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US-Africa Summits Should Provide Sufficient Space for Civil Society Voices and Perspectives 

 US-Africa leaders' summit
US Secretary of state Blinken meets Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed and his entourage on the sidelines of US-Africa leaders’ summit ( Photo : AFP )

Kalewongel Minale (PhD) and Moges Demissie (PhD) (1)

The second US-Africa leaders’ summit has kicked off and is expected to continue for a second day. President Jo Biden is expected to seize the opportunity to revitalize and strengthen the cooling US Africa relations. Far from formal speeches, moments of handshaking, and photo flashing, US-Africa summit, subsequent declarations and projects that derive from the summit should, however, sufficiently provide space for civil society perspectives and voices. This piece discusses why civil society voices and perspectives need to be at the center stage in the overall US-Africa relations and discussion at the summit. 

Introduction     

US-Africa relations are long and historical. According to Falola and Njoku (2020), America’s first “permanent” link between the US and Africa derived from the transatlantic slave trade.(2) Fast forward, since then, many Africans vividly remember the cold war period where the US used the African continent as a playground for its rivalry and competition with Russia. After the cold war, US’s role in the continent significantly declined and a policy of disengagement was largely pursued; especially following the operation restore hope disaster in Somalia. This paved way for other superpowers and emerging powers to consolidate their presence in the continent. 

There is a sense that the renewed interest of the US in Africa is driven, among others, due to its declining influence in the continent. US policies and strategies increasingly identify containing the increasing presence of China and other actors as a policy priority in Africa. The US-Africa summits in this regard are meant to strengthen US relations with Africa. 

The second US-Africa summit has just kicked off. The summit, according to the US state department, demonstrates the United States’ enduring commitment to Africa. Nonetheless, far from top-down and dominant geopolitical agendas, US-Africa relations, and the summit in particular should be informed by civil society perspectives and voices. A similar platform with the European Union has been contentious for preventing civil society participation and overlooking views from the civil society. 

Luckily, the planning of the US-Africa summit appears to be different as leaders’ summit is preceded by parallel civil society forums and discussions. Still, civil society perspectives and voices should seriously be considered and take center stage in the overall US-Africa relations, agenda of the summit and joint declarations and subsequent strategic documents. Our purpose in this article is to draw attention to civil society perspectives and voices on US-Africa Relations and why this need be centered in the overall US-Africa relations. 

Cooling US-Africa Relations 

With the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, and the declining relevance of ideology as a foundation for alliance formation, the US interest in Africa clearly cooled down. While many governments in Africa faced waves of intrastate conflicts and civil wars weakening the already fragile responsive capacity of governments, the declining US interest and engagement has not been helpful. Particularly, this reinforced the creation of a conducive environment for non-state armed actors, including violent extremist groups and terrorists to proliferate in the continent. Despite, the US declaring some of these groups as entities posing serious security threats to its national interests both at home and abroad, its subsequent engagement was unhelpfully anchored on security orientations. 

This has forced the US to change course and make a more active engagement with African states and governments, with overwhelming emphasis given to security and military friendships and alliances. In this sense, the US considered and engaged Africa mainly as a tactical ally and a proxy field where competitions with emerging global powers are fought, making its approach essentially militaristic and security oriented. Nonetheless, the global shift in power positions made possible through the ascendance of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) and its pragmatic engagement with Africa has rung an alarm bell to the US for fear of not losing further ground in Africa. 

While China’s engagement with Africa thrived due to the modality of not involving conditionality, which is what many African governments prefer, the US’s insistence on respect for Western liberal values was not welcomed by many. It has been widely discussed and reported that many African governments and states suffer from deep-rooted authoritarian cultures and practices resulting in widespread human rights violations. However, the US’s approach of selective engagement with authoritarian and dictatorial governments in Africa while expressly advocating the promotion of human rights and democracy explains the double standard that is characteristic of its foreign engagement. Moreover, it is claimed that such an approach failed to recognize the local context and dynamics resulting in the ineffectiveness of the engagement at large.

Similarly, the Chinese political system built on the principles of socialism at home, which informs its engagement with Africa, was subject to various criticisms from the West. However, the two seemed to have struck a converging chord along the way with many African governments hailing Chinese approach for respecting their respective autonomies while the latter is keen to expand, utilize and sustain the African potential both at regional and global platforms. 

In this regard, China’s engagement with Africa is based on the most visible need of the latter prioritizing relevant socio-economic and development investments and projects, including the construction of infrastructure, with a potential for quick returns. Coupled with the relative ease of access to development financing and borrowing facilitated by Chinese state institutions, there seemed to be a growing belief that this is beneficial engagement for the continent at large.  

On the other hand, US’s engagement with Africa is anchored more on the promotion of normative and shared values and principles expected to contribute to long term development, democracy and peace. However, the patterns of relations in the past indicate that the modality of engagement was not anchored on equality and partnership. Instead, the US was seen as the vanguard and promoter of liberal democratic values while Africa was encouraged with various economic assistance schemes to adopt and develop them as a passive recipient. As such going forward, a more robust US-Africa relations demand rethinking the very foundation and modality of engagement, one that it oriented towards partnerships based on equality.   

