On Tuesday, the White House announced its decision to hold a two-day summit with Africa’s leaders in August. The summit in Washington D.C. will be the first occasion that a U.S. President has held such a gathering.
The White House press release promised that the summit would highlight America’s commitment to Africa’s democratic development alongside advancing trade and investment, and security in Africa.
At this stage it remains unclear to what extent such a summit can be seen as an opportunity to promote norms of democracy and good governance, or whether the summit will simply prove to be the triumph of the desire of both U.S. and African leaders to boost trade. The final guest list is likely to prove particularly interesting. The summit will provide international legitimacy to a number of African leaders who would never otherwise be afforded a place on the same stage as the President of the United States. For instance, when visiting Sub-Saharan Africa, the Obama administration has always carefully selected the countries visited, ensuring that those making progress in governance and human rights are ‘rewarded’. In total, President Obama has only visited Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa and Senegal as President.
Instead, this summit is likely to prove controversial given the legitimacy it will confer to some of Africa’s more controversial leaders. Initially, the White House claimed that all African leaders will be invited with the exception of those not in good standing with the U.S. or the African Union. According to the White House, set to be invited are the leaders of the DRC, Kenya and South Sudan, amongst others. The invitation of the Kenyan administration is particularly interesting given their exclusion from Obama’s 2013 tour of Africa due to the indictments of President Kenyatta by the International Criminal Court, charges the President continues to face. Similarly, recent anti-democratic moves within South Sudan by President Kiir, sparked inter-communal violence, yet South Sudan remains on the guest list. One country set to miss out though is close U.S. ally Egypt, who has been excluded from the summit given the current suspension of ties between Egypt and the African Union. Yet, the value of the summit for the United States risks being minimized if Africa’s authoritarian leaders, such as President Kiir and President Kagame of Rwanda attend, yet are subject to fierce Congressional criticism given their recent anti-democratic practices.
As the list of attendees crystallizes, it is likely that criticism of the United States will increase given its seeming focus on trade at the expense of the promotion of democracy and good governance. With significant concern about China’s growing presence in Africa, the latest move by the U.S. Government represents a belated attempt to match China’s growing high-level diplomacy. Notably, since 2000 it has hosted ministerial conferences between Chinese and African leaders every two years, with the latest being a 2012 summit of Africa’s leaders in Beijing. As the U.S. summit approaches, the extent to which the values of good governance and democracy will be promoted substantively remains to be seen.