Obama’s Africa Summit: Business Agenda Rather Than Human Rights & Aid

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August 4, 2014; Voice of America


In the run-up to a summit in Washington between President Obama and a number of African leaders that ended yesterday, Chika Onyeani, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the African Sun Times newspaper and the chairman of the Celebrate Africa Foundation, had called on summit participants to meet with members of the African Diaspora.

Why might leaders such as Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, and Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz want to meet with members of the African Diaspora in the U.S.? The Migration Policy Institute suggests that there are some 1.5 million African-born residents in the U.S., who Onyeani says actually remit $70 to $80 billion a year to Africa.

Within the nonprofit sector, a very large array of organizations with membership from the Diaspora has arisen, some along community and ethnic lines, but increasing on national identities, as referenced in this list of U.S. Diaspora organizations (see Annex B). Capitalizing on the energies, ideas, and resources of the African Diaspora as part of the summit conversation made some sense, but Onyeani didn’t receive a positive reception to his suggestion—or any response at all.

Onyeani noted that the schedule and agenda of meetings for the African leaders who came to Washington for the summit had been largely structured by the African Union, which clearly didn’t have Diaspora organizations in mind. Presciently, Onyeani suggested that the African presidents “should be paying the same attention to us that they pay [through remittances] to all these corporate people who don’t contribute,” and that issue may underlie the summit. The influence of corporate groups like the Corporate Council on Africa was pretty clear, including a $400-a-person Corporate Council networking event as well as additional pricy dinners with various African presidents.

The summit was officially the “U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit,” which President Obama made clear would have a strong business focus. Devex writer Michael Igoe described Obama’s visit last year to three African countries as his “trade not aid” tour. The implication of Igoe’s coverage of the summit is that the Obama lens on Africa this time around is corporate, with a summit focus for corporations “investing in Africa’s future.” Igoe writes, “In many ways, the historic gathering better resembles a business convention than a diplomatic summit.”

If bringing corporate America to Africa’s assistance is “Obama’s Africa legacy moment,” it stands in sharp contrast to former President George W. Bush’s legacy, which centered on PEPFAR, described by Igoe as “one of the most ambitious aid packages in U.S. history.” PEPFAR is the acronym for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. While President Bush’s foreign policy may have been something of a disaster, particularly regarding the disastrous turn of events in the Middle East following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Bush deserved great credit for PEPFAR, which we once described as possibly the “high water mark of his administration.” (The posted description of PEPFAR eliminates President Bush from its history and attributes its origins to the enactment of H.R.5501, the Tom Lantos and Henry Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Reauthorization Act of 2008.)

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President Obama’s corporate investment approach was echoed by the ubiquitous Rev. Jesse Jackson, who in a speech at the National Press Club with President Zuma declared the summit as marking the transition from “slave trade to free trade.” Rev. Jackson then dismissed apparent concerns about the Ebola outbreak, AIDS, and Nigeria’s Boko Haram as “isolated issues.” That Ebola outbreak led to three West African presidents choosing not to attend because of the ravages of the disease in their countries and President Obama’s announcement that all visiting dignitaries at the summit would be screened for Ebola.

It’s not clear that those “isolated” issues are quite so easily dismissed, nor the presence of some troubling African presidents such as Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (where vicious anti-gay legislation always seems to be surfacing), Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema, and others easily ignored. In fact, just about entirely missing from the summit discussion were issues such as human rights in Africa, the criminalization of gay people in Uganda, and much more. Corporate interests are now predominant in the U.S. government’s approach to Africa. The Guardian, for example, notes that the U.S. government’s criticism of Obiang’s brutality seems to have been deep-sixed since the discovery of large oil reserves in Equatorial Guinea.  

The summit actually opened to loud protests of the Obama administration’s willingness to entertain “torturers” and “killers,” particularly the leaders of Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The protesters chanted, “Stop financing dictators. President Obama, shame on you.” President Obama explained the summit’s openness to a few brutal dictators among the 40 participating African heads of state by saying, “We find that in some cases, engaging a country that generally is a good partner but is not performing optimally when it comes to all the various categories of human rights, that we can be effective in working with them on certain areas and criticizing them and trying to elicit improvements in other areas.” 

It is ironic that a U.S. president whose election was a reflection of the American population’s horror at the human rights abuses in the prosecution of the Iraq war has now put human rights issues in Africa on the back burner in favor of providing investment and profit opportunities for U.S. corporations. Somehow, the message of the summit seems a little odd.—Rick Cohen


  • Carolyn M. Appleton

    I can understand the concerns voiced in this article. Having said that, more people across the world need to understand that Africa is a continent with great potential of a positive sort, rather than just negative ones. William Wallis writes today in the Financial Times, “Africa shows potential to drive global growth” (http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/75aef952-1e3b-11e4-bb68-00144feabdc0.html). He remarks:

    “By their own admission, US envoys to Africa have tended to spend a disproportionate amount of time dealing with flashpoints such as South Sudan, and more recently on the emerging threat of terrorism coming from countries such as Somalia. They have spent less time attending to the commercial opportunities that have emerged as African economies have grown and a new class of business people and consumers has sprung up.”

    We need to establish an ongoing, balanced dialogue regarding the challenges and the opportunities in Africa.