In this regard, future US-Africa relations need re-directing along the way of constructive engagement. It could be more appropriate for the US government to work with African governments to effect the envisioned changes in socio-economic, political and security spheres rather than work against them, which would result in total backsliding and regression on the aforementioned fronts. African governments are faced with barrages of criticisms regarding their human rights records, recurring conflicts, poverty and declining democracy. Pressed hard, these more often push governments to be more closed and authoritarian than introducing liberal values. Hence, a better engagement needs to take into consideration the African contexts and realities and refrain from putting irrational demands that may be consequential.  

CSOs participation/Inclusion in deepening US-Africa Relations

The meaningful involvement and inclusion of civil society in US-Africa Relations and deliberations during leadership summits is key. The European Union has held six successive summits with the African union. However, EU Africa’s summits have been criticized for repeatedly shutting down civil society participation and their ability to influence and shape the agenda for EU-African relations. In 2017, before the 5th Abidjan summit, tens of civil society groups from Africa and Europe protested about this exclusion of CSOs and wrote a letter protesting to AU-EU leadership.(3) This exclusion, according to the CSOs, has resulted in a top-down process mainly focusing on political leaders and a process that is disconnected from the “needs of local people and their communities.”(4)

Taking lessons from EU-Africa relations, it is imperative that the US-Africa summit improvise on this. It is important that the US-Africa summits provide a space for civil society, ensure the inclusion and representation of civil society organizations and ascertain that civil society perspectives are well reflected in the process and strategic documents that derive from the process.

Representation of CSOs in the summit: Participation of the CSO sector in strategic policy making and implementation is indispensable for democratic governance and promotion of human rights in the African context. Hence, if the second US-Africa Summit is to make any meaningful departure from its past, it needs to recognize the critical role CSOs could play in promoting shared values and principles, entrenching democratic governance, and human rights, ensuring accountability and promoting better responsiveness. The US-Africa summit could do well deliberating and exploring possible mechanisms of CSO inclusion in governance, promoting coordinated engagement, enhancing local CSOs capacity for better development and committing to support the CSO sector at large.    

Centering perspectives from below:  US-Africa relations shall not be dominated by top-down, political and geo-political considerations and issues. This has been a key feature of US-Africa relations during the cold war and post-cold war where US security considerations dominated. This, however, needs to change and present-day US-Africa relations need to be broadened to tackle multifaceted problems facing ordinary Africans. In connection with this, many Africans have a reason to believe that their political leaders may not necessarily reflect perspectives from below. In contrast, Civil Society Organizations are well positioned to reflect these views in lieu of their independence, experience working directly with the civil society on the ground and their role of connecting the local and the national.

Africans, first and foremost, want US-Africa relations to take a form of partnership of equals, and these to translate into increased investment, trade and exchange to help tackle widespread problems of unemployment, inequality and food insecurity. In many African countries, agriculture is the main stay of the economy, and this need to be prioritized. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the socio-economic conditions in Africa have worsened, and these need to be given attention. Africans want US-Africa relations to focus on these challenges and be able to chart out trajectories and strategies to deal with.

Continental surveys conducted by afro-barometer reveal strong support of Africans to democracy. The majority of Africans wish to live under democracies. The overall quest for democracy and democratic governance in Africa, however, remains elusive so to date. Hence, as one of the shared values between the US and Africa, the promotion democracy and human rights shall be one of the priorities. The US needs to continuously engage with Africans and African governments to improve the conditions of democracy and human rights in the continent. These need to prioritized in their own and shall not camouflaged and made subservient to security and realpolitik considerations. Africans want to live in dignity, equality and democracy, and the US can support this very process 

Concluding Remarks    

The US-Africa summit should avoid the pitfall of EU-Africa summits and the manner these have been conducted. US-Africa relations should, generally, be built and broadened to seriously consider civil society perspectives and voices. This involves extending invitation to civils society organizations in the leaders’ summit. More importantly, it entails, that civil society organizations and actors are consulted, fairly involved in core and strategic processes of US-Africa relations and their concerns are adequately represented. While the discussion between the leaders is pivotal to deal with high level issues which require the attention and decision of the political operators, the platform should at the same time be an avenue where high and top level meets with the grass roots, and where the voices, perspectives and needs from below come to the fore and discussed. For this to transpire, the involvement, support and close collaboration with of CSOs remains highly key to this and future summit and overall US-Africa relations.

Notes :

  1.  Ethiopian Civil Society Organizations. The Ethiopian Civil Organization Council is an apex body which is established to coordinate, represent and lead the civil society sector
  2. Falola, T and Njoku, R.C (2020), United States and Africa Relations, 1400s to the Present. New Haven and London: Yale University Press
  3.  “Civil Society’s Role at the Heart of EU-Africa Relations”. Euractive. Event Report, October 2020.
  4.  Ibid.

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