Washington summit points to more China-like attitude towards Africa


All heads of state and heads of government recognised by the African Union (AU) were invited, with three exceptions: Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki, Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir, and Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe.

Most heads of state accepted the invitation, except for the presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone, who cancelled to deal with the Ebola outbreak in their countries. Guinea’s President Alpha Conde, whose country is the worst affected, went. 

(READ MORE: Business leaders praise US-Africa summit)


The US agenda driving the US-Africa Leaders Summit was something of a mystery ahead of the event. President Barack Obama’s African genes, China’s rapid expansion into Africa and the sense of African neglect in Obama’s foreign policy were offered by US academics as the reasons for the gathering. While there was some temptation to regard the summit as a junket and US sightseeing opportunity, it was imperative for the African delegations to push trade and economic benefits while there is still some opportunity to do so. 

For reasons of protocol, US President Barack Obama is not holding face-to-face discussions with any of the attendees – instead, Obama spoke at the US-Africa Business Forum on Tuesday, August 5, the Obama couple hosted an official dinner at the White House on the Tuesday evening, and Obama chaired the full summit meeting on the Wednesday. As a consequence, Secretary of State John Kerry has been very busy holding face-to-face meetings with some African leaders, and the remarks he and they have made to the press before these meetings have given some indication of Washington’s diplomatic angle and priorities at the summit. 

According to the White House, the summit “advances the administration’s focus on trade and investment in Africa and highlights America’s commitment to Africa’s security, its democratic development, and its people.” Trade and investment are mentioned first, and it is apparent from Kerry’s interventions that Washington does not intend to let issues of “democratic development” hinder business. 

Standing on a podium with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, for instance, Kerry did not mention human rights or civil liberties at all, preferring to focus on Ethiopia’s important role in peace-making in South Sudan and in the transition in Somalia. When meeting with President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kerry did not bring up the question of Kabila stepping down at the end of his current (constitutionally final) term in office, instead talking about security and about “economic development and the future.” 

It can be concluded from the language used by Kerry and from the focus on investment – that was also apparent from Obama’s speech at Tuesday’s business forum (where more than 90 US companies met the African leaders to talk investment) – that the summit’s focus is squarely on promoting the expansion of US companies’ activities into Africa, and that no big fuss will be made about questions of civil rights and democratic institutions. 

Investment pledges by US companies have already reached around 17 billion US dollars, focussing on areas such as construction, energy and information technology. From a strictly economic perspective, there is no doubt that all the parties involved could benefit significantly from greater US participation on the African continent.

These companies will be able to take advantage of opportunities in some of the fastest growing economies globally, while the countries involved benefit from infrastructure investment and job creation. In addition, the transition from an aid donor to an investment partner would put the US in a much better position to support sustainable development in the region. 

Economic data from the US economy show mixed signals – sometimes seeming to indicate better growth than expected, sometimes disappointing. At the same time, Latin America (previously an easy destination for US companies) has slowly been turning away from the northern giant for political reasons. As a result, Washington is making a concerted effort to boost trade with Africa.

(READ MORE: Million dollar deals up for grabs at the US-Africa summit)

On this continent, the US has long been outcompeted by China, including on deals for capital equipment and advanced technologies where US companies had a historical comparative advantage. This is not unrelated to China’s ‘no strings attached’ way of advancing trade – Beijing never has anything to say about matters of human rights or democracy; it just wants to sign deals. 

The signs from this week’s US-Africa summit indicate that the world’s largest economy intends to adopt a more Chinese attitude to business in Africa, perhaps reducing its emphasis on human rights. This is a pity – although it has always been implemented in a selective and hypocritical way, US pressure on rights issues has made real differences in many places and has improved many African lives. It would be regrettable if it now elected to step out of that role.