The Cable

Summit Not Enough to Quell Obama's Africa Policy Critics

The White House wrapped up the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit Wednesday hoping to have proved its commitment to Africa and put China on notice that the United States is not ceding the continent to Beijing. Whether the administration succeeded is very much up for debate.

On Tuesday, Aug. 5, President Barack Obama announced that American companies will invest $14 billion in key economic sectors in Africa, from energy to banking to information technology. He also told nearly 45 African presidents and prime ministers that the United States, the World Bank, and private businesses committed $33 billion to be spent across the continent.

Critics are skeptical whether the United States can catch up to China, which invests 3.4 percent of its foreign direct investment in Africa, compared with less than 1 percent from the United States. China is building infrastructure around the continent, from a railroad in Nigeria to skyscrapers in Kenya. It has an enormous head start.

It also has developed better diplomatic relationships, economically speaking. In an interview with Foreign Policy, Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar said it's no secret that many African countries enjoy closer ties to China than the United States. African leaders "see America as very far," he said. "They see more of the Chinese."

Mezouar, who attended the three-day summit in Washington, said a key goal of the confab was to chip away at that "influence gap" and strengthen ties between the United States' private sector and the economies of Africa.

Richard Downie, deputy director and fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Africa Program, said that gap is a bit artificial and that Africa did not have to be a stage for American and Chinese competition.

"Africa is big enough for everyone. It's a diverse continent, and the opportunities are big," Downie said. "China has done a good service in general … by getting involved in Africa by doing important work on infrastructure that has paved the way for other external partners to come in."

Lost in all the talk about China's influence in Africa is a dramatic change in how the White House is approaching development in Africa. One of the highlights of President George W. Bush's tenure was his commitment to fighting AIDS in Africa by tripling development money for public health programs to stop the disease's spread.

As the Obama administration made clear during the summit, the president is taking a different approach. He is betting that building African economies through private-sector investment is a better solution that investing federal dollars in traditional development programs.

That shift didn't start with the summit. Obama launched three initiatives for assisting Africa last year -- Power Africa, Trade Africa, and the Young African Leaders Initiative. All deal with improving the continent's capacity to grow economically. Power Africa aims to improve the continent's electric grid; Trade Africa focuses on economic development in East Africa; and the Young African Leaders Initiative provides young Africans internships at companies and public institutions.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is also changing its approach. The agency announced that much of the $14 billion promised by American business will funnel through Power Africa, not traditional aid programs.

USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah hinted at the shift before the summit began: "We will make big announcements that demonstrate these are big ambitions we can take on with our African partners and the private sector."

The private sector has started funding traditional development programs as well. For example, the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition got a $7 billion infusion from businesses, including $5 billion from Coca-Cola.

These changes are unlikely to silence the president's critics, especially in Africa. Many think that Obama has not shown enough commitment, causing the first African-American president to lose influence in Africa, according to William Gumede, an associate professor in public health at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He blasted the president in a commentary titled "Obama Has Let Africa Down," which argues that the president is focusing on the wrong issues.

"[T]he greatest damage done by Obama is his continuation of the 'war on terror' policy, which has destabilised Africa, led to an upsurge in religious fundamentalism and undermined economic growth," Gumede wrote. "Many African despots have used the pretext of the war on terror to crush legitimate opposition groups, and this war has also given many African extremist groups a cause to fight for."

Human Rights Watch piled on, saying the administration's tact dismisses repressive behavior.

"The Leaders Summit seems to have dispatched Africa's serious human rights problems to a sideshow, but the summit's development and security goals hinge on addressing repression, corruption, and the rule of law," said Daniel Bekele, Human Rights Watch's Africa director, in a statement. "President Obama should put human rights squarely on his list of issues to discuss with African leaders."

David Francis is a freelance journalist covering international affairs, conflict, and the global economy, among other topics. He has reported from around the world, most recently as the Richard Holbrooke journalist in residence at the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

John Hudson contributed to this report.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Cable

White House Under Fire for Welcoming South Sudanese Leader as Famine Nears

Renewed violence in South Sudan rekindled criticism of the White House's decision to invite embattled President Salva Kiir to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, a first-of-its-kind gathering of nearly 50 African heads of state.

Since December, Kiir's intolerance of his political opposition has stoked a bloody conflict that is threatening to draw in neighboring Sudan. Aid agencies say famine will break out within weeks if nothing changes, and peace talks that began Monday, Aug. 4, in Ethiopia between South Sudan's government and the country's rebels have stalled. The stakes are high. Humanitarian groups say 50,000 children could starve if the crisis is not averted.

Notably absent from the peace talks: Kiir, the man many blame for stoking the violence in the first place. Instead, he's in Washington for a series of meetings, photo-ops, and stately gatherings centered on the summit's goal of strengthening business and security ties between the United States and the African continent.

