What does Obama’s Washington Summit mean for Uhuru and other African leaders?

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In his fortnightly column for the Daily Nation, Nic Cheeseman explores the significance of the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit. Obama is clearly eager to improve his standing with the continent and counter China’s influence. But do his gestures bring  too little, too late?

Between tomorrow and Wednesday, US President Barack Obama will welcome leaders from across Africa for a three day US-Africa Leaders’ Summit. The guest list is long and impressive. In total, invitations have been extended to 50 countries, including Angola, Kenya, Libya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Zambia. The chair of the African Union, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, is also expected to be in attendance. But what will it mean for US-Africa relations and US-Kenya relations in particular?

The Summit is quite a statement. The meeting is the first of its kind, and the largest event that any American president has held with African heads of state. African leaders will not just meet President Obama, but will also have an opportunity to engage with Cabinet members, business executives, members of Congress, and representatives of civil society. The schedule is frantic. Between Monday and Wednesday there will be 25 different sessions on everything from wildlife trafficking to food security.

According to the US government, the main aim of the event is to “strengthen ties between the United States and one of the world’s most dynamic and fastest growing regions”. For his part, President Obama has said that “I do not see the countries and peoples of Africa as a world apart; I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world — partners with America on behalf of the future we want for all of our children. That partnership must be grounded in mutual responsibility and mutual respect”.

But what do these fine words mean in practice? The summit is scheduled to cover security, democracy and development, but the main theme is “Investing in the Next Generation”. As a result, there will be targeted sessions on issues such as improving economic opportunities for women and strengthening health infrastructure.

In private sessions behind closed doors, pressing issues such as the expansion of terrorist activities in Kenya and Nigeria and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa will no doubt be high on the agenda — although President Ernest Koroma of Sierra Leone cancelled his trip due to the mounting health crisis in his country.

American, China and Africa

The event is about far more than trade and investment, however. The meeting is also about shoring up American influence in Africa. Although the US remains a major player in most African countries, American policy makers are painfully aware that they have lost ground to China. Last year, the total value of annual trade between America and Africa was $85 billion, less than half of the value of the $200 billion traded between the continent and China.

President Obama has tried to avoid direct criticism of China, but is clearly keen to encourage the continent to think twice signing up to the Chinese economic model. In an interview with the Economist, he put it this way: “So my advice to African leaders is to make sure that if, in fact, China is putting in roads and bridges, number one, that they’re hiring African workers; number two, that the roads don’t just lead from the mine, to the port, to Shanghai.”

America has not just fallen behind in terms of trade — it has also fallen behind in terms of diplomacy. There was once a time when few governments could compete with the breadth and depth of American influence in Africa, but those days are now a distant memory. China now leads the way, and America has a very long way to go to catch up. Part of the problem for President Obama is that much of the damage has already been done. It is telling that the US-Africa Leaders Summit is the first time that America has held an event on this scale.

The first Ministerial Conference under the aegis of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) was held in Beijing in 2000. Since then, there have been four subsequent conferences, and countless visits by senior Chinese leaders to Africa to reinforce the message of partnership. If America was serious about checking the expansion of Chinese power, the US-Africa Leaders Summit should have been held a decade ago.

Repositioning America

To reposition America as a dynamic and forward thinking force in Africa, Obama must overcome widespread disappointment with his engagement with the continent since taking office in 2009, which arose for four main reasons. The first is personal. Throughout his election campaign, Obama was the subject of ridiculous accusations from Republic hardliners that he was not really American. In the blogs and Twitter feeds of the extreme right, he was portrayed as a radical Kenyan socialist, and a Muslim to boot. Heading to the continent too quickly, and demonstrating any favouritism towards Kenya, would have given easy ammunition to his detractors.

The second is domestic. President Obama has struggled to manage the politics of Capitol Hill. He was forced to expend vast amount of time and political capital securing the passage of the healthcare package now known as “Obamacare”, which was beset by problems at each stage of its development. At the same time, he has presided over a difficult economic period in which disagreements between his Democratic administration and the Republicans who control the House of Representatives led to a prolonged crisis in 2013 over government spending and the amount of debt that the government could incur.

