Sunday August 3 2014

Now Africa goes to America, but when will the world come to us?

By Bernard Tabaire

The first US-Africa Leaders Summit starts tomorrow in Washington, DC. Given the United States’ pre-eminence in the world, you would think these summits would have been running for decades.

Nothing happens for nothing though. The Europeans held the fourth such summit in Brussels in April this year. The Japanese and the Indians have had a stab at this business of “summoning” over African leaders for “mutual-benefit” chats. The Chinese, of course, beat everyone to it.

An influential China in Africa can only leverage that power to advance its interests while potentially undercutting those of the United States. China is already the world’s second largest economy. And so the United States is pushing back.

All these summits are somehow supposed to underline just how Africa is no longer The Economist magazine’s hopeless continent. Something hopeful is astir.

African leaders, however, still troop to these meetings as underdogs – to get lectured. That is the fate of the poor.

While addressing hundreds of young Africans completing a six-week leadership fellowship in the United States last week, President Obama outlined bits of the message he will be giving the continental biggies.

African leaders should work to improve the lot of their people and quit using historical (read colonial) and current (read economic) excuses. “At some point, we have to stop looking somewhere else for solutions, and you have to start looking for solutions internally,” the Reuters news agency quoted Mr Obama as telling his youthful audience. He added: “And as powerful as history is, and you need to know that history, at some point, you have to look to the future and say, ‘OK, we didn’t get a good deal then, but let’s make sure that we’re not making excuses for not going forward.’”

Rendered differently, if you didn’t have a shining past, build a shining future. In his telling, every single African country could be doing better today with the resources it has.

The news agency framed Mr Obama’s remarks partly as a ‘rejection’ of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema’s June attack on the West.
“Times have changed. Africa has [for] more than 50 years of independence submitted to a neo-colonial system which perpetuates the old colonial one,” Reuters reports Equatorial Guinea’s Obiang to have told the AU Summit in his capital of Malabo. “Africa should renegotiate relations with [the] developed world.” He reportedly denounced barriers to international trade and the ‘pricing of natural resources’.

No doubt many of Mr Obiang’s (mostly) brother leaders applauded. This rhetoric is second nature to them.

President Obama is, of course, lecturing African leaders. How they hate it. But he does make sense overall. Invoking colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism and other such things as cover for corruption and incompetence is inexcusable.

President Obiang can lash out all he wants, and he has a big point, but that is no reason to run a thuggish state. His plundering son, and potential successor Teodorin, is on the run from several countries. How about disciplining the little boy first.

Barriers to international trade could be addressed if African leaders started building expressways linking their countries. That would open up the landscape for so many things and a continent as big as ours would begin to feel better interconnected and closer to itself and its component parts.

What is so special about building a road that Africa has to prostrate itself before the Chinese and others asking them to do the job? That is a question one speaker at the African Centre for Media Excellence asked recently. Good one.

Oil-rich Equatorial Guinea ranked 136 out of 187 states on the UN’s 2013 Human Development Index. A country with massive resources and a small population would be doing miracles. But Mr Obiang’s fiefdom is so hopeless that a bunch of mercenaries in 2004 almost flushed out the dude whom President Museveni has curiously described as a visionary in managing his country’s oil riches.

Our dear leaders could serve their people better, if whenever they meet, they agree enforceable ways to, for example, insist that China adds value to every resource it wants out of Africa. You want gold? Process it here first. This would mean jobs, technology and skills transfer, increased state revenues, etc. That never happens. The implementation bit.

As a result, Africa continues underachieving. Embarrassed, our leaders resort to rhetoric, egged on by a certain tribe of intellectual who has never seen a goat thief in Africa whose act is not part of a neo-colonial, neoliberal conspiracy. This is why we won’t be having Africa summoning the rest of the world to its feet anytime soon.

Mr Tabaire is the co-founder and director of programmes at African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala.