The US-Africa Leaders Summit

Screenshot of the summit website.

The US-Africa Leaders Summit website.

From 4-6 August, Washington and President Obama himself host the first US-Africa Leaders summit. The US is late in doing so. Although the Corporate Council on Africa started US-Africa business summits already in 1993 (the ninth one was in Chicago in 2013), the USA never used its cultural capital of having the first-ever Afro-American President by inviting most African heads of State and the AU Chairlady (‘most’ because they wanted to avoid that the Presidents of Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Sudan and the CAR would join as well). Now it was seen as ‘high time’ to do so. The USA is very late in doing what others have done before: Japan organized a Tokyo International Conference on African Development already in 1993 (five so far), in 2000 China joined with the Forum on China-African Cooperation (five as well) and the European Union did the same in 2000 (the fourth one was in Brussels in April 2014). In 2006 both Korea and South America organized Africa Fora (South America had three so far), Turkey followed in 2008 (two until now) and Brazil started its own Brazil-Africa Leaders Forum in 2012 (two so far). African leaders seem to be welcome everywhere now, and everyone wants to talk business! That the USA decided to follow suit can partly be explained by all those ‘emerging powers’ highlighting South-South solidarity, but partly also by what is happening in Europe. After many years of difficult negotiations suddenly the European Union seems to succeed to get a new round of ‘economic partnership agreements’ (EPAs) signed: in May Southern Africa agreed to do so; in July all West- African states did and Cameroon followed as the first one of Central African States. The USA is losing ground.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice

National Security Advisor Susan Rice previews the summit (still from a Youtube film).

A new partnership
On the website for the US-Africa Leaders Summit ( National Security Advisor Susan Rice informs the world that the USA wants a new partnership with Africa based on “mutual responsibility and mutual respect”, using the word ‘mutual’ that is also a keyword in the Chinese way to talk to Africa. She goes on to say that the USA wants to build on President Obama’s trip to Africa (Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania) in the summer of 2013, but no word about the fact that Obama never ever came to Africa after his trip to Egypt and to Ghana in 2009; not in 2010, not in 2011 and not in 2012. Many Africans and many Afro-Americans will have felt frustrated after the high expectations of 2008/2009.

President Obama holds a Town Hall with Young African Leaders, Washington D.C., 28 July 2014

President Obama holds a Town Hall with Young African Leaders, Washington D.C., 28 July 2014 (still from a Youtube film)

Social issues, business, investments
The programme for the three days is interesting if we look at the agenda and the order in which things are being planned: the first day is about big social issues (civil society, investing in women, peace and prosperity, health, resilience and food security in a changing climate, and combating wildlife trafficking) and about the renewal of the US ‘African Growth and Opportunity Act’, followed by a reception at Capitol Hill, meeting Congress! The second day is the business forum (I find it ironic that it will be held at Mandarin Oriental Hotel; more than 100 African business leaders will participate), followed by a Dinner at the White House. The third day comes to the heart of the intentions: African leaders meet Obama in discussion rounds about ‘investments in Africa’, ‘peace and stability’ and ‘governing the next generation’. The USA has started a ‘Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders’ (500 each year from 2014 onwards) and 500 of these young African leaders are in Washington now as well! On that third days there is also a ‘spousal programme’, hosted by both Michele Obama and Laura Bush , while the Congressional Black Caucus Africa Task Force continues the dialogue with the African business CEOs. It looks very well organized and very wide-ranging.

It would be interesting to see how Europe does it the next time (with the Fifth EU-Africa Summit probably in 2017), and I think we will discuss comparable issues at our own Africa Works! Conference, October 16 and 17 (see, where we hope to see many African, Dutch (and other European) people from business, science, NGO, media and diplomacy circles. And hopefully a few Americans too!


Africa in Moscow

blog-ton-moscow-abstractsThe Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the ‘Scientific Council for the Problems of Economic, Social, Political and Cultural Development of African Countries’ organized their 13th International conference of Africanists in Moscow, at the end of May. I was curious to know what would happen during a conference of Africanists in Russia, who would be there and what would be their research subjects. I knew that they had once been an associate member of AEGIS (African Studies Centres in Europe), but that was before I joined the AEGIS Board in 2010. And I knew that Russia, as the R country in BRICs, tries to redefine its place in the newly emerging global dispensation. So what did I see and hear?

