#WeAreAfrica: Where Is The Civil Society At US-Africa Leaders Summit?

Written by Andrew Friedman

This story was updated on 7/22/2014 to include Madagascar and Guinea-Bissau on the list of countries that have received invites after being initially excluded and the Central African Republic on the list of uninvited countries.

On August 4-6, U.S. President Barack Obama will host the first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. This event is the first of its kind in American history, bringing Obama and government representatives together with more African heads of state and government than ever before.

It will include leaders from across the continent, including all African heads of state or government in good standing with the U.S. and the African Union, according to Ned Price, a National Security Council spokesman.

Initially on the short list of uninvited countries were Egypt, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Sudan, Western Sahara, Central African Republic and Zimbabwe, however, according to the Agence France-Presse, Egypt, Guinea-Bissau and Madagascar were recently extended late invitations due to Egypt’s reinstatement in the African Union and Guinea-Bissau and Madagascar’s recent democratic elections.

According to the White House, the summit is meant to build on the president’s trip to Africa in the summer of 2013, advance the administration’s focus on trade and investment in Africa and highlight America’s commitment to Africa’s security, its democratic development, and its people.

Aug. 4 includes a number of “signature events,” that were initially not a part of the festivities. We’ll get to that later.

Aug. 5 features a U.S.-Africa Business Forum, co-sponsored by the Department of Commerce and Bloomberg Philanthropies. This will bring together leaders from across the African continent and U.S. business leaders, aimed at deepening investment opportunities and business connections between the U.S. and Africa.

Aug. 6 will feature three leader sessions, where Obama and leaders from across Africa will discuss a variety of issues.

In the first session they will discuss inclusive, sustainable development, economic growth, and trade and investment. Session two will be a working lunch on peace, stability and solutions to conflict. Finally, the leaders will discuss issues of good governance.

Signature events

While leaders from across the continent will be attending the summit and meeting with U.S. political and business leaders, at the outset there was a conspicuous lack of civil society participation. This is a problem.

To attempt to alleviate the issue, five American non-governmental organizations united to push the issue on the White House. The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, Amnesty International USA, Open Society Foundations, Freedom House and the Front Line Defenders collectively organized the U.S.-Africa Civil Society Forum.

The groups formed a plan of action and engaged in hashtag activism, campaigning with the #WeAreAfrica hashtag and a petition website, attempting to influence the attendance and topics covered at the summit.

RFK Center’s Africa Advocacy Officer Jeffrey Smith told AFKInsider that the group, despite being happy at the prospect of Obama’s engagement with African leaders, had two major concerns when the summit was initially announced. First, good governance was not any part of the discussion and second, civil society had no seat at the table.

The civil society forum

Since these initial concerns, Smith said there has been some progress. First, while the State Department was always set to host the civil society forum on Aug. 4, it was to be a separate forum entirely from the U.S.-Africa Summit.

Aug. 4 has since been folded into the main summit, turning the originally two-day summit into three days. Second, the White House website has included issues of governance in the official program and official goals for the summit.

Despite these successes there is much left to do. Smith said that across the continent civil society is the core vehicle by which citizens voice their concerns and thus civil society organizations should be given a seat at the table with leaders, or at very least the summit should allow civil society organizations an avenue to present their issues and recommendations during the leader sessions.

The hypocrisy of the Obama administration on this issue was also pointed out by Ian Gary, writing for Oxfam America’s Politics of Poverty blog.

According to Gary, while ”…The Obama administration has frequently spoken out about the importance of governments engaging with their own citizens and civil society groups…initial signs that African CSOs will have any more luck getting a seat in the table when they come to Washington than in Malabo are not encouraging.”

He goes further to reaffirm that while the State Department will be hosting the groups on Aug. 4, there is no indication that they will be able to participate in the events of either the Aug. 5 or Aug. 6.

Simply by using such a public forum to meet with leaders from across the continent, the Obama administration has gone further than its predecessors in engagement.

Including governance as an official issue to be discussed is an important first step in turning the event into an avenue for the promotion of human rights and good governance — two American ideals Obama has advocated since his earliest days in politics.

There is, however, much further to go.

The Obama administration should include civil society representatives throughout the leader discussions. This will allow advocates for ordinary Africans to speak in a well-attended setting on what ordinary African citizens need. Until then, the Obama administration is betraying its own rhetoric and its own definition of American ideals.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at afriedm2@gmail.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.