Will The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Hurt Relations?

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Written by D.A. Barber

This is not without precedent: China’s Africa summit does not invite African leaders that recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation, which includes Burkina Faso, São Tomé and Príncipe and Swaziland.

Early in 2014, the European Union faced a potential backlash – though it never came to pass – for its summit invitation list. Ahead of the European Union event, the African Union called for a boycott of the summit after hearing that Morocco, not a member of the AU, was invited while Sudan – an A.U. member – was excluded due to alleged human rights abuses.

Critics claim the U.S. could potentially face similar challenges and questions have been raised as to whether some countries will “self-exclude” because of protocol sensitivities towards those countries that were not invited.

“There was some talk about that, but I don’t expect that will happen,” Corporate Council on Africa’s Hayes told AFKInsider.

One of the recommendations by the Brookings Institute in June was: “If the United States cannot invite a country’s leader for political reasons, it should strive to have at least some representation at the forum.”

Playing Catch-up?

The bottom line for critics is that with the Summit, the U.S. is simply playing catch-up with the countries that already have a foot-hold in the African economy.

Corporate Council on Africa’s Hayes thinks we are playing catch-up.

“We don’t even need to hem-and-haw about that, yea we are. And I think that the Administration is belatedly saying ‘hey wait a minute, Africa is more important and we need to be spending a lot more emphasis on this,” Hayes told AFKInsider.

“I don’t think we’re playing catch-up in any way,” a State Department official told AFKInsider. “We have a very long standing partnership with Africa and African nations and I think our relationship goes back a long time and we do a variety of different things with different partners.”

“I mean let’s face it; Africa’s been unmentioned most of the time in the U.S. Our corporations are way behind there; some of them are waking up and trying to catch up. Our government’s way behind, we don’t have people in the government that are really of Africa and understand Africa,” Moffett told AFKInsider.

Getting CEOs On-Board

While African leaders may be coming to Washington to engage with the U.S. administration on key economic and political issues, they won’t be walking away empty handed. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker will announce at least $900 million in deals at the Summit to sweeten the pot.

“You can’t fake this, you can’t re-program money from existing programs and think these Africans leaders or people in the media are going to actually believe there was a big event,” former Congressman Moffett told AFKInsider.

In fact, misperception of these African leaders could cause problems at the Summit because “these are not your grandfather’s African leaders,” as Moffett wrote in a July 8 Huffington Post Op-Ed.

“I spend a lot of time in Africa and you find yourself with 32-year-olds running the country,” Moffett told AFKInsider. “My oldest daughter is the chief adviser to the chairman of a very big bank in Nairobi and she rarely sees Americans, she rarely talks to Americans.”

The real question is can the White House get the American CEOs attending the Summit to step up and invest in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Africa’s going on without us and that’s not a minor point here with regard to this Summit,” says Moffett.

“Africa is rising in many ways, particularly in terms of private sector investment,” notes Corporate Council on Africa’s Hayes. “But it’s still a high risk environment in many countries. So there is necessary caution.”

“I can tell you that I talk to big companies all the time and they say ‘no no no, we’re just not interested.’ Some of the biggest financial institutions in the world, and they say ‘no, we’re making money elsewhere.’ And so that’s why our lunch is getting eaten on a daily basis,” Moffett told AFKInsider.

Whether U.S. corporations show new interest in Africa or not, the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative’s Amadou Sy writes July 16 that“the main measure of success of the first summit between African leaders and the 44th U.S. president should be whether the United States can seize an unprecedented opportunity to build a strategy ‘together’ with Africa.”

“I would say this is a unique opportunity to talk to the leaders together about shared concerns and this is the first time we’ve done that on this scale,” a State Department official told AFKInsider. “We’re hoping that we can discuss some of the really important things that we face together with out African partners.”

“I don’t think it’s risky, this is more about the next ten to twenty years and getting the U.S. positioned and re-positioned in a much more substantial way than it is now. And so, we’ll see,” former Congressman Moffett told AFKInsider.