Kenneth Okwaroh Ochieng
November 8, 2019

African Leaders and ‘Summits of Nothing’ – The Poverty of Visionary Leadership

There is a Swahili saying that goes – ‘wajinga ndio waliwao’. Loosely translated to - it is fools who get eaten. The wisecrack chides people for being tricked or taken advantage of; often with their full knowledge or due to sheer foolishness. 

That saying resonates a lot with the situation in Kenya and Africa today, considering how our leaders relate with foreign entities especially superpowers like the USA, UK, China, Russia and the rest of the developed world. This has been exemplified not only with the enthusiasm with which African leaders troop to these soirees, but also in the character and content of resolutions and commitments our leaders make with such foreign entities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta on the sidelines of the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi on October 24, 2019. (Photo by Alexey DRUZHININ / SPUTNIK / AFP via Getty Images)

President Kenyatta just returned from a mega-meeting hosted by Russia for African ‘statesmen’ in Sochi. The meeting has been considered a success with public relations mandarins in town milking every tiny photo opportunity, touting freebies promised by the Russian government, to give the impression that Kenya, and other African countries achieved something from it. 

Summoned to summits at their own expense – many African leaders put up spectacles of progress and misplaced emblems of national pride as they march into these meetings. Our very own – President Kenyatta reportedly hired a 1.5 million bob per hour private jet to gloss-up our lustrous entry into the Soviet heartland! 

In fact, over the recent past, there has been an unfathomable wave and appetite for such summits and conferences between African leaders and global superpowers. 

In August 2015, President Obama summoned African Heads of State to a meeting in Washington DC dubbed – USA Africa Summit. The US State Department touted it as a success having focused on trade and investment in Africa and highlighted America’s commitment to Africa’s security, its democratic development, and its people.

In August 2016, at the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI), the government of Kenya rounded up African statesmen in Nairobi to discuss development cooperation and foreign relations between the continent and Japan. Its organisers deemed it a huge milestone having brought together 32 Heads of State and Government from Africa, the Prime Minister of Japan, and over 18,000 top business representatives from Japan.

In 2018, South Africa and China co-chaired a summit in Beijing, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Reports from the meeting indicated that African countries got the sense that they have China as a meaningful development partner! 

In March 2019, the Queen and the UK government presided over the Commonwealth Africa Summit - a high level, multi-stakeholder event that brought together government and business leaders from the Commonwealth and allies - to facilitate dialogue and action on trade and investment, entrepreneurship and job creation, economic development, Security and counter terrorism, Energy and Power in Africa.

The list goes on and on!

But forgive me for crushing the party, and for sounding rather cynical and vain, when I ask, have we, as Kenyans, Africans, stepped back and measured or tracked the outcomes of these many high-powered meetings? 

Whilst our leaders carry with them, to these meetings, obnoxious tax gobbling entourages of statesmen, technocrats, academics, escorts and paraphernalia – what have we actually gained beyond photo-ops and grandiose parties and shopping sprees?

It is notable that in many instances, such meetings have become no more than feel-good conferences of nothing, where African ‘statesmen’ pretend to be haggling and negotiating better relations for our benefit but in real sense, they auction away the continent’s wealth and mortgage its future. Deals are signed, concessions stamped and perverse exploitative relations cemented, but in the interest of whom? 

The perplexing thing is that whilst it is now widely known that the greatest challenge to growth and prosperity in African economies (Kenya included) is illicit financial flows – mostly to developed western nations, unfavourable international trade regimes presided over by the WTO and UNCTAD, coupled with a looming debt crisis – these matters never seem to be substantively discussed in many of these forums with superpowers. And where they do, African leaders come back with nothings that they sugar-coat as wins. 

For instance, in 2015, at the height of global consensus on the Sustainable Development Goals, African stakeholders, particularly from civil society, presented a case for tackling illicit financial flows in conversations around financing for development at a conference in Addis Ababa. Of course, they lost the battle to organised western actors defending the interests of their nations and not that of Africans. To date, Africa continues to lose more than 50 billion US dollars annually to thieving, conniving tax-evading/avoiding corporate entities, most of which are domiciled abroad, channelling capital from Africa to western economies. 

