The first US and Africa Summit that took place recently in Washington, DC was the largest gathering of African leaders in the U.S. As if catching up with a train that has long left the station, the US/Africa Summit came against the background of formidable round tables like Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC), Tokoyo International Conference on Africa (TICAD), India/Africa Summit, Turkey-Africa Summit, Korea/Africa Summit and even the recently launched Arab/Africa Summit that held in Kuwait. And there was also the European Union-Africa Summit, which sometimes, gets bogged down by political squabble, especially when Brussels wants to decide which African leader to attend.
Coming on the heels of the well-established forums for co-operation with Africa, especially the most thriving one with China, the US/Africa Summit has led many to ask whether the US is actually taking its African policy to a new level of institutional engagement or just catching up with a trend that seems to sit well with African leaders, notoriously wedded to international circuit diplomacy. Or is Barack Obama, the first US African-American president, simply making a symbolic gesture of solidarity with his ancestral land, where emotions flowed freely at his historic election. The attitude of the next US administration to that first summit will most likely indicate whether the Washington gathering was merely an Obama show.
However, all said, the Washington summit of the US/African leaders did raise the profile of relations between Africa and the US and it shed light on key issues that should drive it, other than Washington’s obsession with security and political correctness in Africa. Once more, trade and broad economic issues like investment were brought to the front burner, but it is early days yet for us to speculate whether such issues would remain steadfast in US/Africa relations in the coming years or will be relegated again to the background. Generally in Africa, the United States and her western allies are more noticeable on issues of gay rights, a particularly reprehensible subject that does not sit well with African sensibility, yet the west pushes it so hard as if their lives depend on it.
President Obama opened the summit, raising hopes that Africa and the US would enter a decisive phase of co-operation, with a new vista of investments. According to him, the US private sector would lead the way in the investment drive to Africa and then he urged African leaders to articulate necessary institutional reforms to enhance transparency. In our view, the US will need to up her game on the Africa Opportunities Growth Act (AOGA), a trade regime enacted by the Bill Clinton administration in the early 2000, which provides an opportunity for African countries to export, duty free, a select range of products to the US. It is quite limited in scope and did nothing to stop China overtaking the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009. China has since then outstripped the US, three times over, in trade with Africa which currently stands at a213 billion US dollars, while the US maintains a paltry 63 billion dollars trade volume.
In our view, the US can cut down on its rhetoric and talk more on trade. Africa, on its own part, should not be contented with merely soaking up the international diplomatic sunlight by lumbering from one capital city to another. It’s time for a reality check and sober reflection. With its status of the global epicenter of international humanitarian diplomacy, Africa should reflect seriously and embrace global diplomacy in a more muscular form, and leave its mark on the global architecture.