Saturday August 9 2014

Here is what all these summits are really about

By David F. K. Mpanga

This week African heads of state, save for Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe descended on Washington D.C. to be feted by President Barak Obama at the first US-Africa Summit.

The United States has come a little late to this game of holding major jamborees for African leaders. China, the US’ fast growing economic and military rival, has the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOAC), which holds summits once every three years. There have been five FOAC summits since 2000. The European Union, which comprises of the US’ closest European allies, has held four Africa heads of states’ summits. Even India’s effort in this direction, the India-Africa Forum, has already held two summits; in 2008 and 2011.

These summits are always well attended by leaders and their spouses and being barred from attendance is taken to be a snub or a punishment. We can only assume, from the attendance levels and the smiles in the photos, that our leaders consider them to be vital to the interests of the continent. But what are these summits really about and what should we, the people of Africa, expect from them?

When the imperial powers carved up Africa in the late 19th Century and began colonising it, they did so out of selfish interests. They needed cheap labour in the form of slaves. They needed cheap raw materials for the industries that had sprung up after the industrial revolution and they needed markets for their manufactured goods. The political aspect of setting up colonial states was driven by the need to protect and optimise the exploitation of large natural resource and market concessions that they had acquired for themselves.

But in much the same way as the seasoned bachelor who comes to your house on a Sunday afternoon covers up the fact that he has really come for lunch by discussing some very important family or social matters, the imperial powers never said that they had come to eat. Rather, they justified their actions by talking about the white man’s burden of bringing civilisation, Christianity and social progress to the natives of Africa. Awed by their advanced technology, befuddled by their new theology and cowed by their superior means of waging violence, the Africans believed the cover story.

Sadly, today many Africans still believe that all foreign powers who come to or express an interest in Africa are benign and altruistic actors who have come to help. While it is true that they come to help, we need to understand and internalise the fact that they are primarily interested in helping themselves. The US, China, EU and India all have their interests. Their leaders serve these interests, first and foremost, and their foreign and economic policies are not akin to charity. All these global powers are looking for ways in which they can maximise their positions in the world by getting the easiest and most economically advantageous access to Africa’s natural resources and markets.

That is what all these summits are really about. So do not expect President Obama to deliver a moving speech followed by an altar call which will see African leaders stand up and repent their sins of bad governance, looting and abuse of human rights. Rather expect communiques talking about trade, investment, security cooperation and aid. The US and the EU summit communiques will have some words about democracy and good governance but just enough to satisfy the human rights and governance activists without annoying the African leaders.

These summits will not make our nations better, happier, more peaceful and prosperous places. Only we the African people can do that. So we must proactively participate in seeking and achieving sustainable improvement of our lives rather than hope that it will come as a by-product of US, EU, China or Indian foreign policy.
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