U.S.-Africa Summit Aims to Boost Business Ties

With an eye on Chinese influence spreading across the continent, President Obama calls African leaders to the White House for a historic gathering.

US President Barack Obama speaks during a town hall meeting at the Summit of the Washington Fellowship for the Young African Leaders Initiative(YALI) in Washington, DC on July 28, 2014. The YALI Summit serves as the lead-up event to next weeks inaugural U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, the largest gathering any U.S. President has held with African heads of state and government, which will strengthen ties between the United States and one of the worlds most dynamic and fastest growing regions.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
Aug. 3, 2014, 4:11 p.m.

Africa, tra­di­tion­ally the con­tin­ent most ig­nored by Amer­ic­an poli­cy­makers, is get­ting its day in the spot­light this week. More ac­cur­ately — and amaz­ingly, to Africa ex­perts — it is get­ting three days in the dip­lo­mat­ic spot­light as Pres­id­ent Obama hosts the first-ever U.S.-Africa Sum­mit.

The event, Monday through Wed­nes­day, fea­tures more than 50 of­fi­cial del­eg­a­tions, more than 40 heads of state, an of­fi­cial White House din­ner, and more than 100 side events in­volving busi­ness lead­ers, would-be in­vestors, mem­bers of Con­gress, and ex­perts on cli­mate, hu­man rights, and wild­life.

In­deed, it will be the largest single gath­er­ing of for­eign lead­ers in Wash­ing­ton, ec­lipsing the Or­gan­iz­a­tion of Amer­ic­an States sum­mit in 1992.

Des­pite the his­tor­ic num­bers, the White House wants to keep the events low key and in­form­al, with no ma­jor an­nounce­ments of sum­mit “de­liv­er­ables” and a min­im­um num­ber of speeches. For most Wash­ing­to­ni­ans, the biggest im­pact will be snarled traffic. “I won’t lie to you,” the pres­id­ent said some­what sheep­ishly on Fri­day. “Traffic will be bad here in Wash­ing­ton.”

But both the White House and the Amer­ic­an busi­ness com­munity hope the real im­pact will be more en­dur­ing, as the United States tries to catch up with an em­boldened China that has ag­gress­ively moved in to corner the Afric­an mar­ket and sup­plant the United States as the most in­flu­en­tial out­side na­tion. To achieve this comeback, they are count­ing on this sum­mit to send what Deputy Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­viser Ben Rhodes called “a very clear sig­nal that we are el­ev­at­ing our en­gage­ment with Africa.” And they see no bet­ter mes­sen­ger than the son of an Afric­an fath­er, the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent, who is enorm­ously pop­u­lar across the Afric­an con­tin­ent.

Obama can­not claim to have re­fo­cused Wash­ing­ton on Africa. Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton did that in 1998 when he spent 11 days in eight Afric­an coun­tries. Be­fore he went, sev­en of the eight post-World War II pres­id­ents had stayed away. Only Pres­id­ent George H.W. Bush had ven­tured to the con­tin­ent, vis­it­ing U.S. troops sta­tioned in Somalia for New Year’s Eve 1992. But it was Pres­id­ent George W. Bush who has had the most sig­ni­fic­ant ef­fect on Africa, send­ing bil­lions of dol­lars in­to the con­tin­ent to com­bat HIV/AIDS.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s mes­sage at the sum­mit this week is fo­cused more dir­ectly on the busi­ness re­la­tion­ship the United States hopes to for­ti­fy with the na­tions of Africa, whose pop­u­la­tion has doubled since Ron­ald Re­agan’s pres­id­ency and now has 1.1 bil­lion po­ten­tial cus­tom­ers for Amer­ic­an goods and ser­vices.

In some ways, this also is a chance for Obama to live up to the high ex­pect­a­tions Afric­ans had when they cheered his 2008 elec­tion. It is not that he has ig­nored sub-Saha­ran Africa. He has spent nine days there, vis­it­ing Ghana, Seneg­al, South Africa, and Tan­zania. And he has built on ini­ti­at­ives cham­pioned by his pre­de­cessors, primar­ily the Pres­id­ent’s Emer­gency Plan for AIDS Re­lief, or PEP­FAR, pushed by George W. Bush and the Afric­an Growth and Op­por­tun­ity Act signed in­to law by Clin­ton. And he has an­nounced his own pro­grams, most not­ably Power Africa, a plan to double the num­ber of people with ac­cess to power in sub-Saha­ran Africa.

