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US-Africa summit: Obama curtails Chinese diplomacy?

By Staff Reporter

A young South African raps for US President Barack Obama during a tour of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Centre in Cape Town, South Africa - 30 June 2013

As President Barack Obama hosts the first-ever US Africa summit, which has seen invitations being issued to 50 African leaders, BBC Africa’s Alexis Akwagyiram considers what the US hopes to achieve from the gathering.

Micheal Kimbi Tchenga is excited about the future.

The young civil servant from Limbe, in Cameroon, is in Washington for an address by President Obama.

At some point, we have to stop looking somewhere else for solutions, and you have to start looking for solutions, internally”

Barack ObamaUS president

Mr Tchenga, who has spent the last few months in the US participating in a fellowship programme aimed at nurturing the next generation of African leaders, is in a reflective mood.

“When we came here we discovered that the perception people had of Africa was one of a dark place – a jungle where people are at war and diseases decimate people living in shacks,” he says.

“We’ve had to challenge those views. We are educated and we have good stories that aren’t being told by the Western media.

“Through this opportunity, we’ve been able to showcase those stories and demonstrate that Africa has a voice.”

Mr Tchenga is one of 500 young African students and activists that Mr Obama addressed just days before most of the continent’s leaders descended on the US capital for a three-day summit organised under the theme of “investing in the next generation”.

The US president will hope that his enthusiasm is shared by the continent’s leaders.Those attending the Young African Leaders Initiative have new skills to take home

The summit has been expected since President Obama promised to convene it during his three-country Africa tour last year, when he visited Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa.

During his address to the African youth activists in Washington, the US president said: “The security and prosperity and justice that we seek in the world cannot be achieved without a strong and prosperous and self-reliant Africa.”

US President Barack Obama speaks during a town hall meeting at the Summit of the Washington Fellowship for the Young African Leaders Initiative (Yali) in Washington DC on 28 July 2014
President Obama launched the Young African Leaders Initiative (Yali) last year
Participants cheer as US President Barack Obama participates at the Summit of the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, 28 July 2014
The scheme has allowed 500 young African leaders to broaden their skills in their fields of expertise

He said it was time for African leaders to seek their own solutions to the continent’s problems.

“There is no doubt that, dating back to the colonial era, you can trace many of the problems that have plagued the continent,” he said, pointing to how borders were drawn up and resources have been extracted.

“But at some point, we have to stop looking somewhere else for solutions, and you have to start looking for solutions, internally. And as powerful as history is, and you need to know that history, at some point you have to look to the future and say, ‘OK, we didn’t get a good deal then, but let’s make sure that we’re not making excuses for not going forward.'”

Fast-growing economies

Mr Obama said the US-Africa summit was set to be a “truly historic event” since it would be “the largest gathering any American president has hosted with African heads of state and government”.

Fifty heads of state have been invited, as well as the head of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.


Who was not invited?


Most are likely to attend, although the presidents of Sierra Leone and Liberia have decided to stay at home to co-ordinate their respective efforts against the Ebola outbreak which has claimed more than 700 lives across West Africa.

The US administration has been keen to focus the summit on trade and investment.

With the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasting that the economies of sub-Saharan Africa will grow at an average of 5.4% this year and 5.8% in 2015 – faster than the global average – the appeal in reaching out to the continent’s leaders is clear.

Nigerian soldiers in Borno state - April 2013
The US works has been working closely with Nigeria to combat its Islamist insurgency

US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker has said as much as $900m (£534m) worth of deals between American companies and African nations are expected to be formally announced during the summit.

The response from African nations in the build-up to the talks has been mixed.

The Standard, one of Kenya’s leading dailies, says the US administration has billed the meeting as “a historic opportunity to promote its own Africa initiatives, identify trade partners and foster much-needed counter-terrorism co-operation across the continent”.

But there have been some detractors.

Critics have focused on the lack of one-to-one meetings between the US president and his African counterparts.

And the invitation of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has attracted the ire of gay rights activists after he signed a law earlier this year imposing tough penalties against homosexuality – legislation which has just been annulled by the country’s Constitutional Court on a technicality.



Kenyans holds up the US flag as they celebrate after the inauguration of US president Barack Obama's on 20 January 2009 in Kisumu, Kenya

It is incredible that this is the first ever US-Africa summit. Many countries have been working closely with the US in the fight against global terrorism – particularly Kenya and Nigeria.

However, the US is keen to focus its attention on trade and investment during this summit. In that respect, we have not seen a proactive push by US companies into Africa. That gap is being filled by China, which has been pulling away from the US in recent years.

This summit is a move in the right direction – although a stronger message would have been sent if it had taken place on African soil. It is a fantastic opportunity to build closer relations.

However, the time is too short for detailed talks between President Obama and his various counterparts on an individual basis. As a consequence, the summit is unlikely to lead to meaningful changes. Many African leaders prefer to deal with China for one simple reason: Respect. They will be looking for respect from Mr Obama – a US president who is unprecedented in having an African parent.

The lasting impact of this summit will, to some extent, rely on whether President Obama gives them what they want.

Meanwhile, the exclusion of some countries has also prompted barbed comments from some quarters.

‘Afraid of China’

There have been reports that some nations would boycott the summit in solidarity with Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, who is currently the deputy chairman of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and vice-president of the African Union.

Zimbabwe’s Information Minister Jonathan Moyo dismissed the lack of an invitation as a “non-issue”.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace pictured at an event in Harare in June, 2014The fact that Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe was not invited has upset some

“We understand this to be America pursuing its interests, afraid that China has made headway,” he told the country’s state-owned Herald newspaper.

Many observers have alluded to China’s growing influence in Africa which has seen it surpass the US in trade with the continent.

China’s current annual trade volume with Africa stands at $200bn, as opposed to $85bn for the US, according to United States Census Bureau figures.

Despite being the world’s largest economy, the US is still only Africa’s third largest trade partner.

It lags behind the European Union and China.

A recent editorial in South Africa’s Business Day newspaper argued that“the US government was running the risk of missing the African bus”.

“China is already far ahead if trade volumes and infrastructure contracts are the main yardstick,” it said

US President Barack Obama points to a rice crop before it is processed as he visits a food security expo in Dakar 28 June 2013Last year President Obama visited Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa

China, Japan, India and Europe have had Africa summits – a trend started by China in 2001.

The first African-American president of the US – the son of a Kenyan man and US woman – has sometimes been accused of neglecting relations with the continent.

Aside from the 2013 tour, he has made only two trips to sub-Saharan Africa during his presidency: One brief stopover in Ghana, in July 2009, and a visit to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral.

Some sceptics argue that the Washington gathering will prove to be more of a public relations exercise than a policymaking initiative.

Mr Obama will hope to prove them wrong.

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