By Anthony L Hall
President Obama hosted over 45 African leaders in Washington this week -- in an almost jealous attempt to woo them from the courtship they’ve been cultivating with China in recent years. And he pulled out all the stops (and set up all kinds of roadblocks) to give each leader the impression that the world’s most powerful city had come to a standstill just for him. Actually, Cinderella at the ball seems a fair analogy.
This summit, the largest event any US president has held with African heads of state and government, will build on the president’s trip to Africa in the summer of 2013 and it will strengthen ties between the United States and one of the world’s most dynamic and fastest growing regions.
Specifically, the August 4-6 summit will advance the Administration’s focus on trade and investment in Africa and highlight America’s commitment to Africa’s security, its democratic development, and its people. At the same time, it will highlight the depth and breadth of the United States’ commitment to the African continent, advance our shared priorities and enable discussion of concrete ideas to deepen the partnership.
No doubt Obama wanted not just Africa but the entire world to think that this summit was -- to quote how VP Biden famously hailed passage of his healthcare initiative -- “a big f***ing deal”.
Anthony L. Hall is a Bahamian who descends from the Turks and Caicos Islands. He is an international lawyer and political consultant - headquartered in Washington DC - who also publishes a current events weblog, The iPINIONS Journal, at http://ipjn.com
Unfortunately, the media -- with their looping (i.e., repetitive) coverage of the ongoing war in Ukraine, of the tenuous ceasefire in Gaza, of the ambush killing of a US general by a “friendly” Afghan soldier, and of the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa -- effectively ignored this summit … as if it were nothing more than just another UN-style gabfest.
I witnessed this firsthand on Tuesday afternoon, when CNN cut away from Obama’s keynote address to the US-Africa Business Forum to bring “breaking news” about the eighth ceasefire in Gaza still holding eight hours after taking effect.
Hell, the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams
, the most-watched news program in America, decided that a viral video of some unknown Swedish mother trying in vain to get her two-year-old twins to stay in bed was more newsworthy than goings on at this summit. (Thank God for C-SPAN.)
Incidentally, the one female leader Obama invited, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, sent her regrets because she’s dealing with the Ebola disease that has already claimed over 900 lives, and is spreading. The president of Sierra Leone felt obliged to do the same.
But every African leader would’ve been forgiven for sending his regrets, given the panic-inducing media coverage this week of just two infected American doctors being airlifted from Africa to Atlanta (for better, life-saving treatment).
Meanwhile, it’s arguable that the only people more disappointed than black Americans in the failure of the Obama presidency to deliver for them are black Africans (i.e., those in Sub-Saharan Africa).
You probably know about the disappointment among black Americans because talk show host Tavis Smiley and Professor Cornell West have spent much of the past five years acting out this disappointment on TV -- as if they were performing a latter-day version of the Amos ‘n Andy Show
Not that what they’ve been saying is completely without merit, mind you. After all, they rightly point to everything from Obama’s failure to use his bully pulpit to help transform national consciousness on lingering matters of race, to the failure of his policies to reduce, to any appreciable degree, poverty, crime, and unemployment among blacks.
(This is not the occasion to elaborate. Suffice it to know that I’ve written many commentaries taking issue with their narrow-minded, shortsighted and often spiteful criticisms -- as I did in “Professor Cornell West’s Racist Psychobabble about President Obama,” The iPINIONS Journal
, June 1, 2011.)
On the other hand, you probably don’t know much about the disappointment among black Africans. Yet it is no less acute.
In fact, their Smiley and West would tell you that Obama has done little more over the past five years than lecture African leaders about good governance and use African countries as staging grounds for America’s ongoing war against terrorism. They might even shock you by mentioning that even his predecessor, George W. Bush, did more for Africa:
Ever since President Bush launched his Millennium Challenge Account for African development (in March 2002) and his $15 billion Emergency Plan of AIDS Relief (in January 2003), I’ve been arguing -- to the consternation and apparent dismay of almost all who bothered to listen -- that Bush has done more (and offers the best solutions) to help Africans than any other world leader in modern history…
In an interview in the June 27, 2005 issue of TIME magazine, rock star and acclaimed humanitarian Sir Bob Geldof echoes my frustrating attempts to disabuse critics of their ignorance and political biases concerning Bush’s support for Africa.
(“Bush Has Done More for Africa than Any Other President -- Including Clinton,” the iPINIONS Journal, June 20, 2005)
By instructive contrast, Chinese leaders have not only wooed African leaders with hundreds of billions in sweetheart trade deals, but they have done so with nary a word about good governance or terrorist bogeymen.
Specifically, while Obama was busy hurling democratic platitudes at them, Chinese leaders were increasing trade with them: from $6 billion in 2009 to over $200 billion today -- now double that of the United States. Not to mention that US tariffs and other barriers to trade with Africa are analogous to a boy wooing a girl with words, while alienating her with deeds.
Then, of course, there’s the hypocrisy/double standard inherent in Obama refusing to invite a few leaders to this summit, most notably Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, reportedly because they are dogged by allegations of corruption and human rights abuses. After all, at least half of those he invited have been dogged by similar allegations.
