Reflections on the proposed 2014 Africa-U.S Summit

The past week has experienced a theatre of absurd in relation to the African Union intra-relations and its inter-relations with the U.S. On 26 January Botswana President broke ranks with Sadc and the rest of Africa, by saying it will not participate in future Sadc election observer missions as he claims that there were irregularities in Zimbabwe’s polls last year.

Botswana also went against the African Union (AU), saying sitting heads of state should be brought before the Western-controlled International Criminal Court (ICC). At the same time it was reported that America’s president Barack Obama is set to invite 47 African Heads of State and Government to what is dubbed the US-Africa summit in August.

While, according to reports, President Mugabe is not one of them, in Addis Ababa on 30 January, Zimbabwe was elected to be the chair of the African Union (AU) in 2015 by virtue of its election as first vice-president of the AU’s Bureau of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government. These events present both opportunities and threats to Sub-Saharan African civil society’s quest to push for the universal human values of peace, freedom, social progress, equal rights and human dignity, enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Developments at the Africa Union clearly demonstrate that African heads of state are in a defiant and belligerent mood. They are clearly closing ranks in a clear warning to the U.S. The developments on the continent also come at a time when Europe is hosting a similar summit in April in Brussels. According to Zimbabwean analysts, the ascendance of Zimbabwe to the helm of both the SADC and AU is ‘only a good thing as far as it reinforces the idea that collective bodies and institutions of Africa are putative and serve no real purpose.

The more influential countries of Africa put Zimbabwe at the top so that they will not have to be inconvenienced by regional multi-lateralism. By placing Zimbabwe at the helm, they can shirk from responsibility, as they know that Zimbabwe does not have the legitimacy to tell them anything. This is therefore an anathema to regional lobby initiatives for the realization of a democratic dispensation in the country. In light of this, perhaps it is time the U.S focused more on bilateral relations in the short term, while re-thinking its engagement with the African regional block in the long term.

While the Zimbabwean government perceives Zimbabwean’s ascendance to the helm of Africa as a diplomatic victory, most Zimbabweans view this as a hollow ascendance. Further, this will give Mugabe a more powerful voice and pedestal to shout at the West from Africa’s helm. Some view this as a trap, which is being set up by envious African countries to see Zimbabwe embarrass itself while their own governments cut deals with the U.S government.

This is especially the case as African countries are now negotiating for even better deals after the expiration of the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), 2000 in September 2015, from which Zimbabwe is already excluded by virtues of the current U.S sanctions. While Mugabe has been receiving a pat on the back for standing up against imperialism, the same countries that have been patting him as such, for example, Zambia and South Africa have been welcoming Zimbabwean professional refugees with open arms. Zimbabwe is now importing maize from Zambia but who is growing the maize? –Zimbabwe’s former commercial farmers!

Zimbabwe’s ascendance to the AU helm provides the Obama administration with a terrible migraine headache. How is he going to react to this, whom should he invite to the Summit and what issues should fall for discussion?

According to a terse Official Transcript of Foreign Press Center Briefing on "2014 Foreign Policy Priorities for the Obama Administration," January 29, 2014, “the Summit is a very significant event, first of its kind for the United States. It will continue the type of effort the President led during his trip to focus on our support for security, greater commercial trade and investment relationships, and also democratic development in Africa. And he also highlighted our Power Africa initiative, which I think we see as a signature effort to double access to electricity on the continent. We also have a significant exchange program in Africa that we’re building out this year, the Young African Leaders program. ”

According to analysts, the Summit has the potential of sealing Obama’s legacy in Africa, which so far, has not been viewed with a lukewarm attitude. However how he will deal with the Mugabe factor, more than anything else, might determine his legacy.

With regard to the Summit’s focus, according to Jonathan Greig, in his article ‘Fixing mismatch between US aid policy and Africa’s needs’, December 17 2013, there is a long and storied history behind the monetary aid that the US provides to sub-Saharan African countries. The US Agency for International Development (USAid) estimates almost $80bn is invested in the continent each year, while trade with the US has tripled over the past decade.

Yet despite this constant influx of money, chronic social, societal and structural problems persist. Amid the recent economic crisis and subsequent tightening of budgets, US citizens — and their congressmen, by proxy — have begun to question the effectiveness of US aid packages.With the current congressional hearing on AGOA, the Summit might simply endorse the congressional deliberations and resolutions in relation to trade and development.

