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Can African Leaders Improve the US-Africa Summit?


When examining the news about the US-Africa Summit as we begin Day 2, the most common sentiment is one of skepticism. Policymakers and analysts alike are doubtful that this summit will make any sustainable change in US-Africa relations, despite being the first of its kind. The greatest amount of criticisms is geared towards President Obama's statement that he will not be meeting with any African head of state one-on-one but instead will use the time to engage in an "interactive dialogue." Defenders of the President state that this is the best diplomatic solution as to not show favoritism, while others claim it's a disrespectful snub. Dr. Monde Muyangwa, Director of the Africa Program at the Wilson Center states, "The Africa of today is not the Africa of 50 years ago and continuing to look at Africa through that lens I think causes us to lose opportunities."

Regardless of opinion, there is no changing the format of the summit. This does not mean the summit will be a failure. Instead of focusing on the current flaws the summit undoubtedly has, African Heads of State should be examining their own agendas to ensure they are using these three days in Washington to the best of their capabilities. One means of accomplishing this is by utilizing this summit as not only a means of improving US-Africa relations, but also as an opportunity to strengthen relationships with one another.

Engaging for better regional integration

The term "regional integration" in the context of Africa has been most commonly used to argue for more efficient trade between African countries, and also between the US and Africa. This week's summit is dedicating an entire day for the US-Africa business forum to discuss economic issues, including regional integration. Ambassador Robin Renee Sanders argues, "How could having five sub-regional meetings - short presidential sessions with leaders of West, Central, East, South, and North Africa - be too much for us to do?" This brings up the critical point of whether or not any comprehensive solution can be made when approximately 50 African leaders all with different opinions will be sitting in one room, attempting to have their voices heard. The benefit of regional meetings would be the creation of some sort of common interest to direct the discussion.

While trade in Africa may be a common goal, there are subtler nuances across the continent that will fail to be picked up on in a large discussion. For example, if there were to be an East Africa meeting, members of the EAC could discuss the possibility of having a common passport like West African nations currently do with the ECOWAS passport, or even a common currency. West Africa would undoubtedly talk about the growing threat of Boko Haram. Southern Africa may talk about creating a more effective railway system. These are the discussions that need to be had with questions that need answering. If the US-Africa summit were to provide a forum in which to address these tangible problems, it would be considered a success. So, although the United States may not provide the space for regional meetings, African heads of states from similar regions should at the least voice a common goal in order to create a more unified voice in a room of large personalities.

Hold one another accountable

Recently, Paul Kagame called out African leaders for their failed conflict management policies. In a speech given at the African Development Bank he stated, "When I am watching television and I find that our leaders, who should have been working together all along to address these problems that only affect their countries, wait until they are invited to go to Europe to sit there and find solutions to their problems... it's as if they are made to sit down and address their problems." During the US-Africa summit there is an hour and half session to look at peace and regional stability. Most of this time will likely be devoted to Boko Haram, which recently kidnapped the wife of Cameroon's vice prime minister. Although Nigeria may currently have Africa's largest economy, it is clearly failing to address this threat single handedly. President Jonathan's critics claim that after large periods of blatant inaction the recent military offensive he launched was a consequence of his reelection bid, not out of a commitment to end Boko Haram. It took even longer to create a unified front across countries to attempt to end this threat. An article published by the Guardian headlined with, Boko Haram: African leaders agree joint action in rare show of unity. This indicates both the skepticism and surprise that African leaders came together to create a cohesive decision.

Although it seems as though West African countries are finally combining forces to address this threat, it is something that should have happened a lot sooner. President Kagame's speech was a call to action for African leaders to stop waiting for a Western power and to call one another out on failed conflict management policies. This mentality should be applied at the US-Africa Summit. Peacebuilding efforts should involve engagement between African countries, facilitating an exchange of ideas that will reach beyond an hour and a half time slot.

Including the youth voice

Last week, President Obama spoke at the Young African Leaders Summit with over 500 young leaders from the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). YALI has been celebrated as one of the Obama administrations most successful initiatives towards Africa. This program has the potential to span to more than just a youth run venture; it could have the very real ability to influence policymakers and African leaders and is an important aspect of the US-Africa summit. US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield commented on July 9,

"The 500 who are here now are getting mentoring in entrepreneurship and civil society and public service, and they will end their six weeks with the summit here in Washington where they will engage with senior leaders from across the United States, including a town hall meeting with the President. And we hope that these young people go back inspired, inspired to lead but also inspired to be successful so that they can contribute to their countries' future."

One of the best ways for these young leaders to make an impact on the future of their country is to have a voice in the political process. According to the Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance, "In many African countries, youth have either remained marginalized or not played a role in the political process. This is largely due to institutional and policy constraints of the state and society." When devoting an entire section of the US-Africa Summit to 'Investing in Africa's future,' the voices of the future should be front and center. It would only serve to highlight the positive impacts of the Obama Administration if they were to collaborate with YALI on a greater level for the US-Africa Summit, which would provide an invaluable opportunity to connect African youth with the current leadership.

Since this is not the current layout of the program, African Heads of State should find the initiative to address this challenge on their own terms. When talking about investing in Africa's future, the topic of youth political integration should be a key focal point for discussion during and after the summit.

Looking Forward

There are dozens of solutions beyond those mentioned to the challenges discussed above in the minds of both the African Heads of State and the people they represent. Three days is not enough time to implement lasting change. Rather, starting a dialogue that will endure outside of these three days in Washington is the best way to ensure that both the summit and its aftermath are a success.


Rohita Javangula is a Communications Intern with the Africa Program at The Wilson Center.

Related Program

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more