The African leaders summit in Washington and the coverage thereof perpetuated a number of unhelpful myths about the countries that attended.
Most visibly, when Vice President Joe Biden uttered his gaffe about the “nation of Africa,” it demonstrated the compulsion to treat the continent as one undifferentiated mass. Miriem Bensalah Chaqroun, executive director of the Oulmes Water Co. and president of the Moroccan Confederation of Businesses, told me, “Perception is important. These are 54 countries and each one has specific [characteristics]. You can’t address an entire continent.” But that is precisely what Biden and President Obama did, speaking as if the same prescriptions apply everywhere.
Bensalah Chaqroun, named one of Africa’s “25 most influential women in business” by Jeune Afrique and one of the “50 most influential Africans” by the Africa Report, personifies the cutting-edge countries on the continent where women enjoy legal protections and participate in government and private industry. Elsewhere, the picture is far less rosy. Rather than address this dichotomy and stress the benefits of the former as essential components of modernization, Obama ignored the glaring contrasts and shortchanged the subject of women’s rights in his remarks. (“Human rights for all people” came at the end of a long list of concerns lumped under “governance.”)
We don’t treat “Asia” as one entity, nor do we invite “South America” for dinner at the White House. It is vaguely demeaning and certainly misguided to treat African countries any differently and to, in effect, send the message that these leaders are interchangeable.
That relates to a second problem, made worse by the outbreak of the Ebola virus. The image of an entire continent mired in poverty, tyranny, starvation and health epidemics is inaccurate and perpetuates the sense that all African countries are a burden, interested only in aid. In reality, there are growing markets and a plethora of business opportunities, which China, for example, is pursuing with gusto. Bensalah Chaqroun’s own country of Morocco is a prime example, having established three major banks, set up vocational training programs in 16 countries and developed low-income housing projects not only in Africa but as far as the Gulf states.
And finally, this sort of one-size-fits-all gathering leads to appalling moral equivalence and counterproductive symbolism. Doyle McManus points out:
The guest list featured some of Africa’s nastiest tyrants, including autocrats such as Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who traveled to Washington for the summit, which included an official dinner at the White House. . . .
That left some of Africa’s most admirable democratic presidents, such as Ghana’s John Dramani Mahama and Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete, having to compete for attention with some of its most authoritarian. Obiang, for example, who recently celebrated the 35th anniversary of the military coup that brought him to power in 1979, has jailed or killed virtually all of his political opponents. …
“It’s been enormously disappointing,” Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch told me. “Promotion of human rights and democracy is very important to this administration, but only after it gets done promoting security issues and business.”
In Egypt, Ethiopia and Nigeria, he charged, the United States has gone easy on human rights violations because it counts those governments as allies in the struggle against Islamist extremists. And throughout Africa, U.S. government funding for democracy promotion has been cut while economic aid has grown.
Rather than invite a continent, the White House would have made far more of an impact had it invited countries that are on the road to reform and that attempt to upgrade the role of women, encourage civil society, promote free-market economies and combat radicalism. There has to be some reward, if you will, for behaving in ways that benefit the countries’ own citizens and U.S. interests. Conversely, if you get the same invite regardless of whether you are a corrupt dictator or a struggling reformer, there will be less urgency to take risks and make efforts to modernize.
As for the bad actors, the message can be sent through lower levels that economic progress and good relations with the United States depend on moderation, tolerance and an end to corruption. Without these factors, economic progress will be impossible. We can lend assistance in these areas without bestowing on dictators the prestige of a presidential greeting. How demoralizing for true reformers and activists in their home countries to see tin-pot dictators feted at the White House.
For a guy who boasts that he has an emotional and familial connection to Africa, you’d think this president would understand all that.