Washington, DC — Originally, the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, convened by the White House, was intended to be a three-day affair, with the first day focusing on civil society, including the issues of building democracies and strengthening human rights. The second day, today, focuses on business between the nations of the continent and the U.S. private sector, and day three will cover issues of governance, with the leaders meeting with President Barack Obama at the State Department.
With a less than enthusiastic response from African emissaries not anxious to put their presidents before audiences to discuss gay rights, transparency, a free press and the development of competitive political parties, the White House essentially abandoned day one as a formal part of the activities, and left the day to various organizations to attract leaders willing to address the issues of civil society. The U.S. government did insert a series of workshops on issues such as health and poaching, but left the more contentious issues to the non-governmental organizations. They had little choice. Many leaders did in fact speak before various organizations, although picking their audiences carefully, while many others simply delayed their trip to Washington by one day, coming in on Monday instead of over the weekend.
For many of the leaders, day two and the preceding evening were the most important part of the summit. Last night, 11 private dinners were convened in different parts of town, each hosted by a CEO, selected in joint consultation between the U.S. Department of Commerce and Bloomberg Philanthropies. A U.S. cabinet secretary and other CEOs selected by Bloomberg and Commerce were at each dinner. The guests of honor were groups of African presidents. The composition of the each dinner was one of the most closely-held secrets in Washington, particularly from the African diplomatic community, lest there be objections to being assigned to lesser ranked cabinet members than the presidents may have felt they deserved. The prize dinners were those with the secretaries of State, Defense and Commerce present.
Today, approximately 10 American CEOs will meet at the Mandarin Hotel with an equal number of CEOs from Africa, with the African presidents plus one other person designated by each president. An unknown number of U.S. government officials will hover about the proceedings, to be guided jointly by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his Bloomberg Philanthropies and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. The program is six hours, a long time to ask CEOs of global corporations and heads of state to sit, but most are expected to stay through the whole process, to be wrapped up by an appearance by Obama. It may be one of the most important days in the history of U.S.-Africa economic relations.
For many American CEOs, it will be the first exposure to African business leaders, and in many ways, to Africa itself. The African business leaders, many with degrees from the world's greatest universities, and many of significant wealth – such as Aliko Dangote, Africa's richest man, with wealth listed by Forbes Magazine of $18 billion – will impress our CEOs, and one hopes that our own business leaders will impress Africa's leaders.
The African leaders represent the world's largest emerging market and they are ready to do business. It will be an interesting introduction, and if the day works as hoped, the U.S. may see a jump-start in global trade.
It is important to the U.S. that this happens. The U.S. has fallen behind in trade with Africa and is in danger of being left out in the most exciting marketplace in the world. In our society, it must be the private sector that closes the deal. Individual companies make the decisions where they trade, not the government, and today is the day where our CEOs are formally introduced to Africa. We can hope that the introduction is a good one.