The African presidents mass meeting in DC (scheduled for the 5th and 6th of August, 2014) is a terrible and condescending idea. Different African countries are in different situations, and no summit between the United States and that many countries can come up with useful solutions that will work for all 47 countries. What wealthy South Africa has to offer is not the same as what the poorer Tanzania or Kenya can. In fact the smaller countries have as much to fear from a growing and hungry South African economy as from the United States or China.
Like a father calling his children together to discuss their futures, President Obama has summoned 47 African heads of state to Washington DC for a mass Africa Summit. He has even decided who should join him at the dinner table –the ICC-indicted Uhuru Kenyatta has been invited, but his erring children, Mugabe and Bashir, have been asked not to ruin the dinner and stay home.
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As a matter of principle and duty to the continent, African presidents should boycott the summit. Instead, the African Union should extend an invitation for him to attend its 2015 meeting where he can meet any of the presidents on equal footing.
There are a number of reasons why the African presidents mass meeting in DC is, to put it bluntly, a terrible and condescending idea. Different African countries are in different situations. No summit between the United States and that many countries can come up with useful solutions that will work for all 47 countries. For example, what wealthy South Africa has to offer is not the same as what the poorer Tanzania or Kenya can. In fact the smaller countries have as much to fear from a growing and hungry South African economy as from the United States or China. In short each African country will have different needs.
The second consideration is that economically, the United States is balanced on a precipice. On the one side is the choice of growing national capitalism and revitalising manufacturing in the US for less profit, a smaller economy and military but a fairer society. On the other is China that now owns 1.317 trillion of US national debt, leading to a mutual dependency where the US consumer-driven economy in turn buoys the Chinese economy by buying Chinese products. At the same time, China’s economic influence in Africa has been growing in leaps and bounds. In a way, China and the United States are arm wrestling, and with the other free two hands they are scrambling for resources in Africa. African leaders are not in a weak bargaining position.
The point then is not which power will be more benevolent toward African economies, or which power will exploit African resources better. The point is for African peoples to be in control of their natural resources and name the price for their labor – it is to be in control of their economic destiny.
Part of being in control of economic destiny is to demand equal trade. And one cannot demand equal trade on bended knee, beggar’s bowl in hand. The United States House of Representatives just passed a $100 billion-a-year farm subsidy bill that Obama will sign into law. But while this bill is good for American farmers, it spells disaster for African farmers. Farm subsidies depress the world market for goods like cotton because US farmers can undersell their competition. Through cotton alone, Africa loses $250 million a year as a result of US and EU farm subsidies. African leaders should ask Obama to show good faith by addressing this issue before coming to the AU summit.
There is an underlying assumption that they are coming to ask Obama for help, to negotiate for more foreign and military aid. Yet, countries like Nigeria supply oil to the United States, not to mention the precious minerals from the Congo. And if the African continent as a whole is in need of security from terrorism, it is precisely because the United States is engaged in an open-ended international war on terror. The point is that the United States needs cooperation from African governments as much as African countries need cooperation from the United States. In other words even in matters of economic and security solutions, individual African leaders should meet Obama as potential equal partners as opposed to junior partners.
In politics symbolism is everything. 47 African leaders at dinner with Obama seating at the head of the table is a good photo-op for Obama. See him laughing, his hand placed patronisingly on Zuma’s back – see a president in control finally bringing the light of good governance and security to the dark and lawless continent. And the African leaders – of what symbolic value is that photograph? Maybe later in their memoirs the handshake photo will be useful but the meeting will not in anyway contribute to national confidence.
In 1884 world powers got together in Berlin and debated amongst themselves how best to divide up Africa. It would be a matter of a great historical irony if in 2014 the new scramble for Africa is engineered with the active help of elected African leaders.
For all these reasons, African presidents should boycott the summit. If Obama wants to meet with African presidents, then let him make the trip to all 47 capitals, or attend an African Union meeting.