The first US-Africa Leaders Summit is about to wrap up and it turns out there were a few other things to talk about, as well as some really good cappuccino cake and Lionel Richie to help make the night be a memorable one. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes another look.
For the early part of the summit there was a tight focus on very tangible economic issues part of the US – Africa relationship such as the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act and a big push for new American investment and trade deals. On the final day of the summit, attention at the US-Africa Leaders Summit turned to a second agenda of issues.
On Tuesday, Obama had announced some $33 billion in total American commitments that spoke to growing financial ties with Africa. Rather than simply government transfers, over half of these promises came directly from the private sector, including big companies like Coca-Cola Company and General Electric. As GE’s CEO, Jeff Immelt, said when his company’s deals were announced, “We gave it to the Europeans first and to the Chinese later, but today it’s wide open for us.” Highlighting the push for direct business-to-business tie-ups between Africa and America, another one of the deals announced on Tuesday was a $5 billion partnership between US private-equity firm Blackstone and Nigerian magnate Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest businessman, for a wide range of energy infrastructure projects in sub-Saharan Africa.
Speaking about these various deals, Obama had made the case that these new investments are a mutually beneficial effort, rather than a one-way gift. Or as the president said, “Up to tens of thousands of American jobs are supported every time we expand trade with Africa. As critical as all these investments are, the key to unlocking the next era of African growth is not going to be here in the US, it is going to be in Africa.”
Then on Wednesday, Barack Obama and this posse of African leaders turned their attentions to two problems that continue to plague economic growth on the continent – security and government corruption. Despite efforts to make trade and investment a key focus of the meetings, his senior officials – like so many analysts and commentators – have also acknowledged security issues and governance challenges remain restraints on Africa’s potential growth.
In reporting on these Wednesday meetings, the Financial Times noted, “The summit has provided an opportunity for US companies and officials to showcase the role American capital and knowhow can play in helping create job opportunities though investment in Africa on both sides of the Atlantic. But the rising tide of Islamic extremism on the continent – and the damage this is inflicting on states such as Nigeria and Kenya, which have been at the forefront of a continental economic boom – is a concern for Washington. ‘We have the opportunity to deepen our security co-operation against common threats,’ Mr Obama said in opening remarks on Wednesday.
“The US president added that Washington wanted to support African countries to boost their own domestic capabilities. ‘African security forces and African peacekeepers are in the lead across the continent…And today, we can focus on how we can continue to strengthen Africa’s capacity to meet transitional threats.’ Combating Islamist militant groups, including al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria, is perhaps Washington’s biggest priority in the region. Ahead of the summit, Ben Rhodes, US deputy national security adviser, said the White House was ‘concerned about efforts by terrorist groups to gain a foothold in Africa’, adding: ‘International terrorist networks sometimes seek to take advantage of ungoverned spaces [in Africa] so that they can get a safe haven.’ ”
In his Wednesday opening remarks, Barack Obama added that security discussions would centre on how to enable African governments to boost their own peacekeeping and counterterrorism capabilities, as the continent moves away from the requirement for costly, more problematic peacekeeping and peacemaking interventions from nations beyond the region. As Obama said, “African security forces and African peacekeepers are in the lead across the continent…And today, we can focus on how we can continue to strengthen Africa’s capacity to meet transitional threats.”
A second thematic area was a focus on the requisites of good governance and transparency – this in support of American assertions that both themes are crucial preconditions for economic growth. Making that latter case, Obama called the anger that comes from lack of opportunity a recruitment tool for extremists. “They’re just as content to see corruption and oligarchy and kleptocracy and resource exploitation fill the vacuum. Because…that’s another way that they can seize on the frustration and exploit the sense of lack of opportunity and violation that is the anger of so many people.” Tying such concerns to foreign investment in Africa, Obama had earlier commented at the business forum part of this event, “Capital is one thing. Rule of law, regulatory reform, good governance? Those things matter even more because investors want to be able to do business without paying a bribe or hiring somebody’s cousin.”
