Africa: What's the Game Plan for U.S.-Africa Summit? - Interview with Linda Thomas-Greenfield

Linda Thomas-Greenfield on visit to Kano, Nigeria in February
26 July 2014

Since President Obama invited African heads of state and government to the United States for summit during his Africa visit last year, administration officials have been scrambling to organize a meeting that could accomplish the president's stated goal "to help launch a new chapter in U.S.-African relations." As the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit approaches, the pace of planning has accelerated, involving not only the White House and State Department but numerous other Cabinet and security agencies. At the same time, dozens of other organizations have planned a wide range of related, often overlapping events.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield has been a lead participant in summit preparations during the 12 months since she became the Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, heading the department bureau responsible for relations with 49 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The leaders of Eritrea, Sudan and Zimbabwe were not invited to participate. Also included in the summit are the six countries of north Africa, which are followed by the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs bureau - with the exception of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic (Western Sahara). A total of 50 African leaders were invited, along with the chair of the African Union (AU). Morocco is the only country participating that is not an AU member. In this interview with AllAfrica's Reed Kramer, Thomas-Greenfield discussed details of key summit events, including the day-long direct talks between the U.S. president and his African counterparts and a high-level gathering for selected young African leaders starting Monday.

One concern we've heard from leaders in Africa, which I know you've heard as well, is what is being done to insure that they will be able to communicate their views and address their questions to President Obama. How will that happen?

That's a question we keep trying to answer. The heads-of-state summit with the president is on 6 August, here at the State Department. The president will be spending the entire day with heads of state here. We will be focusing in three sessions: investing in Africa's future, which will cover trade and investment; development, peace and regional stability; and governing for the next generation.

Each of those sessions will be a dialogue that will be moderated by the president, and we are looking to hear the views of African leaders. The president has indicated that he really wants a dialogue. So, heads of state will not be expected to deliver long plenary speeches. We've asked for all of their national statements to be sent to us in writing. We've gotten some and will be sharing those across the board. But the sessions will be dialogue between heads of state and the president.

So no one-on-one sessions involving President Obama and his counterparts – but will there be bilateral meetings at the Cabinet level or led by you, for example?

Absolutely. At the presidential level, it would be too difficult to plan 50 bilaterals and at the same time have President Obama spend quality time during the conference. The heads of state will be happy to meet him there and see him participating actively during those discussions. We would like to arrange bilateral discussions with all participating delegations. It's an ambitious plan, we know. Secretary Kerry will be doing some of these as well as other cabinet officials. Our preference is to have president spend quality time during the conference.

When heads of state meet with President Obama on 6 August, will there be any breakout sessions?

There are no breakouts. Everyone will participate in each session. We are also looking for engagement by heads of state with Cabinet-level officials and others in other events. The AGOA forum [Monday, 4 August] that will be hosted by the U.S. Trade Representative will give an opportunity for sessions with trade ministers. On the 5th, we have heads of state participating in the Business Forum with U.S. and African CEOs and also leaders within the administration. President Obama will be in participating in a portion of that as well. We're looking for this to lead to concrete discussions between governments and the CEOs. The hope is that it is transactional, and that they will walk away from this session with some real deals.

The first session of the summit on the 6th covers 'inclusive and sustainable development and economic growth', along with trade and investment. Are you expecting specific results from those discussions?

I think we'll see actions coming out of every one of the discussions. We have talked to African leaders about sharing commitments with us. We are prepared to share commitments with them about how we move forward. A big part of the agenda will be based around the initiatives that we already have in play. Power Africa, Trade Africa - how we might expand these initiatives and have a greater impact as we move forward.

For the lunch-time discussion on peace and regional stability, the White House program mentions 'long-term' solutions and 'peacekeeping challenges'. Would you expect the conversation to focus broadly, or do you foresee that the leaders will take up specific situations where conflicts are currently occurring?

We're not pre-cooking this, and I can't predict what exactly what will be discussed. But given the current security and peacekeeping challenges that we're seeing right now on the continent, I have no doubt that specifics will be discussed during the summit.

There is obvious overlap between the Young African Leaders Initiative (Yali) summit next week and the third session for the heads of state, focusing on governing for the next generation. The agenda for that session also includes delivery of services to citizens and illicit financial flows. What follow-up can we expect on these issues?

We will be talking about issues relating to good government across the continent and looking to share the experience that we are having with our Yali participants, who will have completed their summit. We want to talk about how African governments invest in their youth. We had a fantastic discussion with the AU High-Level Commission that is looking at illicit flows and how those illicit flows can be captured to contribute to building for the next generation. We'd like to have a discussion on how we can assist governments in addressing issues relating to illicit finances and corruption – and what can be done to stem the tide of that in the future. I think that should be a wholesome discussion and look forward to hearing from heads of state about how we can be of support from here, afterword.

Will one or more African heads-of-state take a lead role in each session, along with the moderating role by President Obama?

That's still in the planning. We know they will have lots of things to say and, again, we haven't precooked it. But we are discussing whether particular heads of state might be interested in leading on certain topics.

How do you expect that the heads-of-sate summit and related activities will contribute to stronger U.S.-Africa ties and promote U.S. interests?

The summit will build on the progress that we've made over many, many years in Africa. I am asked 'What have you, the United States, done on the continent of Africa?' and 'We're happy that you're now involved'! The United States has had a strong relationship with the continent of Africa that goes back generations. We're also probably one of the few countries in the world that has as big a Diaspora as we have here, and that connection makes it even more important.

We want to build on the progress made on the president's trip [to Africa] last summer. We want to advance the focus on trade and investment. We want to highlight our commitment to the continent in a lot of different areas - security and economic and democratic development, particularly in people.

When we look at PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief) and the advancements that have been made on the continent fighting HIV-Aids, we know that because of our help a generation of Africans will live free of HIV-Aids. The 'people' part of our relationship is extraordinarily important, and we want to stress that we want to strengthen our partnerships with countries in the future - to advance their interests and to advance American interests. We know that investment in Africa not only creates jobs in Africa, but it will create jobs in the United States as well.

With the focus on business during summit activities, are you hopeful that more American companies will decide to trade or invest in Africa?

There are a lot of U.S. companies that have been involved in Africa for many years. Just go to a CCA (Corporate Council on Africa) meeting, and you'll see members that are active on the continent of Africa. I think it's wrong to say that American companies are not interested in Africa. But we want to broaden interest in Africa, and I think the summit will go a long way in helping us broaden that interest.

There are calls for official participation in the summit by African civil society, including those pressing for transparent, accountable governance. What are the plans for including civil society in the deliberations, and how does support for democracy figure into the agenda?

We recognize that civil society has a vital role to play in all of the issues to be discussed, and its role will be highlighted throughout the summit.That's why we are holding the Civil Society Forum on August 4 hosted by Secretary Kerry – an official event that will bring together U.S. and African government leaders, members of African and U.S. civil society and the Diaspora and private sector leaders – as one of many ways in which to ensure that views from civil society inform the broad range of summit discussions. Civil society representatives, including young African leaders, will participate in other signature events as well, and President Obama will host a town hall with young African leaders the week before the [heads-of-state] summit in order to hear their views and ideas. As is the case for most summits, the format for Leaders' discussions on August 6 will include only heads of state and government, a format that lends itself to candid discussions of the full range of opportunities and challenges facing Africa and its relationship with the United States.

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