Johanna Lee contributed to this post.
Starting August 4, the Obama Administration will host a mini replica of an African Union (AU) summit. As many as 40 heads of state from the continent will be on hand for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, a conference that will look at ways to boost trade and investment in the continent, tap into Africa’s burgeoning youth population, and promote good governance.
The idea for such a summit is laudable, considering the critical issues that will be discussed – issues that will continue to be key challenges for both Africa and U.S. policy towards the continent and as part of addressing the chronic need to raise educate the public about the realities of the different countries that make up Africa, unknown success stories and it’s untapped economic potential.
Unfortunately, unless a major change is made, the summit risks simply becoming an AU heads of state road trip with a photo-op at the end to confirm that they visited Washington before returning home.
One reason for this concern is the absence of the voices of ordinary Africans in what could be critical debates and goal-setting opportunities for the African governments, as well as for the United States on issues that will impact the lives of millions of ordinary Africans.
Let’s start with who is on the possible guest list:
- There’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has been President of Angola since 1979. Who wouldn’t want to invite a man who continues to suppress the press, attempting to prevent the publication of newspapers or articles potentially critical of the government?
- There’s Denis Sassou Nguesso, who served as President of the Republic of the Congo twice – once from 1979 until 1992, and again since 1997. Under Nguesso’s administration, nearly 300 Congolese refugees were forcibly returned from Gabon, being left vulnerable to ill-treatment by Gabonese authorities. Now that would make for interesting dinner conversation!
- There’s also Hailemariam Desalegn, Prime Minister of Ethiopia since 2012. Under his authority, prisoners are often tortured, being punched, slapped, beaten with sticks, handcuffed and suspended from the wall or ceiling, deprived of sleep, electrocuted, and mock-drowned, among other methods of torture. With such evident creativity, Desalegn will assuredly be a great conversationalist.
- Paul Biya, the President of Cameroon since 1982, would also surely make great dinner company. Security forces under Biya’s administration threatened human rights defender Maximilienne Ngo Mbe with rape, and then abducted and raped her niece due to Mbe’s anti-government activities.
- How about Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda since 2000? Kagame is a role model in disabling civil society by prohibiting the registration of some political parties, harassing, intimidating, and imprisoning members of political opposition and clamping down on the activities of human rights advocates.
- Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda since 1986, is also currently on the guest list. Museveni’s has been leading the way in discriminating against and otherwise violating the human rights of LGBTI people and trampling other fundamental rights in the process. One of his recent innovations is the 2014 Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act, a law that toughens penalties against LGBTI people, including life prison sentences for designated homosexual acts.
- Another member of the guest list is Mswati III, King of Swaziland since 1986. Under Mswati, Swaziland has reconfirmed its rejection of U.N. recommendations to allow political parties to participate in elections and refuses to ratify the Optional Protocol to the U.N. Convention against Torture.
- Last but not least, there’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, President of Equatorial Guinea since 1979. Over the past decade, more than 1,000 families in Equatorial Guinea have been forcibly evicted from their homes. President Obiang and his family have presided over a country that is ranked in the top 12 of the world’s most corrupt states by Transparency International while his administration is regularly called out for systemic human rights violations by the U.S. Department of State.
It is safe to question the likelihood that any of these potential guests to the White House “dinner” either make new commitments to the rule of law and human rights or report back to their citizens on any commitments made at these meetings. This is even more worrisome because of the fact that there will be no independent eye and ears to even take note of any commitments they make.
For the 1.1 billion people in Africa who will not be coming to Washington, let’s seriously hope that the deliverables of the conference are not who sat at which table and who wore what.
Modeling civil interaction with civil society advocates as legitimate and valuable partners during the official conference as opposed to at side events may be the most powerful step the Obama administration can take. It could be the difference between adopting sustainable initiatives that benefit the ruling elite or their surrogates and initiatives that will strengthen the independence of political institutions and the rule of law.
The summit must forcefully address corruption and build transparency and force African governments to move beyond lip service to take measurable, accountable actions to end discrimination against marginalized groups. If the summit does this, it could be the difference in hosting a one-time photo op and the start of an ongoing dialogue committed to genuine change and improvement between the United States and Africa that must continue.
There is a saying that politics makes strange bedfellows. President Obama may not have much leeway in who he dines with when it comes to official engagements, but he can decide what his guests should talk about.
For the 1.1 billion people in Africa who will not be coming to Washington, let’s seriously hope that the deliverables of the conference are not who sat at which table and who wore what. The African people deserve better than that.