A summit of little substance

By Charles Onunaiju
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail ChinAfrica, January 30, 2023
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Attendees of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit walk through the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., Dec. 13, 2022. [Photo/cfp.cn]

The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit was held in Washington D.C. from Dec. 13 to 15, 2022. As expected, it drew considerable media attention. 

Coming eight years after the first such summit held in 2014, it did not have much to look back in terms of antecedents and continuity. There was virtually nothing to talk about the 2014 summit. Between then and now, Power Africa, the signature initiative of former U.S. President Barack Obama aimed at doubling access to power in Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than two-thirds of the population lives without electricity and more than 85% of those living in rural areas lack electricity, has mostly floundered. 

John Rice, then vice chairman of General Electric, gave a scathing verdict several years after the initiative was launched, noting that the number of megawatts that was actually on the grid directly from the Power Africa initiative was very small. The initial phase of the project aimed to add more than 10,000 mw of cleaner, more efficient electricity generation capacity, with a target to increase electricity access by at least 20 million new households, and the ultimate goal was to add 30,000 mw of clean electricity and 60 million new connections with an investment of about $7 billion. But the project got nowhere. Six countries - Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania - were lined up for the phase ending in 2018. By the end of that year, the former chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission told a U.S. newspaper, "I am not aware of any concrete plans for power plants that have emerged as a result of Power Africa." 

Prosper Africa, another initiative launched in 2018, was designed to substantially increase two-way trade and investment between the U.S. and Africa. By the end of 2021, it had delivered a paltry two-way trade of just $64 billion, less than 1% of the total U.S. trade with the world. Similarly, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, passed at the turn of the century, renewed in 2015 and due to expire in 2025, has added little or no momentum at all to U.S.-Africa economic exchanges.   

Playing with words 

The just-concluded U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit was not short on lofty rhetoric. U.S. President Joe Biden told his guests, "We are all in on Africa's future," and made an announcement of $55 billion in commitments. However, Biden underscored that only $15 billion of that was new commitment, which means bulk of the headlined $55 billion comes from initiatives that have already been announced in the past fora. Some observers noted that while there were a few interesting investment announcements and commitments, the overall feeling was that an assemblage of disparate deals was turned into a presentable enough commitment to make an impression that the U.S. is "all in on Africa's future." 

Beyond the glitters of the Washington summit, there are no roadmaps, benchmarks, timelines, or specific deliverables to give concrete momentum to the existing modest commercial and economic relations between the two sides. The summit, which had an opportunity to invigorate the existing cooperation, went overboard in preaching the private sector on both sides to hug themselves as if that is not happening already, but fell far short on establishing institutional and other structural processes to drive the relationship on a sustainable basis. Definitely, the U.S. is more interested in geopolitics than the critical inputs that would support Africa in building self-propelling capacity. 

Seeking its own interests 

The summit itself was ostensibly inspired by geopolitics, an extension of the U.S.'s obsession to contain China and, to a lesser degree, Russia on the global stage, especially in regions where China's footprints are growing. The U.S. strategy towards Sub-Saharan Africa, released in August 2022, made no pretence about the reason for the U.S.'s renewed interest in Africa. It has accused China of seeing Africa as an important arena to challenge the international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interest and weaken U.S. relations with African peoples and governments.  

Chairman of the African Union (AU) and President of the Republic of Senegal Macky Sall said at the UN General Assembly that Africa has suffered enough of the burden of history, and that it does not want to be the breeding ground of a new Cold War, but instead a pole of stability and opportunity open to all its partners on a mutually beneficial basis. 

At the Washington summit, Biden promised to support the AU become a permanent member of the G20. Already, the group has reached out to major international organisations and significant regional groups. Being more of a mechanism or process than an organisation, its agenda and outreach are constantly evolving, and engaging important global players is more in its interest to stay relevant. African countries need to boost their capacities and come to global top tables on their own rather than be patronised by others.  

Another eye-catching sweetener of the Washington summit was the appointment of a special U.S. envoy to coordinate U.S. interests in Africa and drive the summit's outcomes. The role went to Ambassador Johnnie Carson, who is known for his condescending arrogance towards Africa. Prior to the Kenyan presidential election in 2013, Carson, then assistant secretary of state for Africa, warned Kenyan voters that whatever choice they make would have consequences. The comment was viewed with alarm across Africa, and already there are concerns whether Carson would be knocking heads or mending fences in his new role.   

Action needed 

At the summit, Biden said that "African voices, African leadership, African innovation, all are critical to addressing the most pressing global challenges… Africa belongs to the table in every room where global challenges are being discussed, and in every institution where discussions are taking place." 

There is no doubt that Africa's moderating influence could douse some of the world's tensions. However, as a major country, U.S. also has a hand in contributing to international instability. Whether it is piling pressure on Russia through surrogate wars, or seeking confrontation in the Indo-Pacific, such actions divert energy and attention from creating "a world that is free, a world that is open, prosperous, and secure," to use Biden's words. 

The Washington summit has concluded, and it is expected that its outcomes would enable a framework for what the U.S. called "equal partnership" between the two sides. With all the talking done, the key now is to walk the talk. The U.S., as the convener of the summit, should take the initiative. The world is watching. 

The author is director of the Centre for China Studies, Abuja, Nigeria.

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