But he was “a little slow” in tack­ling Africa, ac­know­ledged Wit­ney Schneidman, who was deputy as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary of State for Afric­an af­fairs for Clin­ton and co-chaired the Africa Ex­perts Group for the Obama cam­paign in 2008. “Dur­ing the first four years, there was a feel­ing that Africa was be­ing neg­lected. The ex­pect­a­tions were so high. There’s no way they could have been met,” said Schneidman, who now heads a firm work­ing with U.S. com­pan­ies in Africa and is a non­res­id­ent fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion.

“Has there at times been dis­ap­point­ment that Pres­id­ent Obama in his first term was fo­cused on oth­er pri­or­it­ies? Yes, I’ve heard that re­peatedly from Afric­an lead­ers,” said Sen. Chris­toph­er Coons, D-Del., chair­man of the Afric­an Af­fairs Sub­com­mit­tee of the Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee. He said he re­minds the crit­ics of “two wars, a near eco­nom­ic col­lapse, re­cord un­em­ploy­ment…. The pres­id­ent had a full agenda.” He sug­ges­ted that Afric­ans seemed to un­der­stand, con­tend­ing that Obama is “wildly pop­u­lar across the en­tire con­tin­ent.” And Schneidman said the fo­cus now is more for­ward-look­ing. “Now that he’s turn­ing to the con­tin­ent, I think it’s be­ing well re­ceived.”

In part, Afric­ans are pleased that the fo­cus has shif­ted, as Obama said Fri­day, from “help­ing coun­tries that are suf­fer­ing from mal­nu­tri­tion or help­ing coun­tries that are suf­fer­ing from AIDS, but rather part­ner­ing and think­ing about how we can trade more and how we can do busi­ness to­geth­er.” That, he said, is “the kind of re­la­tion­ship that Africa is look­ing for.”

To achieve that kind of re­la­tion­ship, though, the United States is clearly play­ing catch-up to China. Pres­id­ent Xi Jin­ping sent a mes­sage when his first for­eign trip was to Africa. And, as Coons notes, “The pres­ence of the Chinese in every coun­try is dra­mat­ic.” China has now sup­planted the United States as Africa’s biggest trad­ing part­ner. That trade hit a re­cord $200 bil­lion in 2013, a huge jump from only 13 years earli­er when it was only $11 bil­lion. In con­trast, U.S. trade with Africa was $85 bil­lion in goods in 2013 with an­oth­er $11 bil­lion in ser­vices. The Com­merce De­part­ment re­ports that for the first quarter of 2014, total trade between the United States and sub-Saha­ran Africa totaled $11.9 bil­lion, a de­crease of 27 per­cent from the first quarter of 2013. That re­flects de­clines in U.S. im­ports of en­ergy from the con­tin­ent.

A big part of the fo­cus of the sum­mit will be on Afric­an in­fra­struc­ture needs, most par­tic­u­larly the in­ad­equate elec­tri­city grid, which is a ma­jor com­plaint of would-be Amer­ic­an in­vestors. Only eight coun­tries in Africa have more than 60 per­cent ac­cess to elec­tri­city, ac­cord­ing to Vera Song­we, a seni­or fel­low at the Brook­ings Africa Growth Ini­ti­at­ive. “We have 589 mil­lion people in the dark,” she said. “You can­not freeze milk; you can­not store food, even when we have to de­liv­er emer­gency food. You can’t do it, be­cause we don’t have enough en­ergy.”

An­oth­er top­ic at the sum­mit will be the con­tinu­ing threat of ter­ror­ism. Rhodes of the NSC said the ad­min­is­tra­tion sees the threat as “acute” in some areas — al-Shabaab in North Africa and Somalia, Boko Haram in Ni­ger­ia, al Qaeda in the Maghreb, and the Tu­areg rebels in Mali. Brief­ing re­port­ers, Rhodes ad­ded: “We are con­cerned about ef­forts by ter­ror­ist groups to gain a foothold in Africa…. We see in­ter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ist net­works seek to take ad­vant­age of un­gov­erned spaces so that they can get a safe haven.”

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