Africa: How to Make Sure the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is on Positive Side of History

21 July 2014
guest column

Washington, DC — In two weeks, we will witness a historic happening in Washington, DC, when for the first time, an American president will host African heads-of-state and government to discuss key issues impacting U.S. relations with that vibrant continent.

This event is a major step in the right direction for the United States. However, Africa hands and activists on both sides of the Atlantic and many African Leaders are asking why there will be no individual meetings with participating heads-of-states. China, France, and Japan have gotten this right. Their summits with African leaders include one-on-one meetings, even if they last only a few minutes.

I am not necessarily arguing for bilateral meetings, but what about five presidential sessions with the leaders of the west, central, east, south and north Africa regions? This option would not require an excessive amount of time (reportedly the reason for no one-on-ones). Considering the cost and time involved as these leaders travel to the United States with their (large) entourages and the respect-balance ratios at stake, shouldn't we be able to manage five meetings?

Encouraging regional integration and cooperation has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy, and these sessions could advance the dialogue on key Summit agenda issues, including peace and security, governance, investment, and the Young Africa Leaders Initiative.

With Africa poised to become the most populous continent by 2050 and with the United States needing allies and partners on policy, business and counterterrorism, Africa is increasingly key to U.S. interests.

White House-level S. focus on Africa is welcome , and Summit themes are on target. Interactive dialogue, engagement, and partnership are the Summit's stated goals. All good! Related events - starting with this month's FEEEDS-Gallup-AllAfrica Forum - will address key related issues.

But we need to do something more to address Africa’s perception (not ours) of appropriateness. Thus, my suggestion to add regional meetings to the program. This could further concretize and synergize our positive rhetoric about raising the U.S.-Africa relationship in an unprecedented manner.

The meetings could each be tied to a theme - peace and security for west and/or central, given the challenges in Mali, Nigeria, Niger, and Central African Republic and related terrorism threats to U.S. national interest. East Africa discussions could focus on economic issues and perhaps energy.

The last three U.S. presidents, inclusive of President Obama, have done a tremendous job of changing the post-Cold War paradigm -- creating signature initiatives - AGOA, PEPFAR, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, FEED the Future and YALI. I am pleased to been involved as a former U.S. diplomat with at least four of these and am proud of all the successes.

I am also pleased that this Summit is taking place - more than a decade after something similar was suggested in the AGOA legislation of 2000. My hope is for this event to be remembered in a good light. We talk about stemming views that the United States is not as serious about Africa as China, India, and newcomer Brazil. The Summit offers an opportunity to really do this.

We don't want the footnote to be that the United States couldn’t find time to hold bilateral meetings. As I write, I remember taking part in the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit, which had about the same number of world leaders (49), where reports on the President's schedule at that time listed 9-10 bilateral meetings, one of which I attended. However successfully the Summit plays out, the absence of heads-of-state meetings with the host president, even at the regional level, might be what is remembered most. And that would be a shame.

Calling the Summit historic should not be hyperbole! I am routing for the Summit to be remembered for all the things we did right, not for the one thing we left out. Let's add regional meetings to the agenda to ensure that the event is a clear success.

Ambassador (Dr.) Robin Renee Sanders is CEO of FEEEDS Advocacy Initiative and FE3DS, LLC. As a former distinguished career U.S diplomat, she served as U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and the Republic of Congo. She is currently an Adjunct Professor & Public Service Scholar at Pittsburgh’s Robert Morris University, director of the U.S. Office of Songhai Farms, author of The Legendary Uli Women of Nigeria, and global advisor for the AGOA CSO Network. Follow her on Twitter @rrsafrica.

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