How to Roll Out the Red Carpet for Africa

Obama's major summit with the continent's leaders will only succeed if the White House eschews autocrats in favor of a new generation of democratic champions. 

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Over the next few weeks, there is going to be an awful lot of chatter about the current and future state of relations between the United States and Africa. That is because U.S. President Barack Obama is hosting the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which will take place in Washington, D.C., from Aug. 4 to 6.

It is clear from the White House’s website for the event — and from my engagement with summit organizers — that much of the agenda will focus on the promotion of peace and security, as well as private investment, trade, and development. Obama’s renewed effort to engage with a rising Africa should be applauded: The summit is an extraordinary opportunity for the administration to fulfill its strong and repeated rhetorical commitments to promoting the twin goals of prosperity and human well-being across Africa.

To be sure, Africa paints a complex picture. Although overall economic growth has been impressive, expected to top 5 percent this year, levels of inequality continue to rise. A stagnation or steady decline in political freedoms and democratic rights is also cause for concern. Similarly, there has been noticeable backpedaling on continental governance commitments, and ratification rates of regional conventions continue to decline, after hitting a peak in 2005.

A successful summit would address these issues and, in turn, mature America’s relations with the continent — not only during Obama’s remaining time in office, but long after he departs. The summit could help the United States catch up with the European Union, Japan, and China, all of which have significantly outpaced America in terms of economic and intellectual investment in the continent.

However, a one-off event, filled with grand speeches and customary handshakes that merely push a few more deals, will not be enough. And there is a real risk that the summit could turn into just such an event, if steps are not taken in advance to ensure otherwise. Most fundamentally, summit organizers — and the U.S. government more broadly — need to rethink which African “leaders” merit U.S. support and will secure long-term national interests.

The worst outcome would be a summit that acted as a platform to cozy up to retrograde dictators. A modern U.S.-Africa relationship cannot be built with the remnants of an old guard who stifle democracy and crush dissent with an arsenal of violence, repressive legislation, and stacked judiciaries. Put simply, America cannot embrace those who are enriching and entrenching themselves, rather than investing in their citizens’ future. To that end, the White House wisely excluded Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, and Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki, three of the world’s most notorious dictators who have destroyed their own economies.

Yet plenty of attendees do raise eyebrows. The Corporate Council on Africa, a leading trade group expected to play a high-profile role around the summit in highlighting the new Africa, has opted to honor the continent’s longest-serving dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea. Obiang rose to power in 1979 after killing his uncle in a coup and presides over a staggeringly rich oil nation, amassing an estimated personal fortune of $600 million — all while eight out of 10 citizens live below the national poverty line. Similarly, the World Affairs Council, a prominent policy forum, will play host to President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo at the National Press Club. Sassou has been in power for a total of 30 years, using pilfered oil money to stifle free expression, torture members of the opposition and civil society, and maintain an essentially one-party state.

While the White House does not have a hand in organizing these events, they still reflect a culture that pervades the nation’s capital, one that inexplicably allows abusive leaders to be honored and embraced in public while few, if any, ask many questions. The Obama administration can take two important steps in the short term to address this counterproductive way of doing business with Africa.

First, it should more fully include African civil society activists in international dialogue, including at the summit. A platform for the president to engage with African heads of state and business leaders is essential, and time at the event should be devoted to interaction among top leaders. However, it is African civil society that often acts as the primary guarantor of basic human rights across the continent. It is African civil society that works to maintain social stability and cohesion, helping to create positive investment environments while working to increase transparency and hold leaders accountable. In short, African civil society provides crucial leadership, and the White House should treat it accordingly.

In June, the We Are Africa campaign convened in Washington to advocate for civil society inclusion at the summit. It produced a range of concrete policy recommendations to improve U.S.-Africa relations. As a result of this sustained public advocacy, the White House has now included an Aug. 4 State Department event — the Civil Society Forum — in its official summit agenda. This is a step in the right direction. Nonetheless, the voices of African civil society need to be recognized as equal shareholders in the future of U.S.-Africa relations, especially at a time when human rights groups across the continent have come under sustained and increasing attack.

It is crucial that issues of human rights and good governance take center stage at the summit. For these issues sow the inevitable seeds of conflict when they are not adequately addressed. No longer can U.S. policymakers and African leaders afford to focus on the symptoms of social discord, including terrorist acts, humanitarian and health crises, and the outbreak of war; rather, they must collectively tackle the root causes of instability by focusing efforts on both protecting and advancing basic human rights and good governance. African civil society remains at the front lines of addressing these critical issues, and therefore its official participation at the summit is paramount.

Second, the United States needs to work more proactively and cooperatively with those who stand at Africa’s democratic vanguard. The current leaders of Senegal, Ghana, Cape Verde, Tanzania, Mauritius, and Botswana, for instance, offer intriguing examples of individuals who have both come to power through democratic means and have championed good governance and economic development at the regional level.

The future of Africa as an economic powerhouse is going to be pushed forward and secured by nations that accede to long-standing and emergent international norms, as well as by those that open up their societies. The U.S. government should recognize this by providing preferential trade to emerging democracies that show a genuine commitment to principles of good governance, as well as to nations whose leaders come to power through free, fair, and legitimate elections. Washington can and should robustly support these leaders through diplomatic rhetoric and, as just one concrete example, by supporting their resolutions at the U.N. Human Rights Council that seek to better secure and advance basic rights. If the United States works more with democratic counterparts, then it stands a much better chance of influencing the continent in a positive, constructive way.

The summit should champion these leaders and further encourage their leadership at the regional level, including at the African Union and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, both of which are partly funded by the United States. Instead of the routine finger-wagging that has often left African leaders and their citizens feeling patronized, the White House should use the summit to publicly identify leaders who are capable and willing to champion socioeconomic development and, perhaps more importantly, to influence their regional counterparts to do the same.

In sum, the U.S.-Africa relationship cannot be sustained with African autocrats, many of whom came to power more than three decades ago. The days of kowtowing to dictators and rolling out the red carpet for strongmen who use the oil or terror cards to trump human rights concerns is over. America can ill afford to embrace the ghosts of Africa’s past or to shake hands with the retrograde Big Men whose time has come and gone.

The United States is strongest when it works alongside trusted partners who share the core values of protecting fundamental freedoms and advancing democracy and economic empowerment. And the country is most powerful and persuasive on the international stage — as well as at home — when the lofty rhetoric of elected leaders matches actions on the ground.

Obama would be well served to use the upcoming U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit to do just that.

Jeffrey Smith is the founding director of the pro-democracy nonprofit organization Vanguard Africa. Twitter: @Smith_JeffreyT

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