Why Obama Changed Tack
Corporate America rules at US-Africa Summit
African presidents relished the prospects of a photo-opportunity with their US counterpart Barack Obama, during the US- Summit, almost as much as the State-owned media across the continent.
But on the sidelines, some serious work was done, according to Dr Donald Kaberuka, the highly regarded President of the African Development Bank. The Summit may have been billed as a political meeting, but Corporate America stole the show.
Corporate giants such as Coca-- Cola, IBM, General Electric and JP Morgan were shifting their attention to Africa seeking investment and trade opportunities, says Kaberuka.
Indeed, Power Africa, an initiative launched by Obama in 2013 to bring US expertise to bolster electricity generation in Africa played a prominent role in the proceedings. How soon Africa will reap the benefits of the business meetings and caucuses remains in contention, though.
The first ever U.S.-Africa summit focused on Islamic extremism and its links to terrorism, bad governance and corruption. But the 50 leaders in attendance were spared blushes, as it moved on to the continent’s business potential. Corporate America wanted its share of investment opportunities in the continent’s energy and infrastructure projects. Offers of creating jobs and mobilising the badly needed funds were generously made.
Business tycoon and former New York Mayor, Mr Michael Bloomberg, hosted dozens of business delegations, seeking to reinforce Obama’s assertion that US exports to Africa had reached
record levels. But analysts point at Africa’s trade with China, which is conservatively placed at $200 billion annually compared to Washington’s $85 billion. Even this might drop as US cuts oil imports from Africa.
For many African leaders whose democratic and human rights credentials were repproachable, the visit to the US may have served the unwitting purpose of giving them a carte blanche of sorts. Except for Zimbabwe, Sudan, Central African Republic, Eritrea and Western Sahara, the rest of the continent’s leadership was invited to Washington for a red carpet reception.
The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa might have dampened matters somewhat, but for most Africans, it was a must-attend function. The four themes for the Summit, Investing in Africa’s Future, Peace, Regional Stability and Governing for the Next Generation might have been overshadowed by the rash of photo-opportunities. Though the promise of trade and investment was the main attraction, political posturing and loaded talk about strengthening US-African relations captured media headlines.
But for American business executives, the Summit was a gamechanger; it somewhat removed the political class from the centre of Corporate Africa. It is no longer necessary to know brokers with links to State Houses to get things moving.
The only exceptions to that rule are deals involving government itself, particularly the lucrative, if problematic, security contracts. Even for Obama, a subtle difference in his demeanour was noticed; the habitually paternalistic tone was missing. If his call for a “partnership of equals that focuses on African capacity to solve problems, and on Africa’s capacity to grow,” sounded a mite suspicious, it was for good reason.
For decades the US has confronted issues of bad governance, corruption, civil strife, famine and disease as if it was Africa’s lot. If the Summit needed any reminder of that, the civil wars in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Libya, Somalia and parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, provided ample evidence.
The Ebola crisis hitting West Africa was another stark reminder of the continent’s diminished health capabilities. As did the projected famine in South Sudan largely due to the civil war in Africa’s newest state.
But Washington’s concerns have, over the years, focused on insecurity in Africa, especially the fear of the much-loathed Al-Qaeda terror group gaining a strong foothold in the continent.
In this respect, North Africa, Somalia, Mali, the Central Africa Republic and Nigeria have received considerable attention as has the flare up in South Sudan, due to its oil reserves.
The desire to lock energy-hungry China out of Juba’s oil fields could be one of the reasons for Washington’s impatience with the slow pace in getting a truce. But even this interest in Africa was never really driven by the US government; its main engine were Non-Governmental Organisations and religious institutions.
Indeed, claims that the Arab regime in Khartoum was enslaving black Christians in the South Sudan forced Washington to pay crucial attention to Sudan’s civil war in the 1980s.
In a sense, therefore, the Summit played an important role in refocusing Washington’s attention to the business opportunities replete in the continent and its emerging economies. Corporate America got the opportunity to turn its huge appetite to Africa’s expanding class of consumers.