For example, Paul Kagame of Rwanda has been accused of orchestrating a campaign of political assassinations so pervasive that he even dispatched assassins to South Africa to take out Rwandan dissidents who fled there for refuge; Jacob Zuma of South Africa, arguably the most powerful leader on the continent, has been accused not only of notorious corruption, but of equally notorious rape; and, perhaps most egregious, like the uninvited Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, the invited Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya has not only been indicted on charges of mass murder by the International Criminal Court, he’s currently on trial in The Hague. (Interestingly enough, these charges made him so politically toxic that Obama deliberately shunned Kenya during his tour of Africa last summer.)
Yet Obama had no compunctions about courting the likes of Kagame, Zuma, and Kenyatta in Washington, DC…?
The hypocrisy/double standard inherent in this is surpassed only by the hypocrisy/double standard inherent in the ongoing farce of the United States doing business with China (and even with the former Soviet Union), but boycotting Cuba.
A boycott, incidentally, that continues to hoist the United States up by its own petard. This was brought into shameful relief on the eve of this summit, when The Associated Press reported that the United States has been sending young Latinos to Cuba, disguised as USAID workers, to foment political unrest. Yet Obama has the nerve to spew indignation at the Castros for imprisoning USAID worker Alan Gross on suspicion of espionage…? But I digress….
The point is that, in just five years, China has developed such a mutually dependent relationship with Sub-Saharan Africa that it makes the relationship the United States has spent the past fifty years developing seem estranged at best. Frankly, the only correlation between American and Chinese engagement in Africa these days is the number of managers (many recruited from its version of the CIA) China sends to help Africans build mercantile infrastructure, with the number of generals America sends to help them fight terrorists.
Africans say ‘why do we need the United States? … When I travel around Africa, I’ve seen airports, I’ve seen roads, I’ve seen railroads, I’ve seen ports, I’ve seen all kinds of things that are really impressive built by China, that you have to say the United States refused to build.’
(London Guardian, August 3, 2014)
It is noteworthy, however, that there’s growing resentment among Black Africans towards the Chinese.
It stems from the way China is trying to transform the (relatively) lazy work ethic they inherited from their former European colonizers into the slavery work ethic that pervades in labor camps all over China. And nothing is more galling in this respect than China exporting armies of Chinese laborers/soldiers all over the continent to provide living inspiration, and deprive Africans of jobs.
(I wrote about similar resentment growing among West Indians in such commentaries as “China Buying Political Dominion Over the Caribbean!” The iPINIONS Journal, February 22, 2005 and “China Putting Squeeze on The Bahamas. Your Country Could Be Next,” The iPINIONS Journal, October 22, 2010.)
In any event, this commentary is only intended to give an overview of the fraught context in which Obama hosted this summit. But, as the title indicates, it raised the question: why did all of these African leaders accept his invitation if he has proven to be such a self-righteous and stingy suitor (i.e., compared with China’s enabling and generous president, Xi Jinping)? Their reasons for accepting, I submit, can be summed up in two mostly self-explanatory points:
• Despite their disappointment, racial pride would compel most Black Americans, even Smiley and West, to vote for Obama if he were eligible for a third term. In a similar vein, despite their disappointment, racial pride compelled these African leaders to accept his invitation. None of them wants to go down in history as snubbing the first black president of the United States in such spectacular fashion. Obama himself reinforced this point when he toasted them at a White House state dinner last night as follows:
‘I stand before you as the president of the United States, a proud American. I also stand before you as the son of a man from Africa,’ Obama said drawing applause. ‘The blood of Africa runs through our family, so for us, the bonds between our countries, our continents are deeply personal.’
(The Associated Press, August 6, 2014)
• Despite their evident venality, these African leaders appreciate the difference between the kind of superpower one dates and the kind one marries -- with all that implies, respectively. I trust this overview explains why they see China as the former, the United States as the latter.
Ultimately, think what you will of African leaders, they are sensible enough to recognize this abiding truth:
• China is not interested in good governance and human rights because it’s only looking to strike trade deals that help it extract mineral resources to keep fueling its booming economy, which -- it cannot be overstated -- amounts to a brazen form of neo-mercantilism. (Ironically, even its commendable “health diplomacy,” which has seen as many Chinese doctors go to Africa over the years on medical missions as American priests have gone on religious ones, is more about promoting goodwill for the Chinese government than promoting good health for the African people.)
• The United States, as its African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) suggests, is interested in good governance and human rights because it’s looking to strike deals that do more for Africa’s sustainable development than for America’s economic bottom line.
Not to mention the billions Americans have given over the years in charity and aid -- two concepts, it appears, that do not exist in Chinese foreign affairs.
They’re only directing that the Dalai Lama should be shunned today. But who knows what extraterritorial directive the Chinese will issue pursuant to their perceived national interest tomorrow…?
This episode should serve as a warning to all countries around the world that are not just lapping up China’s largesse, but heralding it as a more worthy superpower than the United States. Because if China can spit such imperious and vindictive fire at the US over a relatively insignificant matter like meeting the Dalai Lama, just imagine what it would do to a less powerful country in a conflict over a truly significant matter.
(“China Prevailing Upon South Africa to Ban the Dalai Lama … Again?!” The iPINIONS Journal, September 30, 2011)
Bush has done more…
China putting squeeze…