Originally Published 2014-08-19 00:00:00 Published on Aug 19, 2014
The US-Africa Leaders' Summit in Washington D.C from August 4 to 6 attracted considerable international media attention for various reasons. To begin with, for the US, it was a first of its kind.
US-Africa Leaders' Summit: Seeking a new relevance

The US-Africa Leaders' Summit in Washington D.C from August 4 to 6 attracted considerable international media attention for various reasons. To begin with, for the US, it was a first of its kind. China, Japan, India and the EU have regularly held such Summits for quite some time; but the US did not enter into Summit Diplomacy so far. The Media naturally speculated whether this was a catch-up act. Many also felt that for all the fan-fare, the Summit lacked depth and the outcomes were not clear enough.

Was the Summit aimed at creating an Obama legacy? Is it a coincidence that the Summit opened on August 4, which happens to be Obama's birthday? These are speculations, but interesting ones. It is no secret that Obama Administration's commitment to Africa has been a weak one. Being the first President of US with an African background, there was considerable hope of intense engagement when he was elected. Much to the disappointment of the Africans, his Foreign Policy had other priorities. In comparison to his two previous predecessors, George Bush and Bill Clinton who respectively had major initiatives like the multi-billion Dollar anti-HIV/AIDS Programme and the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), Obama had nothing of a similar scale to show. In fact, the African visits by his first term Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton were disasters when she lectured to the African leaders patronizingly on how and whom to choose as their economic partners. Her criticisms of the African Governments' policy of seeking Chinese investments were not taken kindly by the leaders of the continent.

Obama tried to make up for lost ground during his two African tours-the first was an overnight stop-over in Ghana in 2009 and the second, after four years in 2013, a three nation trip. So far, Obama has had three initiatives: the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) in 2010, the African Food Summit in 2012 and the Power Africa Initiative in 2013. The last one is quite significant -with a pledge to invest US$ 7 billion by 2018, it is an effort to increase access to electricity for the whole continent.

Moving away from the old rhetoric of Hillary Clinton, Obama made the right noises before the Summit on competition with China. In an Interview to The Economist he said "My view is, the more the merrier. When I was in Africa, the question of China often came up, and my attitude was every country that sees investment opportunities and is willing to partner with African countries should be welcomed. The caution is to make sure that African Governments negotiate a good deal with whoever they are partnering with. And this is true whether it's the United States; that is true whether it's China."

The Summit itself seemed to be designed as a mega-event with too many activities which, according to some critics, was responsible for a lack of focus. The most glaring omission was the absence of a final Declaration/Statement or an Action Plan. There was also no mention of a follow-up Summit. So, is it a one-off event?

Attended by almost 50 Heads of States/Governments (Central African Republic, Eritrea, Sudan and Zimbabwe were not invited and a few West African leaders could not attend because of the Ebola epidemic in their countries), the event had various components involving business discussions, civil society and NGO interactions and Young Leaders Forums. The US- AGOA Forum also met during the Summit. The main theme of the event "Investing in the next generation" was obviously aimed at the increasing demographic dividend of the continent. The sub-themes discussed were trade and investment, promoting inclusive sustainable development and Peace and Security.

The American Business played a major role in the Summit. Nearly US$ 1 billion in business deals seems to have been negotiated. It is not surprising, given the growing middle class and purchasing power in Africa. After all, the Continent is home to 7 of the 10 fastest growing economies of the world over the past 10 years. More than 300 businessmen are reported to have interacted with the African leaders. GE which generated US$ 5.2 billion in revenue from the continent in 2013, announced a US$ 2 billion investment toward infra-structure, skills training and supply-chain development. US Companies are looking at growth areas like telecommunications, banking, infra-structure, energy and transportation.

AGOA is expiring in September 2015. Discussions centered on how it could be made more useful for Africa. AGOA has not proved to be a powerful tool for increasing trade. For eg. Non-oil AGOA trade was only US$ 5 billion in 2013. Due to pressures from US lobbies and the Congress, AGOA has not helped in three key areas of concern to the Africans: sugar, tobacco and cotton.

Peace and Security is a vital issue for the US. With the growing menace of extremist terror groups like Boko Haram, Al-Shabab and MUJAO, the US is at a loss to find ways of tackling the problem. Obama promised US$ 550 million for military training programmes over the next five years for an African Rapid Response Force. This Force is meant to address security issues before they get blown to crisis proportions such as in CAR, Mali and DRC.

Once the dust of the big event settles down, analysts will ask how much of a difference it has made to Africa. Recent histories of Summit Diplomacies have shown that the big numbers (in terms of aid, loans and investments) mentioned at the events do not materialize automatically and easily. The follow-up actions on the decisions by both sides are critical if something positive is to emerge. For the US, and particularly for Obama, this has provided an opportunity to make a belated out-reach to Africa.

(H.H.S.Viswanathan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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