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U.S.-Africa Leaders' Summit

The following article was published in the July-August 2014 NewsNotes.

Momentum is building for a first ever meeting between President Obama and the heads of state of Africa. The U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit will be held August 4-6 in Washington, D.C., with 48 African leaders, along with their spouses, invited to attend. The president announced plans for this meeting last year in Cape Town during a speech that outlined the kind of partnership he hopes to establish with the continent. Various civil society groups are also planning events to coincide with the presence of so many visitors from the African continent.

According to government officials, the Summit will be a different kind of gathering: less speeches and more discussions and dialog between the administration and the presiding heads of state of those nations with which the U.S. has relations. The interchange with these leaders will take place around a "shared agenda": A White House press release on the Summit indicates that President Obama "looks forward to welcoming leaders from across the African continent ... to further strengthen ties with one of the world’s most dynamic and fastest-growing regions. The Summit will build on the progress made since the President’s trip to Africa last summer, 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."

This Summit is one of President Obama’s most important initiatives towards Africa and is a further step in the development of his foreign policy stance as outlined in the June 2012 policy statement U.S. Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa. (Read more in NewsNotes, September-October 2013). During his 2012 trip to four African nations, Obama is said to have been impressed with the amount of progress that had been made in the treatment of those with HIV and AIDS and in the protection of human rights. He also came home more aware of the difficult crises and turmoil in South Sudan, Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the Central African Republic but also cognizant of the willingness of African leaders to dialog on these crises. Since last summer, the U.S. has appointed former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold as a special envoy for the DRC, sent Secretary of State John Kerry to twist arms in the South Sudan, and helped transport peacekeeping troops from Burundi to the Central African Republic.

What does the U.S. hope to achieve from this summit? First, the meeting is a chance to help educate U.S. residents about Africa’s people as well as about the depth of the U.S. involvement in Africa and its security and economic interests there. Secondly, it will be an opportunity to showcase especially the U.S. government’s plans for fostering the development of electrical energy through investment by private companies like Symbion Energy. The U.S. would like to promote Africa as a strategic partner and not as a continent in crisis. The basis of this partnership, from Washington’s point of view, should be built on the public-private partnership model of development. Indeed, while civil society groups have been told they will not be part of the official Summit, representatives from trade and investment organizations have been invited to attend.

What about the involvement of civil society organizations in the Summit? In April, four civil society organizations wrote President Obama a letter welcoming his decision to call the meeting. They also made a direct appeal to allow official space for African civil society activists. Unfortunately, while there is talk of a civil society forum in conjunction with the Summit, so far no official space has been provided. However, some departments in the government have expressed openness to listen to input from civil society. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), for example, has asked for recommendations about what to talk about with African leaders. They are looking for very specific suggestions on what to do, e.g. that each U.S. embassy in Africa meet with civil society groups in Africa prior to the Summit. Organizers of the Summit claim that they are open to receiving input from civil society on issues such as land grabbing in Africa and problems of corruption and lack of good governance. Civil society representatives from Africa say they would like to see both the opportunity to participate in the meetings of the Summit and an agenda that includes issues like human rights and not just security and economic concerns. Another key concern of African civil society groups is how the U.S. has been critical of the policies of many African countries only to have these criticisms swept under the rug before the Summit takes place.

U.S.-Africa Summit: The missing agenda

Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns intern Kelly Kundrat contributed to this piece.

The U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit will include presidents of Ethiopia, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea, where many Torture Abolition and Survivors’ Support Coalition (TASSC) members are from. Some of these invited countries constitute dictatorships, where individuals with dissenting opinions, those who oppose the ruling political parties, or are simply critical of the government, are harassed, arrested, or even tortured. Noting that this summit’s goals are both economic and political, the Obama administration should include the promotion of universal human rights as part of the agenda.

On June 26, the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held an open panel in recognition of the annual International Day in Support of Survivors of Torture. Torture survivors from Ethiopia, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea told their stories, highlighting the human rights abuses within those nations:

From Ethiopia: “... One of my goals it to change the way Congress and the American people see Ethiopia—the Ethiopian government does a good job of hiding the truth about what is happening in our country […] I was arrested on June 10, 2005. Four armed federal policemen raided my home […] They dragged me into their vehicle and beat me with a police baton on my head and back. At the police station, they threw me from the car on to the ground injuring my knee and elbow.” This survivor also experienced 15 days of solitary confinement while he bled from the injuries. He was tortured simply because he campaigned for a parliamentary candidate.

From Equatorial Guinea: “They tortured me for four months, day and night. Police came into my cell at night. It was a dark, dirty cell with more than a hundred other prisoners, almost all political prisoners. They would call my name, drag me into a separate room, beat me with batons and guns. They would kick me and demand that I give them names of people in the opposition. I kept saying I didn’t know anyone, I was just an engineer. My right ankle is permanently deformed from the torture, and it hurts all the time whenever I walk.”