Between lofty rhetoric and tangible outcomes: US-Africa Summit

Some heads of state and governments or their representatives and other top government officials from Africa are in Washington on the invitation of U.S President Joe Biden for a second summit of the United States and African leaders. The first of such summit was convened in 2014 by former President Barack Obama with a follow up summit now, coming eight years after the first one. According to the U.S government, “the summit will demonstrate the United States enduring commitment to Africa and will underscore the importance of U.S – Africa relations and increased cooperation on shared priorities”. The summit would be coming against the backdrop of the New U.S strategy toward Sub – Saharan Africa released about three months ago in which the U.S acknowledged that “Sub – Saharan Africa is critical to advancing our global priorities”, been “one of the world fastest growing populations, largest free trade areas, most diverse ecosystems and one of the largest regional voting groups in the United of Nations”, and added that “the strategy reframes the region’s importance to U.S national security interests”.
However, major concerns for Africa which are mostly investments and trade, peace and security, inclusive and sustainable development, all very vital categories in dealing with the issues of poverty, social and political challenges in Africa has considerably nosedived in Africa – U.S relations at least since the first leaders’ Summit between the two sides was held in 2014.
The violent U.S led NATO regime-change intervention in Libya which left the country in complete chaos, following the brutal killing of its leader seriously undermined peace and security in Africa especially in the Sahel , Western and Central regions of Africa. The brutal insurgency of the Boko haram extremists in Nigeria and the rise of other criminal elements in the region were largely inflamed and driven by the flows of illicit weapons from the huge Libyan military armory flung wide open and left unsecured by the U.S led NATO military intervention.
It should never be forgotten that the U.S led violent regime change in intervention in Libya in 2011 came against the background of a concerted effort of Africa through the regional body, A.U to pursue a negotiated settlement of the Libya’s political conflict. The U. S-led NATO summarily snubbed the Africa, s regional effort.
On the economic front, Washington need to step up because the facts and figures are brutally abysmal. The United states exports of goods to Africa were 26.7 billion US dollars in 2021, a 30% drop from a high of 38.1 billion USD in 2014. Two-way trade in 2021 was just mere 1% of U.S total global commerce at 64.3 billion USD, down from a high of 141.9 billion USD in 2008.
Prior to the first summit in 2014 former President Bill Clinton has initiated the Africa Growth and opportunity Act or AGOA at the turn of the century in 2000. It was a trade Preferential program and part of wider legislation by president Bill Clinton designed to strengthened U.S trade ties with Africa and Caribbean. The act was supposed to be unilateral, which means that it did not require reciprocal lowering of trade barriers from African countries but the then U.S president said that the U.S economy will benefit from the act with “hundreds of millions of potential consumers” in Africa. However, despite the early enthusiasm that greeted the act, Africa – U.S trade remained underdeveloped and very modest. After initial jump, exports fell to their 2000 level with less than 1% of imports to the U.S in 2019 coming from Sub – Saharan Africa, a 56% decrease from 2000, the year of AGOA was started with diversification in trade significantly lagging behind. Apart from South Africa, whose mostly automotive exports constitute more than 50% of the total region’s export with the U.S in 2021, the slump in exports from other countries in the region were obvious. For example, textiles and apparels, observed as the most AGOA – related jobs generating sector, especially in East Africa considerably slumped. AGOA which was renewed in 2015 will expire 2025. Its process and trajectories since its inception has been tainted by political maneuverings by the United states with either suspending participant as it did recently, when Mali and Guinea were suspended on the basis of military coups and Ethiopia for poorly defined human right abuses.

Like William Schurz, second president of the American Institute for foreign trade, wrote that “Borders frequented by trade seldom need soldiers”, would the United States convert its perennial obsession with security and geo politics to trade and investment, especially in her relations and cooperation with Africa. Already in her new strategy toward Sub – Saharan Africa, Washington craftily set the stage to launch Africa, into a theatre of geopolitical competition of major powers. It claimed that “the People’s Republic of China (PRC)… sees the region (Africa) as an important arena to challenge the rules – based International order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical Interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken U.S relations with African peoples and governments”. In the same breath, the new strategy accused Russia of viewing “the region as a permissive environment for Private military companies, often fomenting instability for strategic and financial instability…” It is no gain saying that African peoples and their respective governments sees either the partnership with China or cooperation with Russia differently from the way, Washington has crafted it. And using any forum whether of the upcoming leaders’ summit or any other one, to impose such toxic definitions of the relations between Africa with China or Russia will not fly, especially in the face of what Africans know and experience about the relationship. Any such effort by the U.S to canvass its view of Africa’s relations with China on Africa would be utterly counterproductive.

