6 Aug 2014

Has the US left it too late to win over Africa?


This week more than 50 African heads of states are attending the first ever US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington.

Some say Barack Obama has left it too late to discuss the issues at hand (credit: Getty Images)

The issues US President Barack Obama will discuss include security, development, trade and investment in Africa. It’s the first time that Obama has hosted such a gathering, but some say he has left it too late.

During Mr Obama’s first campaign for the US presidency, millions of Africans had high hopes that their lives would improve if he won. But “the majority were looking for something more sublime,” Charles Onyango-Obbo, editor of Mail & Guardian Africa, told Channel 4 News.

“The fact that a person of colour would be president of the USA, being an inspiration for the continent, for their children, to be more confident in the world. I think there has been a difference for people who were looking for that.”

Apart from the initial morale boost, many think Obama has turned out much the same as his predecessors. Many Africans believe Washington has often seen Africa as either a place full of natural resources where you can just grab and go, or a region to fight an opposing ideology.

A world apart?

Ahead of the summit, President Obama said: “I do not see the countries and peoples of Africa as a world apart; I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world – partners with America on behalf of the future we want for all of our children. That partnership must be grounded in mutual responsibility and mutual respect.”

Analysts, however, believe that it’s not Africans who are changing America’s attitude to the continent – but the Chinese. The Chinese have been a presence in many parts of Africa for years, and their influence is growing. Their ever-growing population is consuming natural resources at a frightening pace and, in Africa, they find willing partners to supply their needs.

The two world powers’ approach is different. The US preaches democracy, human rights and good governance but that’s seen as hypocritical. In contrast, the Chinese don’t preach good governance. They buy and sell products. No lecturing. They just get on with it.

More importantly, the Chinese build roads, hospitals and schools. To some extent, the Chinese are seen as a more equal partner compared to the US. Their involvement doubtless serves their own ends, just as that of the US does. But for many Africans, the benefits of Chinese involvement are more visible and tangible.

Today, young Africans and future leaders are more aware of options that are available to them. The US needs to build on its “easy to do” schemes with “quick wins”, such as school-feeding and AIDS programme, to win over Africa again. “But these summits never really focus on such important, but dull stuff,” added Onyango-Obbo. “So they get on to big electricity projects, counter-terrorism, which make good stories but are difficult to do or take very long.”

And while they talk, the Chinese continue to build.