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Is the US Serious About Africa?


From August 4-6, 2014, United States President Barack Obama will host the first ever US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC. The summit will be attended by more than forty African Heads of State, along with other business and social leaders, at a time when Africa is often described as one of the fastest growing regions of the world. The agenda of the event features key social, political, and economic issues pertaining to the partnership between the US and the African continent. The theme of the summit, "Investing in the Next Generation," is more than relevant, given the fact that the youth of the African continent is today both its greatest potential and its most pressing challenge.

In Africa we are used to this kind of ritual with France, and recently with China, and it is mainly about their business interests, including the dark market of arms trade. In Francophone Africa, the term "Françafrique" was coined three decades ago by critical voices to describe the perpetuation of colonial patterns of France's undue interference with African politics and of the economy of predation under the good sounding name of cooperation. China, although having no colonial history with Africa, is not making that much of a difference. It is still business first.

If the US is really serious about partnering with Africa in an alternative way than the Chinese and others, not only for trade and investment but also for Africa's security, its democratic development and ultimately its people, then responsible leadership from both ends will have to be the main key to success.

Can the US make a difference?

Most world powers scrambling for natural resources and market outlets in Africa usually turn a blind eye on irresponsible leadership that hurts African people. Can the US make a difference? Maybe. The Central African Republic, Eritrea, Sudan and Zimbabwe will not be attending the summit event because they were not invited, but I wish the list was longer, featuring other countries such as Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Congo, Angola, Burkina Faso, Uganda, and others because of their poor record of democratic governance. Here are a few examples:

  1. José Eduardos Santos of Angola is 71 and has been in power for 34 years;
  2. Paul Biya of Cameroon is 81 years old and has been ruling the country for the last 32 years;
  3. Theodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea is 72 and has been in power for 32 years;
  4. Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo is 70 and has ruled the country for 30 years;
  5. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is 69 and has been in power for 27 years; and
  6. Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso is 63 and has been ruling for the last 26 years.

Some of the aforementioned leaders are currently struggling to have their constitutions modified so as to remain in power, in turn becoming a potential source of instability for their respective countries. Obama cannot rely on this brand of leaders to "invest in the next generation" when it is obvious that they have consistently failed their people in the past three decades.

The Case of Cameroon

For the purpose of illustration, I would like to focus on the particular case of Cameroon, my country of birth that I know best. Having been born and raised in this country, I am constantly haunted by the waste that it is today and the resulting damage on human lives. Cameroon is a very rich country, but the overwhelming majority of its 22 million inhabitants are very poor (not its leaders of course) mainly because of decades of poor leadership and mismanagement. There are many gifted Cameroonians living and working in the United States and elsewhere against their will, for the simple reason that talent is trampled upon in Cameroon.

First of all, the United States is a truly democratic country where the head of state does not serve more than two terms. Obama is moving toward the end of his second term without any prospect to having the constitution changed so as to remain in power. This is not the case in my country of Cameroon, which nevertheless claims to be democratic. Our democracy is not US democracy. Biya has been ruling Cameroon since 1982 and had the constitution revised in 2008 to remove the limitation of terms so as to remain in power for as long has he wills. Only God knows whether during these 32 years there have ever been free and fair elections. In 32 years, eight US Heads of States have come and gone and Biya is still holding on to power. At his age, 81 years old, common sense requires that he be retired after decades of public service, but he is still serving a seven-year term which goes up to 2018.

Secondly, the upcoming summit, through the program of Young African Leaders Initiative, (YALI) puts a particular emphasis on empowering younger generations for leadership. I don't think Obama would want these young people to look up to my president and his likeness as an example of political leadership. In fact, when Biya and the others remain in power for so long, when they sustain a corrupt gerontocracy in their administrations, there is little space left for young people to enact their potential. The drama of Cameroon today, as with many other countries, is that it has become unbearable for its youth and those who have the talent and resources only aspire to leave. It has become a prison for its own people, but with all the outer appearances of a democratic country. It is an empty shell which can fall and break into pieces at any time. This situation has shaped the political consciousness of my generation and beyond. It is a politically disaffected generation with some people contemplating violence as the only effective means of displacing the status quo, but of course, they will have to face a bloody repression.

Addressing the Leadership Issue from Within

The problem is that a good number of African leaders do not care about their people but about themselves, their rapid illicit enrichment and their power. This kind of leadership kills and is killing the poor. Some people actually wonder what our heads of state are going to do in Washington when they have so far collectively failed to rescue our girls still held hostage in a bush somewhere in Northern Nigeria. Can we just go on with politics and business as usual while these girls are still out there? If Nigeria, the biggest African economy of the day, cannot deliver on this front, then who can? We find it hard to trust our leaders. We are so used to costly but unproductive summits in Africa that we have grown very skeptical about them. Will this US-Africa summit be a turning point?

The good news is that more and more Africans are beginning to realize that the salvation of Africa will not come from outside or from the top, but from within the continent and from below. Still, it will require responsible ownership and leadership to really achieve the much needed integration at the continental level, which is the raison d'être of the African Union. Only this integration will make a strong Africa capable of a true partnership with other world powers. Hope being a shared virtue, hopefully Africa will one day stand up on its two feet and fully live its calling as cradle of humanity.


Dr. Ludovic Lado is a Southern Voices African Research Scholar with the Africa Program at The Wilson Center, and Director of the Institute of Human Rights and Dignity at the Centre de Recherche et d'Action poir la Paix (CERAP) in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

About the Author

Ludovic Lado

Former Southern Voices African Research Scholar;
Director of Institute of Human Rights and Dignity, Center of Research and Action for Peace

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-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 US-Africa relations.    Read more