Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1208, (7 - 13 August 2014)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1208, (7 - 13 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Babysitting Africa

It is obvious what Washington wants from Africa, but what does Africa want from the US, asks Gamal Nkrumah on the eve of the Africa-US summit

Al-Ahram Weekly

“We must find new lands from which we can easily obtain raw materials and at the same time exploit the cheap slave labour that is available from the natives” – Cecil Rhodes

One does not need to embark on painstaking research to come to the conclusion that the contemporary western powers are to this day mimicking the logic that drove the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes to carve out an enormous empire in central and southern Africa for the glory of Britain in the nineteenth century.

United States President Barack Obama goes to great lengths to hide his administration’s covert activities in Africa. Successive American governments have become experts in the art of concealing their real intentions and activities, and no US president has elevated Machiavellian machinations to such a fine art as Obama. He is one of the most articulate orators the White House has seen since World War II.

It is difficult for impoverished African nations, with their begging bowl potentates who run the continent, to gather sufficient information on Washington’s role and activities on the continent. They lack the political will to do so.

Such an exoneration of American prowess in Africa appears to be a stretch too far. Obama has not only upheld but has actually strengthened former president George W. Bush’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), to date the chief conduit for combating militant Islamist terrorism in Africa.

With a modicum of political resolve, African leaders could easily face America on an equal footing. The 50 states of the US ultimately form a single political entity. The 54 African neo-colonial states enjoy the trappings of statehood but in reality are non-entities.

Over time, what Washington needs from Africa has metamorphosed into a more complex set of requests. US officials have brushed aside suggestions that the purpose of this week’s US/Africa Summit is to halt China’s growing economic clout on the continent and America’s relative demise in economic concerns.

It should not be a surprise that expectations from ordinary Africans are not high. “There are still bits of aid needed here or there, but fundamentally the relationship is now defined as one of trade, investment, growth and opportunities,” said Donald Kaberuka, president of the African Development Bank.

“It responds to what Africans are looking for and responds to expectations of American business,” he added.

The summit, the largest event any US president has held with African heads of state and government officials, is a revelation, a humiliating means of putting Africans in their place.

Incredulously, African heads of state and officials were subjected to a screening for the Ebola virus before the summit. Some, not surprisingly, raised objections.

Is the summit to promote counter-terrorism? Or is it an economic brainstorming session? What are the dynamics of the meeting? Detractors are derisive of its pretensions to assist Africa and fulfil the aspirations of Africans. Washington insists that the purpose of the summit is to advance the US administration’s focus on trade and investment in Africa and highlight America’s commitment to Africa’s security and democratic development.

Egyptian participation at this week’s gathering is formidable. Even though President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi will not attend, he has dispatched a high-powered delegation led by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb. Since the onus of the summit is supposedly economic it comes as no surprise that Minister of Finance Hany Kadry Dimian and Minister of Industry and Foreign Trade Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour will accompany Mehleb.

Egypt would like to develop partnerships with the US and a second, third, or even forth African partner. Such partnerships have always been lucrative and Egypt has benefited tremendously in such three-way partnerships with countries such as Japan and other African nations.

The financial rewards for such deals can be immense. US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker has said that deals worth about US$1 billion could be clinched at the summit.

“It’s also why we’re determined to deepen our partnership and deliver on remarkable opportunities for peace, for security, for economic growth, and perhaps most important in the context of what brings us here today, for the empowerment of people through their government, through their civil society,” US secretary of state John Kerry announced on the eve of the summit.

Shoring up the US’s position in Africa will not of itself define America’s new role in the continent. In an era of great power competition, America will have to contend with drawing swords on the continent with the BRICS.

The theme of the summit is “Investing in the Next Generation.” But perhaps the geopolitical realignment of South Africa, the newest member of BRICS, originally made up of Brazil, India, Russia and China, might be viewed as the true reason behind the meeting.

Pariah states, as designated by Washington, such as Zimbabwe, Sudan and Eritrea, have been excluded from participating. South African President Jacob Zuma has also been nonplussed, as his two major political victories — hosting the BRICS summit in Durban three months ago and ensuring that a Pretoria diplomat, his ex-wife Nkozozana Dlamini-Zuma, controversially won the leadership of the African Union — have not been recognised at the Africa-US Summit.

While former US President Bush’s State Department labelled former South African president Thabo Mbeki’s 2001 continental strategy, known as the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), as “philosophically spot-on,” this presumably meant that NEPAD suited American interests in the continent.

South Africa’s relationship, political and economical, with the US has come a long way. Washington is no longer the saviour or the gargoyle. Mbeki had urged a quintupling of annual western donor aid, but Zuma seems less keen on NEPAD and more enthusiastic about BRICS.

It has been proposed that an African-American centre be created to pursue issues that Africans define as critical for the future of the continent. This would include expanding trade and investment ties, engaging young African leaders, promoting inclusive sustainable development, and expanding cooperation on peace and security.

But the summit is nevertheless fraught with bitter ironies. Perhaps the only sector of the African political establishment that is keen on strengthening ties with Washington is the military and security apparatus.

The most glaring example of this could be seen in July, when Nigeria, after a series of terrorist acts, officially requested the deployment of US troops to help the Nigerian military and security forces quell Boko Haram.

“Boko Haram are better armed and better motivated than our own troops. Given the present state of affairs, it is absolutely impossible for us to defeat Boko Haram,” Kashim Shettima, the beleaguered governor of the northeastern Nigeria state of Bornu, conceded

On 5 August, the US Department of Commerce and Bloomberg Philanthropies co-hosted the first US-Africa Business Forum, focused on strengthening trade and financial ties between the United States and Africa. On 6 August, US first lady Michelle Obama, in partnership with former first lady Laura Bush and the Bush Institute, was scheduled to host a day-long spouses’ symposium at the Kennedy Centre. The meeting was to focus on the impact of investment in education, health, and public-private partnerships in Africa.

The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which Obama has promoted, is yet another bone of contention. Washington is queasy about the BRICS New Development Bank headquartered in Shanghai, which could present a formidable challenge to American and European interests in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Nevertheless, Washington alone is not to blame. African leaders seem content to sit on the sidelines and appear to have no particular political agenda. It is not clear that they know what they want from America.

In short, the Washington summit is a publicity stunt and the star is Barack Obama. It would be perhaps naive to expect otherwise.

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