The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit: A Resounding Success Exposing American Media’s Ignorance of Emerging Africa

Editor’s Note: The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit blog series is a collection of posts discussing efforts to strengthen ties between the United States and Africa ahead of the first continent-wide summit. On August 4, Brookings hosted “The Game Has Changed: The New Landscape for Innovation and Business in Africa,” at which these themes and more were explored by prominent experts. Watch video and listen to audio from the event »

The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit convened by President Barack Obama last week is evidence of the growing importance of Africa in the global stage and the realization by the Obama administration that there are gains for the United States in deeper involvement in the continent. For a president who has been criticized for apparent disengagement in global affairs, this summit was important and could signify a turning point in U.S.-Africa relations. Yet, there was limited comprehensive and objective media coverage of the summit. Instead, the media focused on the Ebola outbreak with some even referring the summit as “Ebola infected.” Others have criticized the summit as having limited success, but these criticisms appear to be poorly informed and lack an objective basis for evaluating the outcomes of the summit.

In a pre-summit posting, I proposed a number of objective indicators with which to gauge the success of the summit. These indicators included: a tangible plan of action and commitments, effective and coherent participation of the African leaders, alignment with African development priorities and strategies, a shift in the relationship from unilateralism to mutualism, and finally, the institutionalization of future summits. Below, I review the outcome of the summit against these various indicators of success.

Tangible Plan of Action and Commitments:  An important aspect of a summit is firm agreement on joint actions by the parties involved including resources—financial, human and institutional—necessary to implement the actions. There were concerns that this summit would just be a talk show without any concrete agreement on actions moving forward. But the deliberations from this forum resulted in clear action plans and commitments. There were firm commitments by the business executives to expand investment in Africa especially in narrowing the huge infrastructure deficit. The African leaders and President Obama also agreed on specifics for increasing trade among their countries and various aspects of security and governance. Firm commitments were also made by non-governmental organizations that participated in the civil society events around the summit. In short, the summit was not a talk show but one where firm commitments were made.  As noted by the White House, “By enabling discussion of tangible actions that can be taken to deepen the U.S.-Africa partnership, the Summit fostered stronger ties between the United States and Africa.” In this regard, the summit met one of the key indicators of success.

Effective/Coherent Participation of the African Leaders:  There were concerns that the short duration of the summit would cause the event to be more of a lecture by President Obama with minimal participation of the African leaders. Relatedly, it was not clear that the African leaders had well-harmonized/coherent positions in regards to U.S.-Africa relations. But the statements from the African leaders demonstrate that the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit involved dialogue, and they did in fact articulate their positions in a coherent manner. Based on some of the African leaders that I spoke to, there was agreement that they had opportunity for dialogue to shape the agenda by highlighting those issues that were important to Africans.  In this sense, this was a participatory summit that provided the African leaders opportunity for meaningful engagement with the president of the United States.

Alignment with African Development Priorities and Strategies:  Although the summit’s agenda included important issues to both the United States and Africa, some of the key development priorities and strategies were not explicit. Not covering such issues leaves major gaps in what is otherwise core to the development of Africa. Some of the specific issues that were not explicit in the agenda include regional integration and illicit capital flows. However, through the ensuing dialogue, several of the key priorities and strategies were advanced by the African leaders, including deepening regional integration, furthering the post-2015 development agenda, and addressing illicit capital flows, among many other issues. Of note is that the African leaders highlighted the broad development vision articulated in “Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want.”

From Unilateralism to Mutualism: For a long time, the U.S.-Africa relationship has been largely defined by unilateralism—aid and trade preferences—that largely benefit Africa at the expense of United States. Unilateralism implies an unequal relationship where the United States does not really benefit from its dealings with Africa. Such a relationship does not represent the current realities nor is it a basis for durable and self-enforcing relationship.  Before the summit, we therefore proposed that a success factor should be a clear shift from a relationship based on unilateralism to mutualism. As is evident from the statements by the White House, deliberations emphasized mutualism both in regard to security and economic interests. The spirit of mutualism was well articulated: “Leaders underscored their appreciation for the strong benefits and positive outcomes that deepened U.S.-Africa cooperation affords and reiterated the need for intensified cooperation to advance shared security interests and our common goals to increase prosperity for the United States and African countries.” 

Institutionalization for Sustainability: Probably the most crucial indicator of the success of the summit has to do with institutionalization of future summits for sustainability. A one-time summit without clear plan for future summits would not go far enough in cementing U.S.-Africa relations. In addition, without institutionalization, the summit initiative might not survive the post-Obama administration.  Indeed one of the resolutions of the summit was the institutionalization of future summits. As stated by President Obama, “We agreed that summits like this can be a critical part of our work together going forward, a forcing mechanism for decisions and action. So we agreed that the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit will be a recurring event to hold ourselves accountable for our commitments and sustain our momentum.” This is a critical success factor and expectations are that future summits will be even more effective in strengthening the U.S.-Africa relationship.

Based on the various objective indicators of success, it is evident that the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit was a resounding success. Not only was President Obama bold enough to convene the African leaders, he also demonstrated clear leadership in seeking to reposition the U.S.-Africa relationship. In convening the summit, the Obama administration has demonstrated that Africa is important to United States and that there are mutual benefits in well-structured relationship. African leaders themselves were not inert actors at the summit but actually engaged in meaningful and informed dialogue, and highlighted the issues that matter to them. Most importantly, the summit resolutions included strategies to institutionalize future such gatherings.

Needless to say, the limited and often biased media coverage of the summit demonstrated the immense ignorance of the American media as pertains to the African continent. Although the media and politicians seem critical of President Obama for what they consider his failure to engage the world effectively, it is apparent that most of these critics are way behind when it comes to understanding and appreciating the dynamics and opportunities afforded by the emerging Africa. Not surprisingly, there was much more and balanced coverage of the summit in Europe and Asia than in United States where the event was being held. It is quite telling that after President Obama delivered his remarks on the Leaders Summit, no reporter asked a question directly related to his remarks on the outcome of the summit.  

For this summit, Obama scores an A and the American media, an F.