Africa is growing in terms of its strategic importance to America, from an economic and geopolitical point of view, but still lies well below other global issues on the US priority list. So what should the world be reading out of this Summit? Tolu Ogunlesi examines the core debates, recalling President Barack Obama’s famous words that “Africa’s future is up to Africans”.
Fifteen years ago, leaders from both regions assembled in Washington DC for a “US-Africa ministerial” gathering, to, in the words of then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “draw up a blueprint for US-Africa relations in the 21st century”. Albright added that US relations with Africa were defined by “two overarching goals” for America: security and the economy.
Today, the Barack Obama administration has built on that modest beginning with an “Africa Strategy” published in 2012, centred around four themes, expanding on the Albright agenda: promoting democracy, human rights and civil society; advancing economic trade and investment (especially among African countries); security issues (confronting Al Qaeda and allied terrorist groups, as well as other “transnational” threats) and development (health, food security, climate change, women and youth empowerment).
It has of course fallen upon Barack Obama as President of the United States to preside over a marked shift in the relative significance of Africa to the United States. The North African spring happened during his watch, forcing the government to scramble – with limited success – for an apposite response. On 25 January 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Mubarak regime, long an ally of the US in a tense region, was “stable”. Two weeks later the regime was history; three decades of authoritarian rule ground into the dust of Tahrir Square; with a manual of American policy assembled over the decades suddenly rendered obsolete.
That season of uprising in North Africa (starting in Tunisia in January 2011, moving to Egypt, and then Libya) was to be followed by the rise of a particularly violent strain of Islamic extremism that stretched south to the north of Nigeria, and east to Kenya; part of a wider campaign of terror that has drawn the US into interventions in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen in the last two decades.
Africa’s place in the world
However, the 1990s were a mixed bag for the continent. On the one hand there were early momentous events like the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the prospects of a return to civilian rule in Nigeria. On the other there were tragedies like the Rwandan genocide (which coincided with the period just after the first-ever democratic elections in South African history), and brutal civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere.
The bad of course completely overwhelmed the heartwarming. The spectre of “increasing lawlessness” in West Africa in the mid-1990s inspired Robert Kaplan’s dystopian essay, “The Coming Anarchy”, in which he wrote that “Sierra Leone is a microcosm of what is occurring, albeit in a more tempered and gradual manner, throughout West Africa and much of the underdeveloped world: the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war.”
That disturbing view of Africa would linger for years, so that even in 2000 The Economist magazine could still deem it fit to label the continent “hopeless” in what would turn out to be one of its most infamous covers ever.
But as the 21st century settled in, Africa started to see a sea change in the way it was perceived by the rest of the world, with a surge in commodity prices which swelled government treasuries, and a wave of democratisation and policy reforms which engendered unprecedented political and economic stability and attracted impressive levels of foreign direct investment. During the first decade of the 21st century, six of the fastest growing economies in the world were in Africa. The excitement of “Africa Rising” quickly gripped newsrooms and boardrooms across the world, causing even The Economist to issue, in 2011, an apology for its “Hopeless Continent” cover.