WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama will welcome African leaders at an unprecedented summit in Washington on Monday with all eyes on the continent as it battles the worst outbreak of the Ebola virus in history.
Forging stronger economic ties between the United States and Africa is the main aim of the three-day summit, with US officials keen to boost links with a continent projected by the International Monetary Fund to see 5.8 percent growth in 2014.
While the focus is on trade, with Obama last year describing Africa as “the world’s next major economic success story,” Washington has also vowed to ensure issues such as security, governance and human rights are on the agenda.
The United States currently lags in third place in the trade standings with Africa, far behind the European Union in first and China in second.
The White House insists that its initiative is in no way a belated response to China’s growing investment and influence across the continent over the past decade.
It is clear, however, that China’s emergence in Africa is at the forefront of American minds.
“My advice to African leaders is to make sure that if, in fact, China is putting in roads and bridges, number one, that they’re hiring African workers; number two, that the roads don’t just lead from the mine to the port to Shanghai, but that there’s an ability for the African governments to shape how this infrastructure is going to benefit them in the long term,” Obama said in an interview with The Economist on Friday.
The extension of AGOA, the US program that grants commercial advantages to certain African products, and “Power Africa,” a scheme to double access to electricity to sub-Saharan Africa will also figure in discussions.
Drawing up a list of invites for the summit has proved delicate. Only four nations were left off the guest list — the Central African Republic, Eritrea, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Nevertheless, the longtime leaders of Equatorial Guinea (Teodoro Obiang Nguema), Cameroon (Paul Biya) and Angola (Jose Eduardo dos Santos) have all received an invitation.
Human Rights Watch urged Obama to raise the issue of human rights, particularly in the case of Equatorial Guinea’s Nguema.
“Instead of giving him propaganda opportunities, President Obama should press for an end to torture, corruption, and other abuses that are rife in Equatorial Guinea,” said the group’s Lisa Misol.
Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni will also be in Washington, despite recent criticism of an anti-homosexuality law that triggered an international outcry and US sanctions. Uganda’s constitutional court overturned the law on Friday.
Security discussions are expected to focus on the threat posed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the repeated attacks by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria, the civil war in South Sudan and terror attacks in Kenya by Shebab militants.
For Obama, a central topic of the summit will be “finding ways to strengthen peacekeeping and conflict-resolution efforts by Africans.”
Before heading to Washington, Cameroon’s Biya said he hoped the meeting would be an opportunity to discuss a regional strategy with Chad, Niger and Nigeria to combat the rise of Boko Haram.
“An international terrorist movement requires an international strategy,” Biya said.
Yet it is the public health crisis caused by the Ebola outbreak — which has left more than 700 people dead in west Africa — that could take center stage.
Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and her Sierra Leone counterpart Ernest Bai Koroma both scrapped plans to head to Washington as the two nations battle the worst outbreak of the disease in history.
Obama has said delegations from African nations affected by the outbreak will be subjected to precautionary health screenings upon arrival in the US, even if there is only an “a marginal risk, or an infinitesimal risk” of exposure to the disease.
While no bilateral meetings are planned, with US officials citing logistical and diplomatic headaches, a lavish banquet will be held at the White House on Tuesday evening.
Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who declined an invitation to Washington, will be one of the notable absentees.
Peter Pham, Africa director at the Atlantic Council think tank, said the summit could provide an opportunity for Obama, the son of an American mother and African father, to reshape American attitudes toward the continent.
“There is a historic opportunity if the summit can begin to change perception of Africa in the United States,” Pham said.
“Much of the attention given to Africa in the United States is attention given to conflict, poverty, disease.”