This a lesson China grasped earlier as it hogged giant infrastructure projects in Africa as the US watched in envy and, contrary to what Kaberuka and others might think, the Summit was about Washington playing catchup with Beijing.
But just as analysts had speculated, the Summit would not be complete without Washington offering Africa military aid, and it came to pass. The US pledged a $550 million military training package over five years for an African rapid response force, upstaging China on that score. ALL WINNERS
For East Africa, the invite by Washington was a moment to relish. In Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni case, it was seen as a subtle sign that Uncle Sam was no longer bothered with his terrible
human rights record and recent noisy fight with gays.
For President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, his alleged support for Tutsi rebels in the troubled mineral-rich eastern Democratic Republic of Congo was off the radar for now. In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza received the all-important fawning nod he needs to clampdown on the opposition and to change the law to allow a third term.
President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania is on his way out as his second term in office ends this year and was a darling of Washington, anyway. Tanzania was the only East African country that Obama visited during his June 2013 visit to Africa.
The biggest beneficiary of the visit to Washington, though, was President Uhuru Kenyatta. It was the former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Mr Johnnie Carson, who dismissively spoke against Kenyatta’s election bid in 2012. His assertion that ‘choices have consequences’ was in relation to the crimes against humanity cases facing the Kenyan head of state and Deputy President Mr William Ruto.
But the ruling Jubilee Alliance of Kenyatta and Ruto saw it as a not-so-subtle endorsement of their political nemesis, Mr Raila Odinga. Indeed, conventional wisdom prior to the 2012 General Election was that it was Odinga’s election to lose ( see Going for Broke in the February 2013, issue of Diplomat East Africa).
The fact was alluded to in the invitation to Kenyatta, when Washington somehow felt compelled to clarify that he was in-
President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania is on his way out as his second term in office ends and this year was a darling of Washington, anyway
vited for his ability in mobilising the continent to stand by him in denouncing the International Criminal Court.
Kenyatta spent a considerable part of his first year in office and resources rallying the African Union and the continent against the court in The Hague. It is not lost on the international community that despite Africa’s repudiation of the ICC, not a single country has quit the Rome Statute that binds the continent to The Hague,
Besides, his diplomatic shuttle, the Kenya head of state turned east to China for investment and cooperation, in what was portrayed by Nairobi as a pointed snub of Washington. It did not help matters when Obama made a four-nation Africa visit last year that brought him next door to Tanzania and not Kenya, the na-
tive home of his father, Barack Obama Snr.
Travel advisories against Kenya by the US and its close allies-Britain, France and Australia-have not helped matters. They have reinforced the belief that Washington was punishing Nairobi over the election results.
Obama’s perceived support for the Kenyan opposition, though muted, was reinforced by the two-month sojourn in the US by Odinga in March and April this year. The fact that he returned invigorated and had the government furiously backpedalling over his demands for ‘dialogue’ over the myriad problems facing the country, was not lost on the government.
So in some way, Kenyatta’s visit to the US and the hugely circu- lated photo with Obama and First Lady Michelle at the White House, was perhaps his most treasured trophy from Washington. It symbolised two highly portent points; first, it finally gives his reign international legitimacy in view of the ICC cases, and second, it has blunted Odinga’s bragging rights about his US connection. Kenyatta craved both.
The collapse of the case facing him at The Hague looks highly likely and would be an obvious icing on his cake if only he could resolve the crises bedeviling his government with the same determination that he has pursued the termination of his cases at the ICC.
For Africa, investing in its youth was one of the strongest messages from the Summit. This will require heavy investment in education, infrastructure, security and a political system that is tolerant of divergent views. Without such investment, the risk of youth joining terror and criminal gangs that will go beyond Africa’s border is too frightening to contemplate. And it should be
KENYAN CONNECTION: President Obama and Michelle host Kenyatta at the White House
MY POINT: Obama addresses African delegations in Washington