By Michael Aboneka
The US Africa summit, the first of its kind for eight years, following the end of the era of Donald Trump and his America first policy, just concluded. With US President, Joe Biden, deliberately playing a different tune from his predecessor Donald Trump. His was indeed a courting ode, with a promise that the US is “All in on Africa’s future”.
Even more endearing was the declaration that “Africa belongs at the table in every room — in every room where global challenges are being discussed and in every institution where discussions are taking place” that accompanied the promise that US will support African Union joining the G20 group of large economies as a permanent member. Biden announced $2 billion in humanitarian aid for Africa to address acute food insecurity, with emphasis that Africa has potential to feed itself and the world and a joke that he, like a poor relative, will visit Africa and spend a long time there. The cheery tone and overt support from the US promises to not only deliver a total of $55 in aid to Africa over the next three years but also, with US support and stronger trade ties, the African Union can only grow stronger.
Even as Biden spoke about subjects on which there is consensus – such as the fact that there is a global food crisis ravaging the world right now and Africa is taking the brunt of it – he broached the more difficult ones too; such as democracy and the need for free and fair elections in Africa.
The democracy discourse is a direct jab at Africa’s strong men, including president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni who has ruled Uganda for nearly 40 years and who, at the summit, stated that Uganda could become a health tourism destination given its record in managing diseases such as Ebola and COVID-19.
Like many meetings where big men – and all but one African president are men – talk, diplomacy is the name of the game. Feathers cannot be overly ruffled or difficult questions asked. For example, even as Uganda flaunted its success in managing epidemics, there was no room to discuss the billions of shillings that went missing during the COVID-19 response and how to ensure that the support that US has promised to the continent, some of which will certainly come to Uganda, will not end up in bricks and mortar as the those with access to this money put up apartment after apartment, mall after mall.
The ghosts of the dozens of pregnant women who die in health centres following load shedding and unstable power supply were quickly shooed off so as not to taint the diplomatic aura of this meeting. The protests about the missing Ugandans got a little coverage on social media before the big men went to the more serious business of securing the money from the great US.
As Biden promised to continue supporting multilateral organisations such as the United Nations World Food Programme and the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme, the age-old discussion on the need to decolonise aid if it is to benefit the people it is intended to benefit still remains unresolved.
And while the US is still feeling jovial, it is important that Africa takes her stand and negotiates for the best terms. African Union Chair, Macky Sall’s request that the US shows “the will to work with Africans” is a good start. For, rooted in a history of colonialism and slavery – that Biden graciously recognised- the relationship between Africa and western states has decidedly lacked this good will. With Africa often being lectured about its failures rather than the west seeing them as equals with flaws but also potential.
Critics say that Biden is only playing catch up to China and Russia, who were quicker to appreciate Africa’s potential as a trade partner. Indeed, China-Africa trade accounts for $254 billion – four times that of US-Africa, which stands at $64.3 billion. China is also the largest provider of foreign direct investment – double the level of US FDI – and, through its numerous projects, has created thousands of jobs for Africa.
At the AU-Africa summit, Biden refused to repeat the tired narrative that China is a dangerous partner to Africa, only interested in making the continent indebted and ignoring soiled democracy and human rights records.
The hope is that, with these new opportunities and change in tone, African countries such as Uganda, prove their worth and stop being a danger to themselves. This would mean concerted effort to right flawed human rights records, the AU recognising that Africa’s strong men who have stayed too long in power cannot take their countries any farther than they have and Africa showing good will in working with and for the African people – even as US has shown good will in working with African presidents.
Michael Aboneka is a Lawyer, Human Rights Activist and Partner at Thomas & Michael Advocates