Summit and show. Promises and pitfalls. Part I

The 2014 Washington DC USA-Africa Summit

Earlier this month Washington, D.C. hosted the US-Africa Summit convened by President Barack Obama and the first lady, Michelle: respectively a direct and distant son and daughter of Africa.
Here are, summarily, my takes on the event.

Lionel Richie performs at the White House State dinner
Lionel Richie performs at the White House State dinner

Actually, the full schedule took five days: from August 1st to 6th. First, the White House organized the Washington Fellowship For Young African Leaders. President Obama quickly changed the name of the first class to the Mandela Washington Fellowship. Then, speaking to the young audience, Michelle Obama declared: “Believe me, the blood of Africa runs through my veins” to thundering applause.

Summit  and “summitis”

From time immemorial, state ceremonies have lavished in heraldry and protocol, titles and insignia, pageantry and pomp, etiquette and decorum. The Washington meetings complied with that tradition.
And, given the top-level functions of the participants from both sides —hosts and guests— the event logically bore the name of summit. However, on the flip side, summits have generated a neologism: summititis.  The word was coined to question the high frequency and low-output of such meetings. Its form includes the use of a suffix found in the name of such diseases and illnesses: encephalitis, meningitis, hepatitis, etc.

Presidents Obama, Kagame with daugher, Michelle Obama
Presidents Obama, Kagame, with daughter Ange Ingabire Kagame, Michelle Obama

On one hand, summits have become budget-intensive and a costly habit. On the other hand, they tend to yield little or nothing. And their aftermath stands way below the expectations expected from them. Hence the summititis nickname with its implicit criticism and open skepticism.

“Say You, Say Me” by Lionel Ritchie.

Does the Washington Summit belong in that category? The answer is, most likely, yes. And, as far as I’m concerned, here is why.

What the show didn’t tell

The Washington Summit was almost fully attended, with the exception, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Western Sahara.
It displayed a great show of state protocol and diplomatic tradition: honor guards, flags, motorcades, music, food, security services, etc. For the Washington Post, U.S.-African Leaders Summit noted that it was “not exactly a state dinner but lots of pomp and circumstance.”
In theory and de jure, the Washington Summit —like the United Nations meetings— brought together leaders who are equal de jure. Contrary to the G8 or G10, however, it was de facto a lopsided gathering between uneven stakeholders, i.e. between representatives of the richest country and those of the poorest continent on earth. No need for a reminder, though, that’s a known fact.

President Macky and first layde Marietou Sall
President Macky and first lady Marietou Sall

Senior cabinet ministers represented the presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone; they stayed home to monitor the Ebola virus crisis. However, their neighbor, the president of Guinea, chose to minimize the threat. Accompanied by a strong delegation, he participated in the Summit.
Likewise, President Goodluck Jonathan attended in spite of hundreds of high-schools girls still captives following their abduction in the violent campaign waged by the terrorist group Boko Haram.

Soul singer Lionel Richie entertained the official dinner at the White House. Too bad that he was not peered with an African group or artist to underscore the Africa-USA cooperation mood of the Summit.
He could have jammed with a group from the continent. After all many jazz celebrities have done just that. In each of Africa’s five regions one finds court/royal musical traditions rooted in the pre-colonial kingdoms and empires. A a member of the Guinean delegation to the Symposium of the memorable FESTAC ‘77 (Festival of Arts and African Culture, Lagos-Kaduna, 1977), I recall that on opening day, the Nigerian Federal Government hosted a dinner for attending Heads of State and chiefs of delegations. Performed by Sory Kandia Kouyate, live Kora music and medieval Mande songs enlivened the ceremony. This Jeli genius grew up as a court poet in the Fuuta-Jalon (Guinea). He rose to international fame as a mezzo-soprano in the Ballets Africains of Fodeba Keita, himself a descendant of the illustrious Morifidian Diabaté, Samori Toure‘s ultimate companion, in glory and in exile.… Again, bards and praise-singers like Kandia Kouyate are found in Mande society and elsewhere in Africa. Kandia died, unfortunately, in December 1977, while performing. Just like Miriam Makeba in 2008.

Kouyate Sori Kandia, 1935-1977
Kouyate Sori Kandia, 1935-1977

Miram Makeba (1932-2008)
Miram Makeba (1932-2008)

(“Keddo” from Epopée du Manding by Kouyate Sory Kandia. 1968)

“The Click Song”  by Miriam Makeba, 1964

Arguably, the Washington DC Summit was predicated on two claims :

  • Africa is home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies
  • Democracy is gaining ground on the continent

Seriously!

