The US-Africa Summit: An opportunity to deepen democratic governance

©US White House/ Pete Souza
President Barack Obama talks with people in Dakar, Senegal, last year. Obama is scheduled to have talks with African heads of State at the US-Africa Summit, 4-6 August 2014

The upcoming US-Africa summit on 5-6 August 2014, the first of its kind, includes the promotion of democracy on its agenda. This dimension sets itself apart from the plethora of other high level summits involving the engagement of emerging powers with Africa.

Why is this important and how can the US engage meaningfully in the promotion of democracy on the continent?

On June 14, 2012, President Barack Obama unveiled a new ‘US strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa’, promising a new chapter in US-Africa relations. The new strategy outlines a more proactive approach set out in four strategic objectives, strengthening democratic institutions; spurring economic growth, trade and investment; advancing peace and security; and promoting opportunity and development. Whilst the Obama Africa strategy sought to set out a coherent strategy in tandem with a rapidly transforming Africa, it remained anchored within a complex frame of successive initiatives by former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, whose impact on health and education has been noteworthy.

However, the innovations in the Obama strategy are also informed by the increasing presence and impact of emerging powers, including China, whose trade with Africa increased from a paltry US$3 billion in 2002 to around US$192 billion in 2012. Moreover, the growing institutionalisation of relations through summits and a growing plethora of interlocking activities between emerging powers, including older established powers including France has been a game-changer in the US conception of its relations with the African continent. Therefore, the US-Africa Summit, scheduled to open its doors next week, ought to be framed within Africa’s changing geopolitical and economic context.

The diverse nature of the agenda for Summit, including the US-Africa strategy provides African leaders with several entry points to engage the United States. The institutionalisation of the relationship through summits which essentially is driven more by US requirements on the one side, and African demand and supply factors on the other can be mutually beneficial for both parties. However, the assorted shopping list, whose impulses, particularly on the US side has been driven by the emerging powers approach, could potentially deviate attention from what is Africa’s most chronic twin-deficit – democratic governance as a precondition for peace and security.

Modest democratic gains

The economics of the Africa-rising narrative have changed external perceptions of the African continent. But more important, they have also redefined the manner in which African leaders perceive of themselves and the countries they govern.

The redefinition has occurred as a consequence of the displacement of traditional powers and partnerships, including France, the United Kingdom and the United States by new emerging powers such as China, Brazil, Russia and Turkey. Others, South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia have also increased their efforts aimed at consolidating their presence in Africa. Most of these new partners have staked a claim in Africa’s booming sectors, including extractives, manufacturing, agriculture and construction. Their economic activities have provided African countries with much needed financial resources, thereby providing opportunities for the reduction of African reliance on traditional western partnerships in as far as economic growth and development is concerned. These new alternatives strengthening the fiscal position of often resource-rich, but cash-poor African countries have a corrosive impact on the pace of the democratisation agenda in Africa. Moreover, the inability of African leaders and the African Union to deepen democratic governance has led to a resurgence of violent conflict and fragile political systems in a number of African countries.

Mali, lauded in the last decade in US policy circles as a successful democratic transition country collapsed alongside the Central African Republic under the watch of the African Union and the international community. To say that democracy has completely regressed in Africa is a bit of an exaggeration, with evidence showing that more African leaders are coming into power through more or less competitive elections. Furthermore, the African Union has codified important safeguards in its Constitutive Act that have significantly reduced the unconstitutional overthrow of democratically elected governments. These positive developments seeking to deepen democracy ought to be supported.

But, as the collapse of Mali and the fall of the Central African Republic in 2012 amply demonstrated, democratic governance in Africa requires more than elections. Established powers such as the United States ought to cautiously embrace the complex African ecosystem of impressive growth statistics in contexts where political freedoms and social inclusion carry little importance. Herein lie the challenge and several opportunities for the US-Africa partnership beyond the economics of the relationship. After all, good governance and democracy, supported by strong institutions are essential in harnessing the true economic potential of African countries, thereby creating better opportunities for citizens on the continent.

Crafting a broad-based democracy initiative

The normative basis for the relationship to orbit around democracy does exists, with African countries having through the African Union Constitutive Act, and several continental charters committed to democratic governance and human rights. The specificity of the US-Africa partnership resides in the commitments to democratic governance. In light of the shared ambitions around democracy (and not necessarily the modalities), the summit should be a transformational moment in as far as democratic governance is concerned.

First, the United States should with its African partners commit to the deepening of democratic governance in Africa beyond the routine of legitimising, but minimalist electoral outcomes. Elections in Africa have not always been accompanied by robust and accountable institutions, and have in some instances served as a means to entrench unaccountable, but zero-sum politicians and political parties. Granted, the US should push for more reforms through bilateral channels in countries such as Angola and Equatorial Guinea.

Second, a two-pronged strategy, with a slight multilateral shift and emphasis to supporting the democratic governance initiatives of the African Union Commission could prove more effective in the long term. A good place to start could be US support for the African Peer Review Mechanism and, broadly speaking, increased resources for the African Governance Architecture.

Third, the United States has over the years crafted several bespoke, but highly visible initiatives in diverse areas, including health, security and trade. If democracy is central to the US-Africa partnership, policy convergence and transfer can only occur within a mutually agreed high level initiative similar to those that exist between the US and the continent in other domains.

To conclude, democracy has created important conditions for peace and security, which are necessary ingredients for development in Africa. However, to make development work for the majority of Africans, nurturing and consolidating democratic governance and institutions remain the missing link in the Africa rising narrative. The first US-Africa summit has the potential to refocus attention on democratic governance, an agenda that has in recent years been instrumentalised by African leaders in their interest.

1 Aug 2014