Also, in 2016, Kenya hosted the World Trade Organization’s 10th Ministerial Conference in Nairobi. One would imagine, this was a perfect opportunity for African governments and leaders to hold their ground for substantive concessions from developed nations on trade reforms that negatively affect commodity prices and trade returns for many of African goods in the international markets. 

But No, developed countries stuck it in, refused, for instance, to continue the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) and abandoned the Bali Package that would have benefited Africa and other developing economies more. The Bali Package included provisions for lowering import tariffs and agricultural subsidies aimed at making it easier for developing countries to trade with the developed world in global markets

So please excuse my low enthusiasm for big meetings of African leaders that only further neo-colonialist vestiges of foreign control, exploitation and provide perverse platforms for use of Africans as pawns in super-power geo-political games. 

Quite often, African leaders end up played by leaders of developed States that they feel so obligated to impress and submit to. Africans lose out, fed on by big nations as our leaders line up, summit after conference for photo opportunities, aid handouts and backroom deals that least benefit common mwananchi.  

Nonetheless, all is not lost. Even though wajinga ndio waliwao, as the wise men put it, we can still drop the folly, take ourselves off the menu, and also come to the table to eat!

Africans and their leaders must begin by deciding collectively, as a continent, what they want from relations with the western world and other superpowers. They must decide on a unified African agenda rather than pursuit of small-time bilateral engagements between small African States and big nations that won’t achieve much because of the imbalance of power. 

Also, who says we cannot organise our own meetings, funded by us, with our own agenda and conducted in our deprived, desolate neighbourhoods, summoning the big countries that benefit from our wealth and risk our future to come witness the ills of their plunder? 

We also need better mechanisms for keeping our leaders accountable – to explain the concessions they dish to foreign entities and how they benefit us. We can also put more effort into building capacity of our diplomats and foreign envoys – to understand and act in the best interest of our countries.

The author is a Research Associate and Executive Director of the Africa Centre for People Institutions and Society (Acepis).  He tweets @okwaroh.

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Kenneth Okwaroh Ochieng
November 8, 2019

African Leaders and ‘Summits of Nothing’ – The Poverty of Visionary Leadership

There is a Swahili saying that goes – ‘wajinga ndio waliwao’. Loosely translated to - it is fools who get eaten. The wisecrack chides people for being tricked or taken advantage of; often with their full knowledge or due to sheer foolishness. 

That saying resonates a lot with the situation in Kenya and Africa today, considering how our leaders relate with foreign entities especially superpowers like the USA, UK, China, Russia and the rest of the developed world. This has been exemplified not only with the enthusiasm with which African leaders troop to these soirees, but also in the character and content of resolutions and commitments our leaders make with such foreign entities.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta on the sidelines of the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi on October 24, 2019. (Photo by Alexey DRUZHININ / SPUTNIK / AFP via Getty Images)

President Kenyatta just returned from a mega-meeting hosted by Russia for African ‘statesmen’ in Sochi. The meeting has been considered a success with public relations mandarins in town milking every tiny photo opportunity, touting freebies promised by the Russian government, to give the impression that Kenya, and other African countries achieved something from it. 

Summoned to summits at their own expense – many African leaders put up spectacles of progress and misplaced emblems of national pride as they march into these meetings. Our very own – President Kenyatta reportedly hired a 1.5 million bob per hour private jet to gloss-up our lustrous entry into the Soviet heartland! 

In fact, over the recent past, there has been an unfathomable wave and appetite for such summits and conferences between African leaders and global superpowers. 

In August 2015, President Obama summoned African Heads of State to a meeting in Washington DC dubbed – USA Africa Summit. The US State Department touted it as a success having focused on trade and investment in Africa and highlighted America’s commitment to Africa’s security, its democratic development, and its people.

In August 2016, at the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD VI), the government of Kenya rounded up African statesmen in Nairobi to discuss development cooperation and foreign relations between the continent and Japan. Its organisers deemed it a huge milestone having brought together 32 Heads of State and Government from Africa, the Prime Minister of Japan, and over 18,000 top business representatives from Japan.