Evidently, such assumptions brim with confidence and optimism. But their advocates are only entitled to their opinions, not to the facts. And, in this case, both proclamations fail Africa’s reality test. They are either thoroughly challenged or simply negated.

Obviously, the first assertion links the mining sector’s activity to economic growth, and possibly to development. Actually, mining is a primary sector investment that is is disjointed from the whole economy. Worse, the words mining and development are contradictory and antithetical.

The second contention may be less tangible, but it’s no less real and onerous. It reminds us democracy’s known prerequisites, among which literacy ranks high.  Let’s review the above pair of presumptions.

Extractive industry and African development: oxymoron and hype

For nearly a decade now, it’s been often said that Africa is the new, or next promise land for investment, growth, and, eventually, development.

For example, in 2012, Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof asserted that “Africa is becoming more democratic, more technocratic and more market-friendly.” Read his “Africa on the Rise” paper.

Such claims are based on the propects for increased exports of raw materials: minerals, lumber, industrial crops. They have little to do with such strategic and vital matters as energy output, water management, food production, health care and education investments, research and development, environmental preservation, etc.

The much-vaunted pace of growth of some African economies is exaggerated. It is tied to a sector of the economy that has failed African peoples time and again. For one thing, it perpetuates the 1998 Colonial Pact, which assigned Africa the role of supplier of raw material and the passive market for cheap and overpriced manufactured goods. Colonial powers strictly enforced that rule. And post-colonial African rulers have followed suite. As a result, the continent’s economy has weakened further. Mining fuels corruption and poverty. It increases dependency on foreign aid. It ruins the environment. And, adding to a longstanding “brain drain”,  it pushes out a ceaseless flux of unskilled laborers toward the borders of “Fortress Europe” and America.
Paradoxically, it’s no secret that extractive industries repatriate more profit money than they invest on the continent. Year in, year out!

In essence, the terms African development and extractive industry are antithetical. They may sound somewhat attractive to foreign investors.  But for the majority of Africans, i.e., the rural dwellers, the pair is just a hyped and dubious oxymoron.

Blood DiamondA saying in Nigeria sums it about oil production and export, which led the giant Federation from boom to gloom. That assessment applies to other African countries and the exploitation of their natural resources.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Beninese American Djimon Hounsou, the movie Blood diamond (2006) depicts the ravages and the cruelty of African mining.

In 2012, South Africa police gunned down 34 striking platinum miners in Marikana, near Johannesburg. They had grievances against the low wages paid by the mining conglomerate Lonmin. The tragic shootout was reminiscent of the Sharpeville massacre under the Apartheid regime in 1960.

South Africa. Miners police shootings
South Africa. Marikhana Platinum Mine police shootings. 2012

The Second Congo War (also known as the Great War of Africa) began in 1998. It is still going on at a lower intensity level. Wikipedia calls it “the deadliest war in modern African history, it has directly involved nine African nations, as well as about 20 armed groups. By 2008, the war and its aftermath had killed allegedly 5.4 million people, mostly from disease and starvation, making the Second Congo War the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II. The war and the conflicts afterwards, including the Kivu conflict and Ituri conflict, were driven by, among other things, the trade in conflict minerals”:  diamonds, cobalt, coltan, gold and other lucrative resources.

Last but not the least, surveying the post-colonial history of my home country, Guinea, aka Africa’s “geological scandal”, observers acknowledge that mining and dictatorship have combined to keep a once-promising land among the 10 poorest countries of the world, since it gained independence from France in 1958. Last year saw worldwide press coverage of the licensing scandal of the Simandou’s rich iron ore deposits. The revelations prompted an FBI investigation, under the Foreign Corrupt Practice Act. So far, it has led to the arrest, prosecution, trial, conviction and prison sentencing of Frederic Cilins, a French citizen with ties to diamond billionaire Beny Steinmetz.…

Next, “Democracy and literacy. Dictatorship and illiteracy

Tierno S. Bah

Tierno Siradiou Bah

Author: Tierno Siradiou Bah

Founder and publisher of webAfriqa, the African content portal, comprising: webAFriqa.net, webFuuta.net, webPulaaku,net, webMande.net, webCote.net, webForet.net, webGuinee.net, WikiGuinee.net, Campboiro.org, AfriXML.net, and webAmeriqa.com.