In his Wednesday comments, Obama also made reference (how could he not have, of course) to the growing Ebola virus crisis now affecting three West African nations, with Obama noting the presidents of both Liberia and Sierra Leone had stayed home to deal with the crisis.
In the meantime, together with former first lady Laura Bush, current first lady Michelle Obama hosted a spouses’ event that focused on education and health issues in the African context, particularly related to girls and women’s circumstances. Included in this meeting was former President George W Bush, a president who, despite any other events he was responsible for, is inextricably linked to the PEPFAR program designed to work with badly affected nations to combat the scourge of HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa.
As the New York Times reported on Bush’s participation, “The former president used the occasion to promote a new chapter in the battle with AIDS, saying at this stage the effort can be focused with better data, better treatment options and better prevention approaches to ‘reach and help the highest-risk regions and groups.’ He also urged African leaders to avoid discrimination that makes public health efforts harder, although he did not specifically mention laws like the one overturned by a court in Uganda last week criminalizing homosexuality.”
The Times report went on to say, “ ‘Applied with clear goals and accountability, this saturation approach presents an amazing opportunity – the beginning of the end of AIDS,’ Mr. Bush told the gathering, held at the Kennedy Center [the capital city’s cultural centre]. ‘It also requires something from the rest of us. It is impossible to direct help where it is needed most when any group is targeted for legal discrimination and stigma. Compassion and tolerance are important medicines.’ ”
By convening this unprecedented (for America, at least) summit, Barack Obama seems to have caught something of a break, if initial social media and print media coverage in Africa of this event is anything to go by – and if this coverage similarly reflects a broader appreciation by African populations of this event. For example, Kenya’s Daily Nation ran its coverage of the meeting under a banner that said “charm offensive”. Meanwhile, from among the business community, the Standard Bank Group’s chief economist Goolam Ballim stated his hopes that, now, with the Obama administration’s – and America’s – late arrival on the scene of a rapidly growing Africa, the US will successfully play catch-up in bringing its “commercial and industrial excellence” to bear on opportunities in Africa.
On Tuesday night, the Obama’s had hosted a dinner for the entire contingent of African leaders, as well as a passel of American and African entertainers, business figures and other celebrities. At the dinner, Obama had said, “I stand before you as the president of the United States and a proud American. I also stand before you as the son of a man from Africa… [and] the bonds between our countries, our continents, are deeply personal”. Guests invited to the bash included politicians such as former President Jimmy Carter, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg (a sponsor of a US-Africa business forum where Obama spoke earlier Tuesday); actors Chiwetel Ejiofor (star of “12 Years a Slave,”) and Robert De Niro; and sports figures NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and Meb Keflezighi, the Eritrean-born American winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon.
The gathering sat at tables under a specially erected giant marque tent on the White House grounds, there to enjoy a meal of chilled, spiced tomato soup with socca crisps (an unleavened flatbread made of chickpea flour, just in case readers were wondering); farmstand vegetable salad with pumpkinseed vinaigrette dressing; grilled, dry-aged beef with chermoula and crispy plantains, summer greens and sweet potatoes; followed by cappuccino fudge cake, served with Madagascar vanilla-scented papaya and caramel sauce. All of this was washed down by several prize-winning American wines – a sauvignon blanc and a pinot noir – and a sparkling one to round things off with that killer dessert. And then everyone had a really fine time listening to a performance by music legend Lionel Richie – before they went back to their hotels and residences and off to bed.
Then it must be back home for all of the visiting leaders so they can try to factor in this new American initiative into Africa with the already-major presence of China on the continent. While no one in Washington will say so directly, preferring phraseology such that there is room for everyone to be engaged in Africa’s growth trajectory, much of this party has been designed precisely to readdress that US-China balance and to put America’s business’ boots back on the ground in Africa – with a real vengeance. DM
Photo: (R-L) Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Djbouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh, South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit, and other African leaders listen to U.S. President Barack Obama deliver closing remarks during the U.S.-Africa Business Forum at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, DC, USA, 05 August 2014. Obama is promoting business relationships between the United States and African countries during the three-day U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, where 49 heads of state are meeting in Washington. EPA/Chip Somodevilla