourselves to only that which we’d find in the cross-national survey data collected by the Afrobarometer.

Data: Afrobarometer Round 5. Table: Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage
Data: Afrobarometer Round 5. Table: Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage

If we narrow the topic to priorities – those pressing issues that ordinary citizens think are the most important for government to address – the table to the right lists the top 10 issues from the 34 countries surveyed by the Afrobarometer between 2011 and 2012.

However, citizens’ priorities vary a good deal by country. For example, whereas the top three issues mentioned as deserving of attention in Uganda were health, taxes and infrastructure/roads, in Cameroon, it was unemployment, corruption and water supply. Correspondingly, if we expect African leaders to represent their citizens’ interests, each of them will have a different set of priorities to discuss at the summit.

But will leaders of countries without strong democratic institutions represent their citizens’ interests?

First, let’s not forget who is in the driver’s seat: Obama called the summit and the United States will be pushing its own agenda. But second, why should we expect leaders of countries failing to rate as democracies to engage in representation of citizens’ interests? In places where citizens can’t hold politicians accountable (e.g., where office tenure is for life), there is little to motivate rulers to act according to the wishes of their citizens.


How familiar are you with Africa’s geography?

If one wants to learn the priorities and opinions of ordinary people, the Afrobarometer and studies like it can be useful tools. But the Afrobarometer is limited in a meaningful way. Of the 15 African countries with the lowest Polity IV rankings (Swaziland to Uganda in the table above), only seven have ever been included in the Afrobarometer. As a comparison, all but one African country rated as a democracy by Polity IV (Comoros) has been included in Afrobarometer data collection. Autocratic countries are less likely to be covered by the Afrobarometer, meaning we will know less about the opinions and priorities of ordinary citizens in autocratic countries – the very countries we expect will have rulers less likely to represent citizens’ interests.

Kim Yi Dionne is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.
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