A whole new world of Africanists
I heard a lot of Russian, to start with. I went to panels where the only contributors were Russian scholars, who were in shock when they discovered that there were non-Russian speakers in the audience. I was lucky that in those panels there was always some translation and sometimes it was good that I speak enough French and German to be part of a chaotic multi-lingual communication process. But I heard some angry American participants who complained that they could not follow much of what happened in many of the panel sessions which they attended.
Another interesting observation was that I hardly knew anyone. I have been to AEGIS, EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and CODESRIA (Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa) conferences and there are always quite a lot of people whom I know from earlier meetings. This time there was only one familiar person (Ian Taylor), and a few names I knew (from of group of about 600 people). It seems there is a whole world of Africanists that is isolated from the conference circuits I normally visit. And the other way around: from the AEGIS Centres in Europe quite a few people from Central Europe participated (I met Polish and Hungarian colleagues) but very few if any from the ‘old and established’ Centres of African Studies in Western Europe. More than 170 participants from Africa attended the conference, and the organizers had attracted papers from scholars representing 26 African countries. Interestingly, North Africa is definitely part of what Russians define as Africa.

The Institute for African Studies in Moscow.

The Institute for African Studies in Moscow.

Nothing on climate change – what a relief!
I have looked at the titles of all 253 Russian papers in the programme to find out what Russian Africanists are interested in and how they phrase their research interests. The majority of the contributions had an emphasis on political affairs and international relations. There were quite a number of papers with a linguistic focus or dealing with cultural issues like ethnic identity, gender roles and education. Relatively few papers dealt with economics or business issues (and as far as I could see there were no participants with a business background, despite the fact that Gazprombank (GPB Global Resources) and Lukoil were the main sponsors of the conference). And hardly any papers dealt with health, water, the environment (nothing on climate change, what a relief!) or agricultural issues, or with civil society or the role of Africa’s private sector.

The BRICs and Africa
The International Relations papers partly concentrated on historical issues: Russian travelers and explorers in the 18th and 19th Century, the Imperial Russian fleet’s activities along the African shores in 1904/05, the impact of the Russian revolution on Ethiopia, the impact of the Bandung Conference in 1955 on Africa. More contemporary issues were e.g. Russia’s participation in UN Peacekeeping activities. Many papers dealt with the BRICS and Africa, sometimes as a group, often as ‘Brazil in Africa’, ‘China in Africa’, ’or Indians in the Horn’, but there was also attention for other countries: Turkey, Japan, the USA (and Africom) and a lot on the EU-AU or EU-African states relationships, or on British or French foreign policies and Africa. Other interesting papers were e.g. about Indonesia and Africa (by a Hungarian scholar!), or South Korea and Africa (by a Kazakh scholar). Quite a lot is happening in the sphere of ‘Africa and the World’, one of the current focus areas of the African Studies Centre in Leiden.

Migration issues
But there was also a lot of Russian interest in migration issues, with attention for certain African diaspora groups elsewhere in the world (e.g., Somalis in the USA, or ‘African babysitters’ in France) or specific African-Russian migration issues: the jobs Moroccan students got (or not) after they have studied in Russia; Russian wives in Ethiopia and Tanzania; Afro-Russians and their esthetic and social preferences; Russian-speakers in Africa; and how Russians could practice their Orthodox Christianity in Islamic countries in Africa. The keynote speech by Irina Abramova (“the New Role of Africa in the 21st Century World Economy”) also highlighted demographic issues in Africa, and the ‘demographic dividend’ Africa is supposed to harvest in the next few decades.

The Library of the Institute for African Studies in Moscow.

The Library of the Institute for African Studies in Moscow.

Studying former coups
Many papers on political affairs dealt with the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Terrorism and its threats for peace and security also received considerable attention, as well as radical Islam, and there was a remarkable interest in Libya and Sudan. Many political papers had a historical orientation: studying former coups (and Russian involvement in some), or political change and revolutions in an African country. But there were also many papers on legal and political issues dealing with democracy and human rights, often on a scale of Africa as a whole, but sometimes focusing on particular countries and experiences.

‘Russian investors: please come to South Sudan!’
The funniest session I attended was on African Cinema, with a very interesting paper about the history of the Tashkent Film Festival and its impact on Africa, and a vehemently Russian-nationalistic plea against American domination in the (African) film industry. In Russian of course (with whispered translation next to me). And when question time came, the speaker had disappeared. Then suddenly someone appeared who was supposed to give a talk on Russian documentary filming in Africa during the Soviet era, but who was two hours late.
The most remarkable thing I experienced was the speech by a high-ranking official of the Republic of South Sudan during the opening ceremony. Yes, we made a mess of it, he said, but unlike many other African countries we solved it in 40 days! So, he went on, Russian investors: please come to South Sudan; we have proof now that we can solve all your problems within 40 days!

