AFRICANGLOBE – When Barack Obama made his first trip as president to Africa in July 2009, he memorably told lawmakers in Ghana that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen; it needs strong institutions.” Next week, several African leaders will travel to Washington as part of a landmark gathering of nearly 50 African leaders.
The question, Africa experts are saying, is what will Mr. Obama tell them? “Are we going to have a strong message for these strongmen?” said Vera Songwe, the World Bank’s country director for Senegal, Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Mauritania.
The answer, White House officials said, is a resounding yes: The meeting, the first of its kind on American soil, is intended “to build a deeper relationship based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” Susan E. Rice, the national security adviser, said in an interview. “In each of the sessions, there will be some very straight talk and give-and-take.”
Still, given the attendance of leaders from Angola and Equatorial Guinea — to say nothing of American partners with checkered records, like the leaders of Rwanda and Uganda — some advocates worry that human-rights issues will take a back seat to other priorities.
The centerpiece of the four-day meeting will be a high-octane conference to stimulate trade and investment. The leaders will be put together with dozens of deal-hungry American chief executives. Former President Bill Clinton will speak, as will the former mayor of New York City, Michael R. Bloomberg, whose foundation is a co-sponsor, along with the Commerce Department.
The White House will push initiatives like Power Africa, a privately funded plan to bring electricity to 20 million households across sub-Saharan Africa. Companies have pledged $9 billion, and the White House is likely to announce more support at the summit meeting.
Though American officials are loath to admit it — given their sharply different approaches to Africa — the United States is chasing China, which has spent lavishly on the continent, mainly to lock up mineral resources for its booming economy.
With such a heavy emphasis on commerce, however, some activists said the meeting would miss a chance to press African leaders on civil liberties and human-rights abuses, whether it is a crackdown on journalists by Rwanda or antigay legislation passed by Uganda.
“No African leader is going to say no to an invitation from Obama to come to Washington,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, who specializes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “So in that sense, it’s a real missed opportunity.”
The White House notes that it has made governance one of the three main themes of the meeting, along with trade and investment and peace and security. Human rights and the rule of law, officials said, will be an unavoidable subtext in all the discussions.
“You can speak very plainly and very compellingly about things like corruption and female genital mutilation and mistreatment of women without being finger-wagging or condescending or offensive,” Ms. Rice said, citing comments by Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, earlier this week to a gathering of young African leaders.
Other Africa experts said the administration was right not to call out its guests too conspicuously. A more subtle and effective message, they said, would be to remind Africans that the best American companies want to invest only in places with a reliable rule of law.
“It would be a huge mistake to lecture on the democracy and human-rights agenda,” said Jennifer G. Cooke, the director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If it looks like finger-wagging, it’s going to come across very badly.”
Yet human-rights considerations clearly played a role in assembling the guest list. The United States did not invite the leaders of Sudan, Eritrea, the Central African Republic or Zimbabwe, all of whom are on bad terms with the African Union. Egypt was invited belatedly after its election removed it from the African Union’s blacklist.
Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, declined the invitation and will send his prime minister instead — in part because none of the leaders will get a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Obama. Administration officials said that was simply a matter of logistics; the leaders will have to make do with a handshake and a few words of greeting.
The presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone have canceled plans to attend to deal with an outbreak of the Ebola virus in their countries. That will deprive the meeting of Africa’s most visible female leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.
The Ebola outbreak is only the latest distraction for a White House that has been lurching from crisis to crisis. Some Africa experts said they worried that despite Mr. Obama’s best intentions, the summit meeting would be overshadowed by the violence in Gaza and Ukraine.
Mr. Obama’s aides, however, said he planned to speak at the opening of the meeting, take part in the business session, and play host at a dinner for the leaders at the White House. The meeting has been in the works since Mr. Obama’s trip to Africa last summer, which was viewed as a success but raised a perennial criticism of the administration.
“You have these big, high-profile trips to Africa and then the issue falls off the front-burner,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser.
It says something about the chaotic state of the world that the Obama administration views Africa as a bright spot for American engagement. But Mr. Rhodes said on the merits, Africa had transformed itself into a genuine opportunity, with fast-growing economies and greater control over issues like health and food security.
“We’re never going to match the dollar amounts China announces,” he said. “But when you add together what we’re doing in development with the private sector, there’s a lot of incentive for the Africans.”
By: Mark Landler