The sight of Secretary of State John Kerry and Kiir, who met on Tuesday and shook hands in front of cameras, made some in Foggy Bottom cringe.

According to multiple sources familiar with the decision, some officials within the State Department opposed including Kiir and urged the White House to rescind his invitation, fearing his presence in Washington would hinder peace negotiations. That recommendation was ultimately rejected by senior State Department officials and the White House National Security Council, which wanted to host an inclusive event.

"The president and others in the administration have made clear that we will engage countries, even when we have disagreements," White House spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. "President Obama invited all African leaders who are in good standing with the African Union and the United States."

Critics say the timing couldn't be worse.

"The White House made a mistake by rewarding President Kiir with an invitation and photo-op at the summit given his role in the violence plaguing South Sudan," Jimmy Mulla, president of Voices for Sudan, told Foreign Policy. "The population and the country would be better served if the government and the opposition groups are all stationed in the region and focused on the peace negotiations."

At the root of the conflict, which has left 10,000 dead and has displaced 1.5 million people since December, is ethnic fighting between the Dinka ethnic group, loyal to President Kiir, and the Nuer ethnic group, loyal to deposed Vice President Riek Machar. The fighting rapidly accelerated in late 2013 after Kiir accused Machar of launching a coup. Kiir used the excuse to crack down on the opposition, unleashing a wave of ethnic violence. The United States says it has seen no evidence of an attempted coup. On Tuesday, the United Nations said that at least six Nuer aid workers were killed by a militia group.

The steady increase in violence has alarmed Kiir's critics inside and outside Barack Obama's administration.

After the White House extended invitations early this year, more than 12,000 activists wrote Obama and Kerry raising concerns about the summit. United to End Genocide, an advocacy group that works to end mass atrocities, coordinated the letter-writing campaign. "Inviting Kiir to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit risks sending the wrong signals," said Daniel Sullivan, United to End Genocide's director of policy and government relations.

Disinviting Kiir would've been problematic for the administration, which invited other leaders with similarly troubling human rights records, such as Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, Angola's Jose Eduardo dos Santos, and Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo.

One State Department official put it bluntly: "There are way worse leaders invited to the summit," said the official, who was not authorized to speak to the press. "The fighting in South Sudan between the Dinka and the Nuer tribes is on par with power struggles in dozens of African countries."

"Disinviting a legitimate leader to a summit with dozens of other human rights abusers sets a bad example for the U.S. government," the official added.

Others say Kiir belongs in a separate category.

"I think Salva Kiir represents a unique case," said Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center. "Although the underlying causes of unrest in South Sudan run deep, there would not be an open conflict and civil war were it not for him."

Kiir's decision to skip the peace talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, juxtaposed awkwardly with that of Liberia's and Sierra Leone's leaders, who canceled their summit trip to wrestle with the Ebola outbreak ravaging their countries.

"I respect the presidents of governments like Liberia [for] staying home and dealing with the crisis at hand, but in a medically driven crisis, there's not much that can be done other than reassuring the citizenry," Pham said. "But in South Sudan, Kiir can actually effect change in the peace talks if he truly worried about the fate of his people."

Of course, others say just the opposite.

"I think the advantage of inviting President Kiir is that it may allow opportunities for administration officials to have frank conversations with him about the conflict, perhaps along with regional leaders who have an important role to play in ending the violence," said Jon Temin, director of the U.S. Institute of Peace's Africa programs. He noted that Kiir's attendance, along with leaders from Kenya and Ethiopia, provided a good opportunity for the three countries to coordinate.

It's unclear whether progress is being made in either Washington or Addis Ababa. On Wednesday, the East African organization leading the peace talks, IGAD, said rebel leaders didn't show Tuesday for the second day of negotiations in the Ethiopian capital. In Washington, Kerry didn't allay critics when he appeared with Kiir and blamed rebel leader Machar for the violence.

"Mr. Machar needs to understand this," said Kerry. "It was his initiative that broke the agreement and took his troops back into a violent status."

After Kerry's remarks, Kiir offered a vindictive statement accusing Machar of losing control of his military and condemning the media for misrepresenting the conflict. Kerry ended by praising Kiir for attending the summit.

"I thank you very, very much for your statement and for being here to join us for this conversation," Kerry said.

"I would have hoped for a much stronger public message from Kerry to Kiir," United to End Genocide's Sullivan said. "[He] ignored the government of South Sudan's role in some of the atrocities committed and in limiting humanitarian access."

Voices for Sudan's Mulla said the exchange "may only embolden the president," noting that both Kiir and Machar "are liable for charges."

"The U.S., regional bodies, and the international community should come as mediators and not get blindsided by either of the parties," Mulla said.

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