Africa and summit diplomacy: global powers turn on the charm

The question is less about whether summits work and more about how to make them work for Africa.

The upcoming Russia-Africa Summit in July is the latest in a long list of gatherings by global powers aimed at ‘winning friends and influencing people’ across Africa. It follows last year’s United States-Africa Leaders Summit, the European Union-African Union (AU) Summit, Tokyo International Conference on African Development, and the 2021 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).

In the wake of COVID-19, ‘summit diplomacy’ has become a key tool for furthering geopolitical aspirations. These events, although not new, have assumed greater significance as competition between global powers intensifies. But aside from the pomp, pageantry and public relations, do they work?

Historically, summits have been viewed in a dim light – criticised for their lack of substance and for perpetuating imbalanced power dynamics. But lately there is a clear attempt to move beyond the cosmetic into something more tangible. What’s driving this shift?

Africa has emerged as a theatre for geopolitical competition where global powers are actively selling their future visions. As this ‘new Cold War’ hots up – accelerated by Russia’s Ukraine invasion – powerful nations are working feverishly to establish allies and adversaries.

Africa’s demographic profile, mineral resources and growing integration make it a bloc too big and influential to ignore. With one in four people in the world likely to be African by 2050, major powers realise the need to align with Africa. Summits are being used to build relationships, primarily to further economic and military cooperation.

Past summits were criticised for lacking substance and perpetuating imbalanced power dynamics

Summits are distinct from regular diplomatic efforts as they blur the lines between symbolic and substantive. They show a government’s commitment to an issue and help build trust – arguably the key currency in today’s new Cold War.

Effective summits focus on messaging, optics and credibility. Typically, this is demonstrated through commitments, new initiatives and proclamations about a fresh chapter in African relations. Resolutions are carefully worded to showcase each global power’s comparative advantage, leaving African leaders heartened by their benevolence.

Recent examples confirm this pattern. The EU-AU summit was marked with a major investment plan for Africa as part of Europe’s Global Gateway project. FOCAC, impressive in its breadth and depth, saw significant vaccine and financing pledges in 2021. The highlight of the US-Africa Leaders Summit was the announcement of a US$55 billion investment in Africa in the next three years.

Amid such fierce competition, what agendas are the world’s top and middle powers driving?

Rattled by the growing DragonBear alliance, Western countries are redoubling efforts to build lost influence in Africa. The US has stressed humility and partnership, attempting to listen rather than lecture. This shift, though welcome, has not convinced many African leaders, who remain wary of being used to further American interests.

The EU, some of whose key members are still nursing colonial hangovers, needs to diversify its energy suppliers and has African gas firmly in its sights. Paradoxically, while Europe should be tapping into Africa’s young labour force for an economic stimulus, African migration is considered politically unpalatable.

Emerging powers India, Turkey and the Gulf states are also more actively courting African countries. Their reach in the commercial and diplomatic spheres gives Africa options beyond the great powers. Summits have also been used, although with less intensity. The Third Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit was held in 2021, and the last India-Africa Forum Summit was in 2015.

Summits are being used to build relationships, primarily to further economic and military cooperation

China’s approach has appeal because of its non-interference policy, although recent controversies have necessitated a charm offensive to reassure African allies. Meanwhile, Russia is seizing on Africa’s lingering distrust of the international order to further its appeal. Russia’s promise of equal participation and African leadership in a new multipolar world order resonates on the continent.

Moreover, African states are weary of the West’s fearmongering around Russia and China, saying Western countries are more concerned with combating their rivals than furthering Africa’s interests.

African states would no doubt rather be kingmakers than be caught in another proxy war. A smart approach is to straddle these powers for maximum benefit – avoiding ideology and idealism, and prioritising pragmatism. This has largely informed many African countries’ neutral stance on the Ukraine conflict.

Global powers clearly need to build influence from summits, but what’s in it for Africa?

To benefit, African states must define their collective positions and needs. This will require smart negotiation to bargain in the continent’s best interests. Leaders and officials cannot blindly attend summits without a clear agenda. This criticism has been levelled before, particularly at FOCAC, where Africa’s need to be more proactive and negotiate from a position of strength was noted.

Of course, that is easier said than done. Creating consensus between 55 nations is ‘convoluted, politically stressful and difficult,’ notes Bankole Adeoye in his analysis of the AU’s common African positions. A lack of institutional capacity, resources and ownership stifles progress. Although the remedy is clear – greater communication, consultation and coordination – the nature of the beast means progress will be slow.

Leaders should use summitry to bypass international relations complexities and exercise their bargaining power

But this may be changing. At last year’s EU-AU summit, a recalibration of power dynamics was evident. Africa’s assertive approach can be attributed to the EU’s lack of moral authority on vaccine hoarding, travel bans and double standards on decarbonisation. Also, with more strategic partners, Africa now has options. Most important though, was having a firm and coordinated Pan-African strategy.

The last point has been emphasised by African experts, including Professor David Luke of the London School of Economics and Political Science’s Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa. This approach would counter the ‘divide and conquer’ strategies that global powers will likely use with individual African countries.

African states must also develop tracking mechanisms to monitor progress on commitments made at summits. A coherent continental strategy towards major external partners is needed, and leading African countries must champion such endeavours. Securing collective backing is vital to avoid exploitation and achieve tangible results.

Despite harsh economic conditions, African stakeholders are increasingly bullish about what they have to offer the world, and can pick from a range of suitors. The combination of external shocks, double standards and self-interest demonstrated by some partners bolsters the narrative that Africa must pursue its own strategic autonomy.

The question then is not whether summits work, but how to make them work for Africa. Continental leaders should use summitry to bypass international relations complexities and exercise their bargaining power in a new age of multilateralism. If summits help attract investment and diversify both economies and development partners, they can deliver major value.

Ronak Gopaldas, ISS Consultant, Director, Signal Risk and Faculty at the Gordon Institute of Business Science

Image: © Alamy Stock Photo

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