At the same period in 2021, when Africa’s two-way trade with the U.S was at a historic low of barely 64.3 billion USD, China has maintained the momentum of Africa’s largest trading partner, with two-way trade reaching a historic high of 254 billion USD.

In 2018 at the 3rd summit of the Forum of China – African cooperation(FOCAC) in Beijing, China announced the establishment of China – Africa Economic and Trade Expo to be organized biennially by its Ministry of Commerce to deepen economic and trade cooperation with Africa. Despite outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, the expo has held on schedule. At the second edition of the expo which held last year, about 176 items in trade, investment, project contracting and strategic cooperation with a value of 15.93 billion USD was signed.

Also during the Eight ministerial conference of the Forum on China. Africa cooperation(FOCAC) held in Senegal last year, President Xi Jinping announced nine cooperation programs between Africa and China, among which is the iconic trade promotion under which Beijing will open “green lanes” for African, agricultural exports to China. Measures would be taken by the Chinese side to “speed up the inspection and quarantine procedures and further increase the scope of products enjoying zero – tariff treatment… in a bid to reach 300 billion U.S dollars in total imports from Africa in the next three years”, from 2021. In addition, China will build a pioneering zone for in-depth China – Africa trade and economic cooperation and a China – Africa Industrial park for Belt and Road cooperation in China.

While Beijing does not engage in the perennial ideological luxury of lecturing Africa about whose activities in the continent is ‘harmful” why she is a preferred friend, facts on the ground in Africa speaks louder than voice.

During the U.S – Africa leaders’ summit in Washington this week, it is most likely African leaders would demonstrate their openness for meaningful, credible and purposeful partnership with the world including the U.S and Washington can use the moment to demonstrate genuine good will beyond lofty rhetoric to define a practical roadmap in supporting Africa to tackle the challenges of poverty through trade and investment and not just humanitarian aid.

The U.S can through this summit breath life to its fledging Build Back Better world (B3W) initiative by outlining specific undertakings in infrastructure construction in Africa. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s flagship framework of international cooperation has significantly boosted the construction of critical infrastructures in Africa, fostering connectivity within and across countries in the region. Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria has just commissioned her first ever deep sea port built under the framework of the Belt and Road partnership cooperation which Nigeria signed in 2018. The historic deficit of infrastructure connectivity, which has previously hobbled the pan African notion of regional integration and unity is gradually been overcome with the continent’s pragmatic cooperation with China. The U.S can add momentum to the process of the enigmatic Africa’s renaissance through trade, investment and infrastructure construction which are themselves critical indices for social and political stability and democratic resilience in the region.

The U.S – Africa cooperation have bright prospects but must be nurtured through a process of mutual respect and acknowledgement of the different and unique historical trajectories of the two sides, while working together to secure and expand common grounds. The U.S – Africa leadership summit would be more mutually rewarding, it finds institutional ambience in the Washington’s routine schedule rather than just an arbitrary convenience of any U.S leader.

After eight years of ceaseless changes in Africa, following the lacuna since the first summit in 2014, Washington might just be learning the reality of China’s historic opportunity to the continent, for which Africa is diligently and dutifully engaging.

A Report, by a U.S based international management consortium, Mckinsey &Co in 2017 from a field study on how Africa and China are evolving in their engagement said “we evaluated Africa’s economic partnerships with the rest of the world across five dimensions: trade, investment stock, investment growth, infrastructure financing, and aid. China is in the top four for Africa in all these dimensions. No other country matches this depth and breadth of engagement”.

The broad sentiment in Africa to the expectations of the Washington summit is that, it should deliver on the tangible and practical needs of the continent, especially in trade and investment beyond the effusions of lofty rhetoric.

Onunaiju is research director of a think tank in Abuja