China-Netherlands-Africa: trilateral collaboration?

groepsfotoThe Lakeview Hotel in Beijing is beautiful. Owned by the ‘number one university of China’, as many members of staff from Peking University start to say when they shake hands with me, its grandeur and beauty shows China’s self-confidence. Smog levels take away some of the sight of the Lake (students use their apps to check the levels: ‘O, it is only 184; no mouth piece needed’; in Paris there was panic when it was close to 150 in mid-March). Two things that are very much related: high growth and high pollution.

Africanist colleagues
I was in Beijing last week with a delegation from Leiden’s African Studies Centre to attend an international workshop organised together with Peking University’s Center for African Studies. ASC researchers Benjamin Soares, Mayke Kaag and visiting fellow Romain Dittgen participated, together with invitees from the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague (Meine Pieter van Dijk and Ward Warmerdam), the University of Amsterdam (Sarah Hardus) and our African partner CODESRIA in Senegal (Carlos Cardoso). The Chinese main organiser Liu Haifang had invited many of her Africanist colleagues in China and a considerable number of African guests, including journalists from Africa who happened to be in Beijing for a training. The conference was called ‘International Development Cooperation: Exploring Sino-Dutch Complementarity in African Studies and Policies’.

Ton‘Our friend’
The conference came at a very appropriate time. The recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Netherlands had made the headlines in China and had created an atmosphere that can be summarised by: ‘Europe is important for us, but the Netherlands is now our friend’. Many Chinese observers had noted with surprise that President Xi had been invited with more ‘honour’ than President Obama. So now our Chinese hosts were very willing to explore possibilities for trilateral collaboration with us in the Netherlands with regard to Africa, even if some of the speakers noted that the Netherlands could hardly be noticed on a world map. The conference dealt with four major topics: a comparison of African Studies in China and the Netherlands, a comparison of experiences with aid, trade and investment relationships with Africa, experiences with and ideas about peacekeeping, and observations about capacity development. Let me highlight some conclusions about ‘African Studies’.

Independent attitude
China has an interesting history of African Studies; it would be useful to write that history in English and compare it with the history of African Studies elsewhere, for instance in Leiden. There are no differences of opinion about what African Studies should be: African Studies as area studies is broad, multi-disciplinary, and connects insights from fields of study as diverse as sociology, cultural studies, economic and business studies, political science, legal studies, geography and agricultural studies. Some participants noted that some centres of African Studies now put a lot of emphasis on economics. But African Studies should not be reduced to purposes related to immediate economic diplomacy or immediate policy relevance. It has much more to offer and should maintain its independence from policy and business circles. If it engages with policy and business circles it should do so with a critical, independent attitude.

BenGlobal exchange
Area studies like African Studies (should) play a role in teaching new generations of scholars. Examples like the courses taught in Beijing and in Leiden show the importance of a broad curriculum. It was suggested that we exchange curriculum experiences. We could even develop online exchange mechanisms, also involving African partner institutes and African Studies centres from other countries in Europe (AEGIS) and elsewhere. We could work towards the development of e.g. chat rooms where African, Chinese and European students and staff can communicate and talk about their research. Or we could develop summer schools in Africa, where Chinese, European and African PhD students could meet for intensive seminars or follow master classes given by prominent Africanists from the three regions.

Joint research
There are many possibilities for joint tripartite research activities, including applications for funding, fieldwork, publications, outreach activities and even evaluation of aid/trade/investment impact. A more formal commitment for collaboration between Peking University and Leiden University might be useful. This could go beyond African Studies proper and for instance also support the establishment of Asian Studies and European Studies in Africa as trilateral ventures. In Leiden the newly formed Leiden Global could be a useful tool for that.

Changing the image of Africa
Many participants noted that African Studies centres should play a role in changing the image about Africa in journalism and in school teaching: away from the image of a ‘sick continent’. It would be good to compare the various experiences in Beijing and in Leiden: the use of public media, art forms (plays), websites and social media. African Studies centres can also play a role in connecting to the African diaspora around them: on campus and beyond. The same is true for the maintenance of contacts with alumni originating from Africa.

Yan-LihuaYan Lihua
At the end of the conference Yan Lihua, the ‘Grand old lady’ of African Studies in China who had been listening carefully to what went on, asked me to greet a few of our researchers back home that had visited Beijing fifteen years before. She had later been in Leiden as a visiting scholar for a month. She hoped that this time all the ideas for collaboration would materialise better than they had done a decade ago, she told me. I think she will not be disappointed. The time is ripe now.