Nearly 50 African heads of state and government will gather this week for an unprecedented meeting in Washington that holds the prospect of reframing the continent’s image, from one defined by conflict and disease to one ripe with economic promise.
The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit — which will mark the first time an American president will convene Africa’s leaders at one conference — faces major hurdles, including the ongoing distraction of conflicts elsewhere and domestic budget constraints. Obama administration officials have deliberately played down their expectations, saying the event will not conclude with the sort of flashy financial commitments that Chinese leaders have announced at African summits in Beijing.
Instead, the meeting will focus largely on the economic potential that Africa offers the United States — provided that the two can solve ongoing problems around electricity supply, agriculture, security threats and democratic governance. It could allow President Obama to establish a broader legacy in Africa.
“We want to do business with those folks,” Obama said Friday at a news conference, noting that the United States is no longer providing aid only to countries on the continent to stave off malnutrition and the spread of HIV/AIDS. “And we think that we can create U.S. jobs and send U.S. exports to Africa. But we’ve got to be engaged, and so this gives us a chance to do that.”
Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on African affairs, noted that the United States still has strong ties based on years of development assistance.
“I think history will show Africa is the continent of the greatest opportunity this century,” he said. “We have a moment that is passing us by, and we should build on these relationships.”
The event “is not a donor conference,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary of state for African affairs. In fact, it’s a sprawling networking affair that will bring together foreign dignitaries, American and African chief executives, policymakers and activists for several days of business deals and panel discussions, as well as private dinners and at least one dance party.
There are close to 100 side events, on top of a three-day formal conference that includes one day devoted to business issues. Another day will cover more traditional development issues, including food security, health, women’s empowerment and wildlife trafficking.
Although the recent Ebola virus outbreak in Africa is not specifically on the agenda, Gayle Smith, the National Security Council’s director for development and democracy, said, “We will obviously adapt as needed and in consultation with our partners, depending on their requirements.”
The presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone — two of three nations experiencing the outbreak — have canceled their plans to attend the conference.
The less-formal nature of the gathering — especially compared with ones in countries such as Japan, where the prime minister sits down with each visiting head of state — has raised concern in some quarters. Some African leaders were surprised when they learned that they would not deliver individual speeches, and Obama has opted for large group discussions rather than one-on-one meetings.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) said in an interview that although he recognizes the problem of favoring some politicians over others, the administration risks offending “some of our allied partners” by not providing private audiences with the president.
But Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters that given the number of leaders coming to town, “the simplest thing is for the president to devote his time to engaging broadly with all the leaders. That way we’re not singling out individuals at the expense of the other leaders.”
State Department officials have been scrambling to prepare for the event. The department’s first-floor bathrooms are being renovated ahead of the conference, and a breakdown in its computer system has delayed the issuance of visas for some delegations.
Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who will lead the business segment along with former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), is slated to announce new deals between the United States and Africa totaling $1 billion. Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), who will co-host a reception at the Capitol on Monday night and will hold a second networking event with more than 100 chief executives and senior U.S. trade officials Wednesday, said his goal is “to have some real deals that are cut” before Wednesday is over.
Jennifer G. Cooke, who directs the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa program, said the larger question facing the administration is to what extent the summit can deliver results. “There will certainly be some leaders who walk away and say, ‘What was that all about?’ ” she said.
Obama’s two immediate predecessors had a single policy achievement that defined their approach to the region. In the case of Bill Clinton, it was the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which reduced some trade barriers between the two partners. For George W. Bush, it was the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The administration has continued those two programs while beginning initiatives to promote food security, electrification, training for young leaders and regional trade between African nations.
As the son of a Kenyan father, Obama faced high expectations from Africans and specialists in the region when he became president. His friends and foes say he disappointed many Africans in his first term when he focused largely on the struggling U.S. economy and on passing a far-reaching health-care law.
“Today the consensus among those same people is that he missed the mark,” Royce said, adding that Obama has not moved swiftly enough to address instability in places such as Sudan or terrorist threats such as Boko Haram. “The president’s approach to Africa has been more reactive than proactive.”
But even Royce said Obama has elevated the issue in his second term, and administration officials and several outside experts said the president and his top deputies want to foster closer ties with Africa at a time when many other countries — including China — are increasingly focused on the continent. The United States still invests more in Africa than any other country, but trade between China and Africa has now surpassed that of the United States and the continent. The European Union, Brazil and others are watching a region that boasted six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies in the past decade.
“Africa also has strong ties with other regions and nations, but America’s engagement with Africa is fundamentally different,” national security adviser Susan E. Rice said at the U.S. Institute for Peace. “We don’t see Africa as a pipeline to extract vital resources, nor as a funnel for charity. The continent is a dynamic region of boundless possibility.”
Business leaders are intensely focused on the summit. The chief executives of Coca-Cola, General Electric and other major firms will be in town, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is hosting 11 heads of state at seven events. One is a banquet dinner at the Grand Hyatt hotel honoring Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan; another is a much smaller dinner at the Chamber’s headquarters with the Ivory Coast’s president, Alassane Ouattara.
Scott Eisner, the Chamber’s vice president of African affairs, said he and others had been pressing the administration to hold such a summit for years, because “if you want to get CEOs to pay attention, you need to have your commander in chief leading the charge.”
Human rights groups have questioned why the administration is not integrating members of civil society more fully into the sessions involving African leaders, given that about a dozen African nations have moved in recent years to crack down on dissent and minority groups, including gays. Separate sessions on civil society will take place Monday, while 500 young African leaders meet with Obama.
Sarah Margon, Human Rights Watch’s Washington director, said the fact that African activists will not have a chance to speak directly when the leaders are gathered together “really contradicts the administration’s rhetorical commitment to civil society, independent voices and independent media throughout the continent.”
Thomas-Greenfield said organizers decided to keep the activists on a separate program because “the actual summit is a summit between leaders,” but she added, “We want to have frank discussions with those leaders on the issues that civil society brings to the table.”
Only a handful of heads of state — from the Central African Republic, Eritrea, Sudan and Zimbabwe — were not invited to the summit, and Margon noted that leaders such as Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang would be feted by corporate groups even though his administration has faced serious corruption and human rights charges during his nearly 35 years in power.
“Then they’ve made the circuit, they’ve made new friends, and they don’t have to answer any questions about their blemished records,” she said.
And even as there is growing corporate interest in Africa, the continent still faces huge economic challenges. More than 70 percent of Africans do not have reliable access to electricity: Obama has pledged $7 billion in federal assistance and loan guarantees through his Power Africa program and the private sector has matched that with $14 billion, but a House-passed bill to make the program permanent has not made it through the Senate.
Amadou Sy, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative, noted that the gross domestic product for all of Kenya is smaller than the size of the economy in Madison, Wis., while the amount of electricity used on game night at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium is equal to that consumed nationwide in Liberia.
Still, there are signs of a change even when it comes to the push for development. Three decades ago, Western pop stars recorded “We Are the World” to raise money in response to the Ethiopian famine; recently the ONE campaign helped gather 2.2 million signatures from Africans urging more investment in agriculture, in part through the song “Cocoa na Chocolate,” which featured only African musicians.
Sipho Moyo, ONE’s Africa director, said this shift “does mean that Africans, and African leaders, become more responsible for the health challenges, the education challenges and the development challenges.”
Perhaps Obama, she added, “will be remembered as the president who changed the narrative about how we view Africa.”