In 2018, South Africa and China co-chaired a summit in Beijing, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Reports from the meeting indicated that African countries got the sense that they have China as a meaningful development partner! 

In March 2019, the Queen and the UK government presided over the Commonwealth Africa Summit - a high level, multi-stakeholder event that brought together government and business leaders from the Commonwealth and allies - to facilitate dialogue and action on trade and investment, entrepreneurship and job creation, economic development, Security and counter terrorism, Energy and Power in Africa.

The list goes on and on!

But forgive me for crushing the party, and for sounding rather cynical and vain, when I ask, have we, as Kenyans, Africans, stepped back and measured or tracked the outcomes of these many high-powered meetings? 

Whilst our leaders carry with them, to these meetings, obnoxious tax gobbling entourages of statesmen, technocrats, academics, escorts and paraphernalia – what have we actually gained beyond photo-ops and grandiose parties and shopping sprees?

It is notable that in many instances, such meetings have become no more than feel-good conferences of nothing, where African ‘statesmen’ pretend to be haggling and negotiating better relations for our benefit but in real sense, they auction away the continent’s wealth and mortgage its future. Deals are signed, concessions stamped and perverse exploitative relations cemented, but in the interest of whom? 

The perplexing thing is that whilst it is now widely known that the greatest challenge to growth and prosperity in African economies (Kenya included) is illicit financial flows – mostly to developed western nations, unfavourable international trade regimes presided over by the WTO and UNCTAD, coupled with a looming debt crisis – these matters never seem to be substantively discussed in many of these forums with superpowers. And where they do, African leaders come back with nothings that they sugar-coat as wins. 

For instance, in 2015, at the height of global consensus on the Sustainable Development Goals, African stakeholders, particularly from civil society, presented a case for tackling illicit financial flows in conversations around financing for development at a conference in Addis Ababa. Of course, they lost the battle to organised western actors defending the interests of their nations and not that of Africans. To date, Africa continues to lose more than 50 billion US dollars annually to thieving, conniving tax-evading/avoiding corporate entities, most of which are domiciled abroad, channelling capital from Africa to western economies. 

Also, in 2016, Kenya hosted the World Trade Organization’s 10th Ministerial Conference in Nairobi. One would imagine, this was a perfect opportunity for African governments and leaders to hold their ground for substantive concessions from developed nations on trade reforms that negatively affect commodity prices and trade returns for many of African goods in the international markets. 

But No, developed countries stuck it in, refused, for instance, to continue the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) and abandoned the Bali Package that would have benefited Africa and other developing economies more. The Bali Package included provisions for lowering import tariffs and agricultural subsidies aimed at making it easier for developing countries to trade with the developed world in global markets

So please excuse my low enthusiasm for big meetings of African leaders that only further neo-colonialist vestiges of foreign control, exploitation and provide perverse platforms for use of Africans as pawns in super-power geo-political games. 

Quite often, African leaders end up played by leaders of developed States that they feel so obligated to impress and submit to. Africans lose out, fed on by big nations as our leaders line up, summit after conference for photo opportunities, aid handouts and backroom deals that least benefit common mwananchi.  

Nonetheless, all is not lost. Even though wajinga ndio waliwao, as the wise men put it, we can still drop the folly, take ourselves off the menu, and also come to the table to eat!

Africans and their leaders must begin by deciding collectively, as a continent, what they want from relations with the western world and other superpowers. They must decide on a unified African agenda rather than pursuit of small-time bilateral engagements between small African States and big nations that won’t achieve much because of the imbalance of power. 

Also, who says we cannot organise our own meetings, funded by us, with our own agenda and conducted in our deprived, desolate neighbourhoods, summoning the big countries that benefit from our wealth and risk our future to come witness the ills of their plunder? 

We also need better mechanisms for keeping our leaders accountable – to explain the concessions they dish to foreign entities and how they benefit us. We can also put more effort into building capacity of our diplomats and foreign envoys – to understand and act in the best interest of our countries.

The author is a Research Associate and Executive Director of the Africa Centre for People Institutions and Society (Acepis).  He tweets @okwaroh.

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