The third factor is international. Not since the darkest days of the Cold War has the world faced so many international challenges simultaneously. Amidst all of the upheaval and instability, African issues have taken a backseat. The final reason that Obama has ceded the initiative in Africa to China is that he operates under far greater constraints than Chinese leaders. America’s commitment to the World Bank and the IMF means that it is both unable and unwilling to adopt the more flexible approach that has made China such a popular development partner for African governments.

Future of African international relations

But all is not lost for the US. Most African countries are well aware that they don’t actually need to choose between China and America at all. Rather, they can have their cake and eat it.

Chinese trade and loans are extremely valuable, but they cannot replace the trade and aid that African states have traditionally secured from North America and Europe. Moreover, when it comes to some of the most pressing challenges facing the continent today, such as terrorism, America can offer superior know-how and technology. By combining the best deals from the two countries, African leaders can secure the funds they need to grow their economies.

In the future, we may look back on the US-Africa Leaders Summit as a significant turning point in Africa’s international relations. It is too early to say, but it seems likely that a resurgent America would be able to take advantage of the inevitable backlash against China that, in many states, has already begun. In countries such as Zambia, criticism of Chinese working practices and complaints about a (perceived) influx of Chinese migrants has combined into considerably public suspicion of China’s motives and intentions.

Whether or not America will be able to take advantage of this will depend on President Obama being able to back up his promises. He is proud of the Power Africa initiative that was launched last year, through which he pledged to double access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. This is a grand idea that, if implemented, would transform the economic landscape. But so far the project only covers six countries, and some African leaders have complained that its focus on green energy is not the quickest or cheapest way to meet their needs. The president will have to do more if he really wants to reassert American leadership in Africa.

According to US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, new deals worth around $900 million will be announced at the summit. One high profile project that has been flagged ahead of the event is a further $498 million for power projects in Ghana. But the Ghana proposal speaks to America’s weakness as well as its strengths.

President Obama wishes to give deals to “well governed” states in order to reward them and encourage other investors to follow suit. The problem with this is that, with the exception of South Africa, the biggest players on the continent – whether we are talking in political or economic terms – are not full democracies. In terms of GDP, Ghana does not make it into the top 10, and comes below Angola, Ethiopia, and Nigeria.

US-Kenya relations

What does this all mean for Kenya? The inclusion of President Uhuru Kenyatta represents another stage in his international rehabilitation following the controversy surrounding his election. This reflects a broader trend in which the American government has been willing to compromise on governance issues where its security is at stake. One of the highest recipients of American aid is Ethiopia, hardly a shining example of democracy. As far as Kenya is concerned, proximity to Somalia, combined with the increase in terrorist activity within Kenya itself, means that America can ill afford to break off relations, no matter how unpalatable it may find Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto.

If the president and his deputy both emerge from The Hague unscathed, as seems increasingly likely, it will create a fresh opportunity for US-Kenyan engagement. But this will require willingness on both sides. One of the main reasons that relations between the two countries have deteriorated recently has been the intransigent attitude adopted by the Jubilee Alliance. For example, Mr Francis Kimemia’s claim that the United States Agency for International Development was funding protestors to topple the Kenyan government caused great anger in US circles. Just a few months later, President Kenyatta’s statement that terrorist attacks in Mpeketoni were not the work of al Shabaab but of “local political networks”, undermined his credibility in the eyes of many international policy makers.

So long as the Kenyan government maintains this combative approach, we are unlikely to see the announcement of American financial assistance on the scale of the project soon to be announced in Ghana. But this is unlikely to worry President Kenyatta. After all, what is $498 million when you plan to raise billions in order to finance major construction projects? And why worry about one or two deals with America, when, in a meeting with the Chinese Prime Minister Li Kegiang last May, you were able to sign a record 15 agreements in three days, including two infrastructure deals reportedly worth over $4.5 billion?

This column first appeared in the Daily Nation on 2nd August 2014.

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