Kerry’s Visit to Africa: A Preview of the First U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit

Today, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wraps up his tour of the African continent, which started on April 29 and took him to Ethiopia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Angola. This trip constitutes his first formal, extended visit to sub-Saharan Africa as secretary of state. In addition, as Amadou Sy argues in a recent Voice of America interview (in French), this visit is a potential preview of the main themes for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit that will take place in Washington, D.C. on August 5-6 of this year.

Security, Aid and Trade Take Center Stage in Ethiopia

Reflecting the accelerating conflicts in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (and ongoing violence in the DRC and Somalia) Kerry’s trip has centered on promoting security in sub-Saharan Africa. On Thursday, May 1, Kerry arrived in Ethiopia—a key partner of the U.S. in its fight against regional instability. In talks with foreign ministers from Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, Kerry and his counterparts discussed a three-pronged strategy for mitigating the conflict in South Sudan: imposing targeted economic sanctions, strengthening peacekeeping forces and mediating directly with the warring parties. At the U.S.-African Union (AU) High-Level Dialogue, the conversation continued, but expanded to touch on the U.S.’s continued support to the AU mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and U.N.-AU mission against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Kerry credited the joint missions with reducing LRA-related deaths by 75 percent since 2010.

On a different note, Kerry visited the Gandhi Memorial Hospital, one of the hospitals established through the approximately $2 billion of President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funding provided to Ethiopia between 2004 and 2013 by the U.S. During this time period, as Kerry noted, the number of Ethiopians living with HIV decreased by a third, and the state’s capacity to distribute antiretroviral drugs to children increased from 15,000 to 335,000 children annually.

Ethiopia remains an equally strong partner in economic development through trade and investment with the U.S. It became an African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) beneficiary in 2000, receiving enhanced access to U.S. markets, as well as a Power Africa partner in 2013, through which it anticipates increasing its electricity generation capacity from 2,000 MW to 80,000 MW in the next 30 years. As Kerry noted, Ethiopia is one of the eight African economies among the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world.  Thus, the secretary conveyed keen interest in promoting shared prosperity between the U.S. and Ethiopia.

At the same time, Kerry expressed concerns over constraints on freedom of speech and the imprisonment of journalists and bloggers by government officials shortly before his arrival, stressing, “We shouldn’t use the anti-terrorism proclamation as mechanisms to be able to curb the free exchange of ideas.” Meanwhile, further crackdowns on protests in the Oromo state turned deadly as security forces clashed with student demonstrators over plans by the Ethiopian government to annex part of the Oromia in order to expand Addis Ababa. At least 11 students were killed while witnesses claim that the death toll was actually higher: 17 students.

Call for Renewed Peace Talks in South Sudan

Friday’s stopover in Juba, South Sudan culminated in prospects for renewed peace talks after months of stagnation. Kerry spoke for 90 minutes with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir who agreed to meet with his rival former Vice President Riek Machar under mounting pressure from the international community. Machar, on the other hand, did not formally commit to the talks, but rather “expressed openness” about the possibility. The new round of talks could commence as soon as this week in Addis Ababa.

Respecting Term Limits in the DRC and Improving Trade Partnerships in Angola

On Saturday and Sunday, Kerry travelled to the DRC and Angola, respectively. These visits centered on common themes—peace, democratic governance and long-term stability in the Great Lakes region. In the DRC, Secretary Kerry pushed for President Joseph Kabila to respect the constitution and not seek a third term in 2016, rumors of which are generating a lot of buzz in many African countries.  Indeed, Kabila’s case is not unique, as Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré and Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza may seek constitutional changes in order to run for elections in 2015. There is even speculation that Rwanda’s Paul Kagame may follow suit in 2017.

In Angola, Kerry specifically applauded President José Eduardo dos Santos for his leading role in the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region, which aims to bring about a regional solution to political instability in the DRC. Trade and investment also appeared on the agenda, as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s president, Elizabeth Littlefield, was a part of the U.S. delegation. The U.S. is Angola’s leading trade partner: Major businesses such as General Electric, Exxon, ConocoPhillips and Chevron currently operate there. Recently Chevron expanded its operations to include a major oil extraction project off the Angolan coast. Following up on these discussions later this month, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker will be leading an Energy Business Development Mission to West Africa with stops in Ghana and Nigeria.  In addition, Addis Ababa will host the U.S.-Africa Energy Ministerial on June 3-4.

Overlap with a High-Level Chinese Visit

Similarly, expanding opportunity for trade will be a core component of another recent trip to the region—that of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. Mr. Li is visiting Ethiopia, (including African Union headquarters), Nigeria, Angola and Kenya from May 4-11. As the U.S. and China continue to engage the region, healthy competition between the two countries as well as cooperation among China, the U.S. and African countries could be central to shared prosperity for all countries involved.

Now that the U.S. has raised the bar by establishing the core tenets of its Africa policy, let us wait and see how it will deliver at the scheduled rendezvous in Washington, D.C. on August 5-6 for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.