While officials and dignitaries gathered Monday for the first day of the White House-hosted U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, leaders of nonprofits organizations, academia and other groups from Africa and the United States held an alternative conference a few blocks away at Howard University.
“We wanted to create a space where citizens and activists in human rights, climate justice, corruption, peace and conflict resolution could come to gather and propose alternative policies to official U.S. and Africa policy,” said Anita Plummer, 31, one of the organizers of the Empowered Africa summit, whose participants included Oxfam, the NAACP, the United Steelworkers and the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker peace foundation.
A professor of international affairs at Spelman College in Atlanta, Plummer became interested in African issues after spending time in Rwanda and recognizing that many of the problems there were the same ones she saw growing up in Baltimore as an African American.
With the focus of the official summit centered on economic interests, Plummer said, issues such as good governance, democracy and human rights fell to the side. In April, civil society leaders addressed an open letter to President Obama asking for a spot at the table and a chance to weigh in on issues such as economic and social justice alongside the business deals that are expected to be discussed by heads of state. After the letter, which was signed by a long list of African and U.S. groups, was sent, it was announced that a civil society forum hosted by Secretary of State John F. Kerry would be included on the first day of the conference.
Representatives from the State Department said they had plans to discuss civil society since the beginning.
“It’s a false choice — you cannot discuss economic growth without discussing human rights, corruption, and transparency,” Will Stevens, spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said in response to suggestions the summit chose economics over rights issues.
By the time they learned about Kerry’s event, Plummer and other Empowered Africa organizers had started to plan their alternative, intergenerational forum.
“I think it’s great they’re hosting an event,” Plummer said of the official civil society meeting. “But is it open? We don’t know who was invited, and there wasn’t transparency in the process. Hopefully it was meaningful and they did critically address the official policies, but we won’t know until they release their findings.”
During his remarks at the official forum, streamed online, Kerry said, “Empowered civil society was the foundation of every successful democracy here in the United States, in Africa and around the world, because in the end, our most enduring relationships, most consequential relationships, are not with one particular government at one moment in time.”
Of the dozens of participants at Howard University on Monday, some of whom flew in from Africa, many said the White House summit should have engaged ordinary citizens at a deeper level.
“We need to make sure the benefit is a two-way thing and not exploitative,” said Brenda Mofya, 39, an Oxfam policy adviser who works in the liaison office with the African Union. “It needs to be a dialogue of peers, and people need to admit they’re not pure and address issues of equality.”
Mofya said she would wait to see the results of the Obama-led talks, noting that African leaders had been summoned to similar conferences in countries such as China and India in the past but that the leaders of the host nations rarely made their way to meetings they’d been invited to in Africa. Mofya came from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and spoke on panels throughout the day. Panels addressed subjects such as how to make dialogue between Africa and the United States inclusive, rising inequality and corruption, trade unions’ role in democracy, and climate change’s effects on social justice.
The event’s theme of challenging the official summit’s agenda seemed to resonate with some African immigrants in the city.
Alam Geye, 35, of the District, was at work Monday driving a taxi, but he planned to participate in a protest Wednesday calling on heads of state to put good governance first.
“Most African leaders are corrupt. They care about themselves and their power, not their people,” he said. “The U.S. is hosting the summit, and I’m Ethiopian American and I don’t support it at all. They’re doing bad things in Africa. Why is [the U.S.] doing business with them?”
Geye, who moved to the United States more than 13 years ago, said that although the official summit might increase awareness of African issues, he wanted to see a more democratic, “people not leaders” approach.
At both the official and alternative conferences were representatives from the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union in Harbel, Liberia, a city whose name is derived from the names of the founder of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. and his wife.
“We’re of the conviction that they’re not aware here of what it is like to be a worker in Africa with so few workers’ rights when it’s so hard to organize,” said Abel Ngigle, 42, one of the union’s founders. Ngigle, who said he and fellow union members wanted to spread their message to those in charge abroad, said he was optimistic about both summits.
Mofya said that a genuine dialogue required the United States to be seen as upholding standards of equality, while recognizing its own difficulties with economic and social inequality.
“What’s compelling is that we’ve seen the challenges that the U.S. is facing, and they’re the same problems we have been experiencing in Africa for some time,” she said. “It’s not always what does the U.S. have to teach Africa — sometimes it’s what they can learn from Africa.”