Washington consensus: first US-Africa Summit succeeds and more will likely follow

Expressions such as ‘historic,’ ‘turning point,’ ‘pivotal moment’ and the like are considerably overused in diplomatic discourse. So one must take with a large precautionary pinch of salt the gushing assessments by some Washington Africanists that United States (US) President Barack Obama’s first US-Africa summit was the biggest milestone in US-African relations since the end of the Cold War.

Yet the summit did seem to represent a significant and qualitative – rather than merely quantitative – shift in relations, taking a big step away from the traditional donor-recipient relationship towards a more equal partnership.

But why and how that happened is not quite clear.

During preparations for the summit, some African ambassadors apparently went to the Obama administration and said that there needed to be some solid ‘deliverables’ from the summit, as there always are with other African partners, such as China.

But the White House clearly did not fall for this blackmail. It evidently told the Africans that that was a ‘crass’ approach and that the White House envisaged the summit as an opportunity for adult, equal and open-ended debate between the US and Africa over the continent’s problems and needs. The general idea would be to work together to create a friendlier climate in Africa for private local and foreign companies to operate.

The mystery of a US$100 billion Africa infrastructure fund to be financed equally by Africa and the US – which appeared on a list of expectations for the summit put out in advance by South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane – could perhaps be explained by this argument over deliverables.

The summit had helped to mobilise about US$37 billion for Africa’s progress

No one owned up for this proposal, which seemed way out of scale given the tightness of budgets in Washington and in Africa. Nkoana-Mashabane herself insisted it was an American proposal, but the Americans said they had never heard of it and so it had to be a South African idea. One South Africa official suggested that the proposed fund was actually a ‘fact on the ground’ – proposed by South Africa to put pressure on Washington to produce a substantial deliverable. If so, the ruse failed – because nothing came of it, so far as one can tell.

There were, however, some deliverables from the three-day gathering. Obama announced at the end that the summit had helped to mobilise about US$37 billion for Africa’s progress. This included a US$110 million a year initiative to train and equip African militaries to rapidly deploy peacekeepers in emerging crises on the continent to save lives.

That was one of several peacekeeping initiatives agreed on. The US would also support the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises, the stopgap measure that is being championed by South Africa to enable volunteer countries to join forces to tackle crises, while the proposed Africa Standby Force continues its elephantine gestation.

But on closer inspection, much of the US$37 billion was off-budget, including US$14 billion in deals by US corporations which emanated from the US-Africa Business Forum on day two of the summit. Some of the rest of the US$37 billion was in surety from the Exim Bank for example.

In the past, this might have been regarded as voodoo accounting

In the past, this might have been regarded as voodoo accounting, an exaggeration of America’s generosity as a donor. The absence of huge deliverables might have been taken as mere parsimoniousness. But this time it seemed to have been received as it was intended, as a sign of the evolution of relations between the US and Africa, away from donor-recipient and towards maturity and normality.

Even South Africa’s Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, no great chum of America ideologically, hailed the summit as ‘a much more open discussion’ than usual in such events, leading to a ‘more equal partnership.’

He ascribed that to Africa’s own rise over the last decade, with growing economies and increasing stability creating the foundation for a more equal relationship with the US and the world. Instead of the demands and conditional development aid offered by Western donors in the past, rising Africa instead was creating a more normal and equal relationship, he said.

Though governance was on the agenda for discussion, there was no criticism of individual leaders, Davies revealed, even though some US officials had suggested there might be. That was in response to criticism that the US was practising double standards by not inviting Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, yet suffering no qualms about breaking bread with the likes of Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, not exactly a human rights poster boy either – though, of course, a font of crude oil.

US officials had responded to such criticism by assuring that governance issues would be robustly debated at the summit. Yet Davies said neither Obiang nor any other leader was taken to task: nor, apparently, were the half-dozen or so of leaders who are scheming to change their country’s constitutions to run for third presidential terms. One of them told a reporter that ‘you need a strong leader to protect the constitution,’ which has to be about the most perverse logic one is likely to hear.

The focus of the summit was instead on economic, and particularly private, investment – which was why the US-Africa Business Forum was, in some ways, the most important element in the summit, with General Electric announcing US$2 billion in power projects, and several other big brands doing similar.

The likes of former cellphone tycoon and now philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, and Nigerian all-rounder Aliko Dangote, were quite disparaging about the whole thing – asking why the Americans needed to put on a summit at all, inviting them all to Washington, instead of US companies just visiting Africa to see the business opportunities for themselves.

True enough for the pioneers. But, as the saying goes, capital is generally cowardly. For most capitalists, it is reassuring to know that your government and indeed your fellow capitalists are with you as you venture into what is – ‘Africa rising’ notwithstanding – often still rather uncharted territory.

In any case, this is likely to have been just the first in a series, as the participants agreed to meet again, at some as yet undecided date.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa