Africa, traditionally the continent most ignored by American policymakers, is getting its day in the spotlight this week. More accurately — and amazingly, to Africa experts — it is getting three days in the diplomatic spotlight as President Obama hosts the first-ever U.S.-Africa Summit.
The event, Monday through Wednesday, features more than 50 official delegations, more than 40 heads of state, an official White House dinner, and more than 100 side events involving business leaders, would-be investors, members of Congress, and experts on climate, human rights, and wildlife.
Indeed, it will be the largest single gathering of foreign leaders in Washington, eclipsing the Organization of American States summit in 1992.
Despite the historic numbers, the White House wants to keep the events low key and informal, with no major announcements of summit "deliverables" and a minimum number of speeches. For most Washingtonians, the biggest impact will be snarled traffic. "I won't lie to you," the president said somewhat sheepishly on Friday. "Traffic will be bad here in Washington."
But both the White House and the American business community hope the real impact will be more enduring, as the United States tries to catch up with an emboldened China that has aggressively moved in to corner the African market and supplant the United States as the most influential outside nation. To achieve this comeback, they are counting on this summit to send what Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes called "a very clear signal that we are elevating our engagement with Africa." And they see no better messenger than the son of an African father, the first African-American president, who is enormously popular across the African continent.
Obama cannot claim to have refocused Washington on Africa. President Bill Clinton did that in 1998 when he spent 11 days in eight African countries. Before he went, seven of the eight post-World War II presidents had stayed away. Only President George H.W. Bush had ventured to the continent, visiting U.S. troops stationed in Somalia for New Year's Eve 1992. But it was President George W. Bush who has had the most significant effect on Africa, sending billions of dollars into the continent to combat HIV/AIDS.
The Obama administration's message at the summit this week is focused more directly on the business relationship the United States hopes to fortify with the nations of Africa, whose population has doubled since Ronald Reagan's presidency and now has 1.1 billion potential customers for American goods and services.
In some ways, this also is a chance for Obama to live up to the high expectations Africans had when they cheered his 2008 election. It is not that he has ignored sub-Saharan Africa. He has spent nine days there, visiting Ghana, Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania. And he has built on initiatives championed by his predecessors, primarily the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, pushed by George W. Bush and the African Growth and Opportunity Act signed into law by Clinton. And he has announced his own programs, most notably Power Africa, a plan to double the number of people with access to power in sub-Saharan Africa.
But he was "a little slow" in tackling Africa, acknowledged Witney Schneidman, who was deputy assistant secretary of State for African affairs for Clinton and co-chaired the Africa Experts Group for the Obama campaign in 2008. "During the first four years, there was a feeling that Africa was being neglected. The expectations were so high. There's no way they could have been met," said Schneidman, who now heads a firm working with U.S. companies in Africa and is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"Has there at times been disappointment that President Obama in his first term was focused on other priorities? Yes, I've heard that repeatedly from African leaders," said Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., chairman of the African Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He said he reminds the critics of "two wars, a near economic collapse, record unemployment.... The president had a full agenda." He suggested that Africans seemed to understand, contending that Obama is "wildly popular across the entire continent." And Schneidman said the focus now is more forward-looking. "Now that he's turning to the continent, I think it's being well received."
In part, Africans are pleased that the focus has shifted, as Obama said Friday, from "helping countries that are suffering from malnutrition or helping countries that are suffering from AIDS, but rather partnering and thinking about how we can trade more and how we can do business together." That, he said, is "the kind of relationship that Africa is looking for."
To achieve that kind of relationship, though, the United States is clearly playing catch-up to China. President Xi Jinping sent a message when his first foreign trip was to Africa. And, as Coons notes, "The presence of the Chinese in every country is dramatic." China has now supplanted the United States as Africa's biggest trading partner. That trade hit a record $200 billion in 2013, a huge jump from only 13 years earlier when it was only $11 billion. In contrast, U.S. trade with Africa was $85 billion in goods in 2013 with another $11 billion in services. The Commerce Department reports that for the first quarter of 2014, total trade between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa totaled $11.9 billion, a decrease of 27 percent from the first quarter of 2013. That reflects declines in U.S. imports of energy from the continent.
A big part of the focus of the summit will be on African infrastructure needs, most particularly the inadequate electricity grid, which is a major complaint of would-be American investors. Only eight countries in Africa have more than 60 percent access to electricity, according to Vera Songwe, a senior fellow at the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative. "We have 589 million people in the dark," she said. "You cannot freeze milk; you cannot store food, even when we have to deliver emergency food. You can't do it, because we don't have enough energy."
Another topic at the summit will be the continuing threat of terrorism. Rhodes of the NSC said the administration sees the threat as "acute" in some areas — al-Shabaab in North Africa and Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al Qaeda in the Maghreb, and the Tuareg rebels in Mali. Briefing reporters, Rhodes added: "We are concerned about efforts by terrorist groups to gain a foothold in Africa.... We see international terrorist networks seek to take advantage of ungoverned spaces so that they can get a safe haven."