The US-Africa Leadership Summit: what's in it for Africa?

Obama's hopes for Africa's future are inspirational. But how much weight do they carry if governance and human rights issues remain unchanged?

The civil society campaign in the run-up to next week’s United States (US)-Africa Leadership summit, called We Are Africa, certainly has a headline-grabbing name. And so it should, to stand any chance of being heard in what is fast becoming an overwhelming stream of appeals, side events and social media activity in the lead-up to the first-ever summit of its kind between Africa and the US.

Everyone seems to want a part of the action as the African heads of state, who were invited by President Barack Obama, attend the summit from 4 to 6 August.

One can rightly ask: who can claim to speak on behalf of Africa? The 40-odd heads of state who are expected to make the trip to Washington next week? The young Africans invited by Obama for a study programme and a town hall discussion on Monday as part of the Young African Leadership Initiative? Or will it be the CEOs coming to talk shop at the myriad trade and investment side-events?

The US can play a massive role in leveraging rule-of-law issues in Africa

To date, most of the focus in the run-up to the summit has been on business, and perhaps correctly so. Africa needs the renewal of the much-talked-about African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA). The AGOA, which is set to expire next year, facilitates duty-free exports of African goods to the US. Africa also needs stricter regulations to stop the billions of dollars of illicit outflows due to unpaid taxes by multi-nationals, many of them based in the US.

However, the civil society organisations leading the We Are Africa campaign, which includes Amnesty International, Freedom House and the Open Societies Foundation, believe a discussion on future leadership for Africa cannot ignore issues of rule of law, discrimination against marginal groups and transparency and accountability. After all, Africa is a continent where corruption is rife (especially in the extractive industries); where civil liberties remain a luxury in many places; where press freedom is curtailed from Somalia to Zimbabwe and where some of the strictest anti-gay laws are in place in over 30 African countries.

Obama is speaking to the youth, business and civil society: not only to a club of leaders

While economic development, trade and infrastructure play a crucial role in Africa’s future, so too does good governance. Anton du Plessis, Managing Director at the Institute for Security Studies, says the US can play a massive role in leveraging rule-of-law issues in Africa. While it is difficult to generalise since, for historical reasons, the US has different relationships with Africa’s various countries and regions, he says the summit would be a good opportunity for the US to emphasise the importance of adhering to general human rights principles.

‘Obama is speaking to the youth, to business and civil society, not only to a club of leaders,’ says Du Plessis, adding that this approach is laudable. He warns, however, that there is still a weariness of Americans dictating to Africa when it comes to good governance and rule of law, following the damage done by the former president George W Bush’s ‘war on terror’ narrative. ‘Obama has been at pains to reverse that trend, but the damage has not completely been undone,’ says Du Plessis.

‘When I speak to criminal justice practitioners around Africa, their first reaction is often to accuse the West of double standards. It is vital that the US avoids falling into the trap of hypocrisy.’

According to the official programme, discussions between Obama and African leaders, on 6 August, will include a session on ‘governing for the next generation.’ Just how far the discussion will go, and whether the tricky issues of individual rights and freedoms will be addressed, is not yet clear. Analysts have, however, pointed out that the choice of leaders invited to the summit is an important indication of whether the US wants to prioritise human rights at the event.

‘A modern US-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,’ wrote Jeffrey Smith, Senior Advocacy Officer at the Robert F Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights, who is also part of We Are Africa, in an analysis of the run-up to the summit.

The list of leaders excluded from the event, is in fact very short. Only Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who is under US sanctions; Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki, accused of stoking the war in Somalia, were struck off the invitation list. The Central African Republic’s interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, was also not invited since her country is still sanctioned by the African Union. However, heads of state like Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been in power since 1979 and has a dismal human rights record, have been invited. Not only that, they are hosting cosy dinners organised by the Corporate Council on Africa, one of the partners of the summit.

The theme of the summit is ‘Leadership for the next generation’ and the promises by Obama to the youth of Africa that they are the continent’s future are truly inspirational. ‘I have no doubt that you’re going to leave behind for the next generation, and the generation after that, an Africa that is strong and vibrant and prosperous, and is ascendant on the world stage,’ he said in conclusion of his dialogue with young people earlier this week. But how can Africa’s youth stay inspired if the same elite hold on to power, often restricting access to resources or political positions? A 30-year-old in a place like Cameroon, Uganda, Angola or Zimbabwe has only known one president in his or her lifetime, for example.

In various countries, including Burkina Faso, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, plans are afoot by the ruling parties to change their countries’ constitutions in order for the current strongmen to stay beyond the legal term limits. In many cases, the rumours about constitutional changes are deliberately circulated to test local and international reaction. The summit, it is argued, could thus be a good opportunity to emphasise the importance of leaders sticking to their term limits, as determined by the constitution.

Thanks in part to initiatives like the We Are Africa campaign, which was launched after a meeting of the group in June this year, a side event on the first day of the summit will be devoted to a Civil Society Forum. Campaigners, however, say this is not good enough and that they need to represent Africa, officially, in the discussions with Obama, since the continent’s leadership isn’t capable of doing so.

This probably won’t happen at such a late stage. However, various groups are planning various forms of public protest in the streets of Washington to state their case. Diaspora groups from Guinea, for example, are planning a march to complain about the lack of democracy in their country. Whether anyone takes notice, however, remains to be seen.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS consultant

Media coverage of this ISS Today:

This is Africa

Related content