The Significance of Obama’s Meeting with African Leaders at the White House

Since coming to office in 2009, President Obama has on a number of occasions invited African leaders for meetings at the White House and at luncheons at the United Nations in New York. Over the past four years, Obama has hosted several African leaders at the White House including: Zuma of South Africa, Kikwete of Tanzania, Mills of Ghana, Jonathan of Nigeria, Tsvangirai of Zimbabwe, Khama of Botswana, Sirleaf of Liberia, Yayi of Benin, Conde of Guinea, Issoufou of Niger, and Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire, among others.

These selective meetings with African leaders have not only served to advance American interests in Africa, but have also been used to tacitly communicate the administration’s expectations of democratic reforms in Africa and to reward those countries that have made advances in the cause of democracy and human rights.

While it is not the case that those invited represent the most democratic or free countries in Africa, they do often represent countries that have made substantial progress in democratization or cessation of civil conflict. In some cases, an African country’s strategic importance to the United States in terms of security appears to be the most important factor for inclusion on the White House invitation list.

Next Thursday, President Obama will host four African leaders at the White House: Jorge Carlos Fonseca of Cape Verde, Macky Sall of Senegal, Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone and Joyce Banda of Malawi. In hosting these leaders, President Obama will yet again send a message to African leaders that his administration wants to engage with those leaders and countries that uphold the rule of law and good governance. The president is likely to proclaim the invited leaders as the best examples of the type of leadership that Africa needs to deal with the wide array of developmental challenges that the continent faces. The president will yet again highlight United States’ commitment to partnering with those African countries that demonstrate advances in good governance, democracy and tackling corruption.

President Obama’s engagement with a select group of African leaders whose countries have made advances in democratic reforms has its merits. However, there are many countries that are critical to peace and security in Africa and deserve to be part of the conversation with the president.

Cape Verde

Of all the African countries whose leaders will be visiting the White House next week, Cape Verde stands out with respect to its robust institutions and good governance. In addition to continued entrenchment of the rule of the law, Cape Verde has also been consistent in instituting reforms necessary to sustain high rates of economic growth. Its indicators of political rights, civil liberties, and freedom of information are among the highest in Africa. President Fonseca won in a multi-party election in August 2011 in Cape Verde, taking over from Pedro Verona Rodrigues Pires, who stepped down as president after serving two terms. President Pires was the 2011 winner of the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, which is awarded to former African leaders with a demonstrated record of good governance. Finally, Cape Verde has had a 20-year record of a multi-party democracy.

Senegal

Senegal also scores high on various indicators of governance and has a good track record of free and fair elections. President Macky Sall was elected in April last year after defeating the incumbent president, Abdoulaye Wade, who had sought a third term in office after manipulating the country’s constitution in order to be eligible to run for a third term. The rejection of Wade by the country’s voters signifies the maturity of Senegal as a democracy and in part explains the inclusion of President Sall attending next Thursday’s White House meeting.

Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone and Malawi do not score as high as Cape Verde and Senegal in terms of good governance. However, the democratic trajectory in these countries over the past few years has been positive. President Koroma of Sierra Leone was first elected in 2007 and reelected in 2012. Although the country’s democracy is a work in progress, the nation has emerged from a devastating conflict, which lasted from 1991-2002, and its transition to a democratically-elected leader and the maintenance of peace are significant.

Malawi

Joyce Banda, who was previously the vice president of Malawi, became president in April last year following the death of then-president, Bingu wa Mutharika. While Malawi has had a good track record of democratic reforms, there was a serious erosion of democracy during the last few years of Mutharika’s rule as he became increasingly authoritarian. At the time of his death, Mutharika had isolated his country from many of its international development and foreign aid partners. Banda’s rise to the presidency is significant in that after Mutharika’s death, his close allies in the government sought to deny Banda the constitutional right to assume the presidency. However, the provisions of the constitution were upheld, which is a credit to the people of Malawi and the country’s democratic institutions. President Banda also represents one of two female presidents in Africa, which is a sign of increasing political inclusion. Banda has also started to rebuild the Malawi’s relationships with the international community.

A Message to President Obama to Broaden Engagement with Africa

President Obama’s engagement with a select group of African leaders whose countries have made advances in democratic reforms has its merits. However, there are many countries that are critical to peace and security in Africa and deserve to be part of the conversation with the president. Furthermore, with the increasing pace of regional integration in Africa, the economies are intertwined such that what happens in one country impacts on other countries. Thus, the president’s engagement with Africa should also be more inclusive and as much as possible engage directly with the broader African leadership probably through the African Union organs.

A Message to the African Leaders

But the African presidents should not just represent their own countries. The opportunity to meet with President Obama should also be used to articulate the broader challenges that Africa faces and the need for deeper U.S. engagement with the region. In particular, the leaders should impress on the president the need for a coherent strategy to deal with security threats that have become increasingly serious in the continent. The leaders should also urge President Obama to focus more on commercial engagement for the mutual benefit of Africa and the United States. Finally, the African leaders should make a case for U.S. to increase its support of Africa’s regional integration project as well as addressing its huge infrastructure deficit and energy poverty. These are areas where U.S. involvement can have major impacts in Africa’s development and simultaneously benefit Americans and U.S. businesses.