WASHINGTON, August 1 – President Barack Obama, whose election in 2008 as the first black American president sparked huge expectations in Africa, will at last hold a summit next week for the continent’s leaders.
Invitations were sent to 50 heads of state and government for talks that seem designed as a counterweight to China’s decade long surge in investment and trade with Africa.
American officials said all the countries invited to send delegations will do so, most of them headed by presidents but some by vice presidents, prime ministers or foreign ministers.
Notable absentees will include Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al Sisi and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI — who will send envoys — but sub Saharan Africa will be well represented.
Only four presidents were excluded: Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, Eritrea’s Issaias Afeworki and the Central African Republic’s transitional leader Catherine Samba Panza.
But, even if Obama’s gathering marks the greatest ever concentration of African leadership in Washington, it is not clear what kinds of results can be expected from the three day summit.
Obama’s foreign policy was first marked by a pivot to Asia and a failed attempt to “reset” relations with Russia, and he did not make Africa a priority in his first term.
The agenda will certainly include discussion on current threats facing the continent — kidnappings and killings by Islamist group Boko Haram in Nigeria, civil war in South Sudan and deadly attacks by the Somalia militant group Shebab in Kenya.
And the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa could find itself at the center of talks.
The leaders of Sierra Leone and Liberia have canceled their summit trips to Washington over the epidemic, which was first declared at the beginning of the year in Guinea and has so far claimed more than 725 lives.
The hemorrhagic fever, often fatal, could spread “like a forest fire,” US health authorities warned this week.
The US-Africa summit will also have a strong economic aspect, with a program focused on opportunities for the continent where 60 percent of the population is under 35 and where growth rates are higher than anywhere else in the world.
Currently, the United States is third among Africa’s major trading partners, far behind longtime number one the European Union, and raw material hungry China.
“I see Africa as the world’s next major economic success story, and the United States wants to be a partner in that success,” Obama said last year during his first presidential trip to the continent, with stops in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.
But his national security advisor, Susan Rice, acknowledged Wednesday that Americans need to change their “outdated mindset” of the continent.
“Too many Americans still only see conflict, disease and poverty, and not the extraordinarily diverse Africa, brimming with innovation,” Rice said, adding “the United States can do more to compete to be a full partner in Africa’s success.”
– Packed agenda –
Some analysts see the Washington summit as a response to Beijing’s campaign of African investment and trade over the last decade.
“It can’t help but be seen that way, because we have never done this before, and the Chinese have,” said Deborah Brautigam, who directs the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.
Brautigam wondered, however, whether the United States had done enough to prepare ahead of the summit.
“When the Chinese organized a similar event” in 2006, “they had been working for about six years,” she noted.
Among economic issues to be discussed will be the possible extension beyond 2015 of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, or AGOA, which provides preferential market access for some products from African countries deemed to be democratic and following good economic governance.
Likewise, Obama’s “Power Africa” initiative, leverages loan guarantees and private sector finance and aims to double access to electricity in sub Saharan Africa.
After a first day, Monday, dedicated to health challenges and climate change, a business forum on Tuesday will gather leaders from both the public and private sector — including former US president Bill Clinton.
The third and final day will be for political discussions on peace and regional stability.
There are no bilateral meetings planned between Obama and any of his African counterparts but a huge White House gala dinner is on the agenda for Tuesday evening.
Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, said this summit will be important for relations between Obama and the continent where his father was born.
But he cautioned that African expectations for Obama’s presidency started out “unreasonably high.”
“The fact is nothing in President Obama’s history other than the identity of his father, nothing in his personal history or his political history, would point to the expectations that were put on his shoulders,” he said.
“Others read into it what they wanted to read into it.”