Monday, 11 August 2014

The 3 games in the USA - Africa summit:
America playing catch up with the Orient; Obama playing legacy politricks; and Africa playing host

Last week President Obama hosted Africa’s crème de la crème in Washington at the ‘US-Africa summit’. This was by all means a good thing and deserves a round of applause. However, it is imperative that Africans put this meeting into context and reflect on its efficacy.

Ask yourself: who decided the timing and schedule of the US – Africa summit? Who decided the venue? Who elected who to invite and who to alienate? Who determined the agenda?

Symbiosis or clever lopsidedness?
This summit came at a point in time when both the USA and Africa need one another.  Maybe USA needed Africa more. To claw back on Chinese influence in Africa after a lost decade fighting terror in the middle-East, to reassert US hegemony and ‘big-brotherdom’, to tap into Africa natural resources and to increase trade and investment in the region.

Trade: - Over the past decade, US-Africa trade declined substantially when some of US arch rivals and Africa’s trading partners like the European Union, China and Japan expanded their portfolio of trade and investment in the continent. Notably, EU-Africa trade expanded to an all-time high of about US$200 billion in 2013. Chinese – Africa trade likewise increased exponentially from just about US$10 billion in 2000 to US$ 170 billion in 2013 (largely exports to Africa - 70%). Meanwhile big brother USA’s trade that stood at US$80 billion (US$ 40 billion imports from Africa due to AGOA and US$ 20 billion exports to Africa) in 2011 declined to US$ 60 billion (US$ 40 imports from Africa and US$ 20 billion exports to Africa) in 2013. It is important to note that even the small portfolio of trade with Africa (US$ 20 billion exports) was very crucial for American jobs – supporting over 100,000 jobs. Therefore for America, this summit could not have been for a better reason than to explore and expand export opportunities for American goods and services in Africa.
 For Africa, this summit came at a time when the continent was ripe with opportunity and required strategic partnerships for trade, investment and for combating some of the ills that have perennially hamstrung economic, social and political progress in the continent like terrorism and violent conflict. It’s important to note that Africa’s trade with the rest of the globe accounts for only about 2%. Yet Africa is home to 14% of the global population; has an increasing middleclass population which will expand to 100 million by the end of 2015 and has consumer spending projected to increase to 80% by 2020.  This means market, that the continent could bargain with or leverage for intra-Africa trade. Moreover, African countries are prospecting or already exploiting and commercialising substantive natural resources, oil and gas, in Ghana, Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan for example. African countries have also made considerable progress in regional integration and cooperation. The East African community for example was one of the fastest growing regional blocks in 2013. All this is evidence to the economic and political opportunities that Africa is realising that require strategic partnership and cooperation (multilateral or bilateral) like with the USA.
Just a playing ground or real prospects?
Africa is now undoubtedly a pot of gold, and a beehive of economic and political activity that could be a tipping point in global political economy. How the super powers like China and USA handle Africa could mean great opportunities or their greatest undoing. Could Africa be merely the amphitheatre for deep seated political and economic wrangles between the West and the Orient? Are African leaders alive to this reality? How could Africans exploit this for the best interest of the continent? These are difficult questions that require reflection amongst Africans.

Nonetheless, three possible good things that I hoped the summit could herald. Maybe Africans should check with their Presidents and entourage if any of these came through:  
·         Increasing USA Africa trade and investment through a strengthen and extended AGOA.  
·      Enhancing trade competitiveness in Africa: - African countries can exploit partnerships with USA to speed up progress towards meeting the Bali agreements on trade facilitation for example. This could also pave the way for useful Public Private Partnerships under AGOA that enhance competitiveness. Such links could also help build the capacity of private sector in African countries to promote investment in key sectors like energy, agriculture and other trade related infrastructure.

·   Africa US cooperation could also support and deepen regional integration in many of Africa’s mushrooming regional blocks like the EAC, ECOWAS, SADC, and COMESA. US partnership in Trade Mark East Africa is a good example of how strategic cooperation could facilitate integration.

Tricky partnerships
Nonetheless, the flipside is that this manner of cooperation or partnerships between the USA and Africa could as well have been detrimental to Africa or yield dismal returns. The summit itself could just have been another of the many conferences of ‘nothing’ that have been witnessed in the past. The agreements and pronouncements made also risk benefiting the USA more, judging by the lopsidedness of the conduct of the meeting.

However, one thing poses a greater threat to possibilities of a favourable outcome both for the USA and African countries. Both the USA and African (as individual states and as AU) appear to be ill prepared for the outcomes of the conference. Why? The US is not the only country that has noticed that potential opportunities in Africa. China has, and adapted quickly, fronting innovative modalities for development financing (that some African countries are warming up to), pursuing fewer restrictions on credit/loans and assistance strategies. The USA on the other hand is stuck in idealist modalities for development cooperation. Further, while China is actively and aggressively engaging Africa in all corners, US infrastructure for economic diplomacy in Africa appears lame and ill suited to succeed. China currently has over 150 commercial attaches in different corners of Africa while the US department for commerce has presence in just about four countries in the continent each of which supported by no more than two officers.

Africa on the other hand has failed to determine a common political-economic agenda and framework for haggling with potential partners in the international arena. The continent (AU) was unable to meaningfully influence the conduct of the summit in terms of setting the agenda, agreeing the modalities for engagement and so on. However, it is fair to note that some regional blocks like the East African Community met ahead of the summit in Nairobi and compromised to front some of the EAC’s infrastructure projects like Lamu Port Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor project as a block instead of individual bilateral engagements. In fact the architecture of the summit was in such a way that it couldn’t allow serious bilateral or even multilateral dialogue for substantive action.

Legacy politricks?
The question that cannot escape being asked is that about the timing of the summit. Why did the Obama administration choose 2014 to host this meeting? Why so late in the course of his tenure? Was Africa ever seriously on his agenda? Was this Obama’s clever way of making peace with his clearly underwhelmed kins? Is this summit for Obama’s memoirs? Every US president has had something to take home to the books in their sunset days. Bill Clinton penned the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA), that though not been fully exploited was something both for Africa and for the Democrat. George Bush, despite the bad name took the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to his memoirs as one of the greatest initiatives for Africa. PEPFAR was very successful in supporting programming and interventions for combating HIV/AIDS. So, when all is said and done, was this Obama’s legacy card for Africa?

Beyond selfies, cowboy boots and statesons, what?
In summary, when all the picture ops are exploited, when all the dinning and winning on White house south lawn are done; when all the interviews with CNN and curtains drawn o the US-Africa summit, what have African leaders brought back home? Beyond selfies, cowboy boots and Stetsons; what should they have returned to Africa with? May be three things:
·     Extension and strengthening of the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) beyond its expiry date in 2016. Strengthen the Act and encourage African countries to fully exploit the opportunities it offers. There are some countries that exported very little to the USA despite the provisions of AGOA.

·     A road map to a US-Africa trade and investment treaty: - The leaders could have laid the ground work for a bold move towards ratifying a treaty of partnerships (not necessarily of equals as many African leaders demand). They could have left Washington with a framework of action towards actualising this in the future.

·     From aid to partnerships: - This summit should have ignited the departure from more of aid or Official Development Assistance (ODA) or Humanitarian Assistance towards more of meaningful and inclusive partnerships for development financing, for combating terrorism and violent conflict, and addressing food insecurity and disasters like Ebola and HIV/AIDS. 

You do the math; sum up the expense of summoning 50 heads of state to the US for some 72 hrs and the returns. Check the bag of goodies that your ‘leader’ brought back home. Was it worth the hype? Are the prospects real?

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