Africa’s in town, and in a big way.
Africa’s movers and shakers are in Washington this week to meet with President Obama about trade and investment opportunities, politics and U.S. interests in the region’s stability. The 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is the largest gathering of African presidents and leaders ever to meet with a U.S. president.
If you’ve got your eyes on the international stage, then this initiative should be of no surprise. China has been making a killing in Africa. The Chinese had the insight to take Africa seriously as an economic partner when a lot of nations saw the continent more as a humanitarian charity case. Now that Africa’s influence is becoming increasingly important to a lot of countries’ bottom lines and GDPs, Western nations are looking at the Motherland through a new lens.
Here are some topics to keep in mind during this three-day affair:
The civil war in South Sudan is not looking like it’s getting any better. The 2013 fallout between its warring ethnic groups — those loyal to the current president, Salva Kiir of the Dinka tribe, and those loyal to a deposed vice president, Riek Machar of the Nuer tribe — is picking up steam again since the meetings that were supposed to take place last week to drum up solutions were delayed. Apparently both sides are still engaged in off-the-record conversations about the state of the transitional government. South Sudan is a fairly new country — it split from Sudan in 2011 and has been embroiled in ethnic fighting stemming from that succession ever since. That there’s still fighting going on in one of its northern states is not helping move things along.
The United States and Europe threw down the gauntlet by freezing important assets in the country and told both sides that they have until mid-August to form an interim government that has a clear plan for maintaining the peace.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa, primarily Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone has people on edge. In fact the leaders of Liberia and Sierra Leone will be skipping the summit in order to tend to the Ebola outbreaks in their countries. Within the past two weeks, more than 100 new cases were reported in these countries, and two American healthcare workers who were working in Liberia contracted the virus. Besides the obvious health concerns, one point that is not being discussed, which ought to be, is how this recent outbreak is unraveling the years of work it took to undo the perception that Africa is a diseased continent and that travelers going there should beware.
Unfortunately, for many parts of West Africa, that perception is now a reality.
The summit, like most initiatives about Africa, will likely focus on the continent’s sub-Saharan countries, but Libya, an African country that is typically brought up during discussions relating to the Middle East, ought to be on everyone’s minds as well.
Getting rid of a dictator is typically a good thing, but the power vacuums that emerge often create bigger problems. It’s been nearly three years since Libya’s former leader Moammar Gadhafi was disposed. But in that time, the interim government has not been able to rein in the various law-enforcement groups that have vied to fill that slot and provide security. The situation has gotten so bad on the ground that several embassies were evacuated — including that of the United States — and the United Nations no longer has a strong presence in the region.
There’s been chatter that this is the West’s problem, since Gadhafi’s ousting was heavily influenced and backed by Britain and France. Some say the enthusiasm to hold Libya’s hand as it transitions to a sound democracy hasn’t been there, and that lack of support is causing a lot of violence, unrest and confusion on the ground.
There’s a love affair underway between China and Africa. The Asian powerhouse is Africa’s biggest trading partner. Next is India, and then Brazil and then some other country that is not the United States.
This analysis explains that China brilliantly mapped out its investment in Africa into three fully fleshed out tiers: 1) its natural resources; 2) its untapped market to grow Chinese businesses, like the telecommunications industry; and (3) the consumer potential in Africa’s burgeoning middle class who are highly educated and like to spend money. Some say China’s involvement in the region is exploitation, and others are calling on the United States to get in on all the action. Either way, this relationship will serve as a great reference point if the United States ever decides to ramp up its business dealings there.
It seems like what Obama does and doesn’t do in Africa during the remainder of his term is already being used as a talking point in the upcoming presidential election. His former rival-turned-secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said on CNN that one of the reasons George W. Bush is so popular in Africa is because of his anti-AIDS initiatives. She seemed to allude to the idea that if Obama refined and clarified his foreign-policy goals, the United States might be doing better on the global stage.
It’s apparent that 2016 is right around the corner and Clinton’s got her eyes on the Democratic ticket. Obama has been taking hits with international crises in Israel-Gaza, Russia-Ukraine, Libya, etc., and Clinton’s strategy of distancing herself from his administration, at least on the foreign-policy front, might be smart. Either way, her remarks could be foreshadowing Africa’s increasing significance in American politics and the United States’ perception around the world.