According to Gambian-born Sulayman Nyang, senior professor and former chair of the African Studies Department at Howard University in Washington, the summit will have historical significance because Obama would be the first postwar US president to bring African leaders together. But, Nyang says he must insist that the African leaders demonstrate accountability to their citizens in terms of protecting human rights and fighting corruption. With anti-homosexual sentiments on the rise in many African countries, Nyang says US policy on gay rights may come into conflict with the policies of some of the African leaders who might be invited to attend the summit. He also said the Obama administration must also make the fight against corruption a condition in extending invitations to African leaders.

With regards to who will be invited, there was no immediate word from the White House on which African leaders would be invited to attend the summit. But, one report said the leaders to be invited are those currently in good standing with the United States and who are not suspended from the African Union. How about the inclusion of no state actors? It looks like Obama is planning the summit just before the Washington Young Leaders invitation to Washington, but the question is whether young leaders have what it takes to articulate real issues of concern? Do they have the experience and the perspective?

The same question regarding the inclusion of non-state actors comes up in connection with the participation of business. Would there be a business component of the summit? There is not yet a word on that. If there was a forum for business but not civil society that would obviously draw criticism. Certainly simultaneous side-summits of civil society and business could be imagined. Our colleagues close to the White House have the sense that the summit will be a governmental affair. Should that be the case would, for example, USAID host something that will bring in the development community?

The question of who is in ‘good standing’ to be invited also presents an interesting problem. How is “good standing,” defined as criteria for participation? According to analysts, you can’t be too picky of course (, for example, China isn’t, and competition on that front is an implicit rationale for the conference). Apparently the ICC indictee U. Kenyatta is now in good standing but not so for Omar Bashir, along with Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh, the never-popularly elected Dos Santos, the suspiciously overly popularly “elected” Teodoro Obiang, Mugabe’s best friend. These have unsavory records with regard to transparency, human rights records, commitment to democratic principle and corruption.

Despite the lack of clarity on what the Summit will specifically discuss, this is wide and open door for Sub-Saharan African civil society to fill in Obama’s agenda towards the creation of the ‘Africa we want’ and the ‘Africa-U.S relations’ we want to see.

African civil society should be aware that the crisis of governance and democratic practice in Zimbabwe is not an isolated issue – it’s actually a global problem. For example, according to Jeffrey Smith, in his article, ‘US Should Rethink 'Democracy Promotion' in Southern Africa’, ‘Given that the prevailing environment in southern Africa is characterized by widespread democratic backsliding, it is high time that the United States both reevaluates and reshapes its strategy in the region. In particular, the U.S. should consider re-calibrating its engagement with domestic civil societies to focus on policy development and oversight and work to better strengthen the adherence to the rule of law in more creative ways.

This backsliding has also been seen in the electoral manipulation not only in Southern Africa but far and wide. As we speak, there are credible reports that the Israeli company Nikuv is working in 100 countries including Namibia and South Africa. They operated in Zambia and in Kenya – it may be that more countries than not are in fact routinely violating the fundamental principles that under lay a real democracy.

These issues must be addressed during the Summit and we must not wait for a destructive “Arab Spring” to bring about reform and change. However such change cannot come about if African civil society does not urge the Obama administration to place this issue on the agenda. In South Africa, apartheid was not defeated by the political violence of the ANC; it was defeated by a global coalition led by the UK. How do we build such coalitions to tackle these issues? They are complex and difficult to understand and communicate but the Summit can provide a good starting point.

Although there is little information on the summit yet but clearly the agenda would be a springboard for advocacy, and not dealing with the governance issues would draw criticism. The potential civil society issues and objectives are endless, and each group will presumably push its own issue area objectives.

According to those close to Washington, one could, however, imagine a civil society document of key ideals (human rights, transparency, rule of law, governance, climate change, education, equitable development especially in the high growth countries [to temper the “Africa is booming” tagline that will no doubt accompany the affair]—and a long potential additional laundry list) that the leaders would all be pushed to sign.

Civil society could also push for a U.S. meeting with the African members of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), and urge the U.S to prioritise these.

Whatever civil society decides to settle on, there must be a strong push for the universal human values of peace, freedom, social progress, equal rights and human dignity, enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These values are no less valid today than when, over half a century ago, those documents were drafted by representatives of many different nations and cultures.

The values were not any more fully realized in actual human conduct at that time than they are now. Those great documents expressed an optimistic vision, not a description of existing realities. Let’s not forget that among the States that drafted and signed them was the Soviet Union, at the height of Stalin’s terror, as well as several unrepentant colonial powers. In the same way, the anticipated Washington Communiqué can be the Framework of Hope not only for Africa but Africa-U.S relations, and surely Mugabe would not be a stumbling block to the laying of such a strong and enduring foundation.

Post published in: Politics
  1. Knox Mbazima

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