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Time for a new US engagement with Africa

Tony Elumelu and Emmanuel Macron
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
African investor and philanthropist Tony Elumelu, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron, arrive, for an interactive session with young African entrepreneurs hosted by the Tony Elumelu Foundation in Lagos, Nigeria, Wednesday, July 4, 2018.

When I visited Washington this spring to explore partnership opportunities with the U.S. government, I wondered what kind of reception to expect. Although President Biden pledged early in his term to reengage with the continent, major policy initiatives remain unclear, and America’s absence on the continent has been felt.

This contrasts with U.S. allies and adversaries alike, who continue to show real commitment in their relationships. In February, at the sixth European Union-African Union Summit, leaders of the 27 EU nations welcomed 40 African heads of state to Brussels and committed €150 billion in investments targeting health, education, digital innovation, transportation infrastructure, and green energy. At the concurrent EU-Africa Business Forum (EABF), the Tony Elumelu Foundation celebrated its €20 million partnership with the European Commission which has empowered 2,500 young women entrepreneurs across Africa. Last November, China hosted its eighth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Senegal, and later this year Japan will convene its eighth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Tunisia.

So, I wanted to know: Where is America in all of this?

I was encouraged by what I took away.

In my conversations with U.S. policymakers, I found a genuine interest in reengaging Africa, in a manner that prioritizes mutual benefit and self-reliance. Discussion of a second U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit expected to be held this September — an event which Secretary of State Antony Blinken first committed to last year — could demonstrate that the Biden administration is ready to stand up and be counted among Africa’s partners.

At a dinner in Tanzania in 2013 around the launch of Power Africa, I joined other African business leaders in advising then-President Barack Obama to use the convening power of his office to engage more with the African private sector. A year later, we had the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and U.S.-Africa Business Forum. The energy in Washington, the enthusiasm for Africa, was unlike anything I had seen before. As such, I look forward to a second US-Africa Leaders’ Summit. The U.S. has an enormous amount of goodwill in Africa that needs to be channeled — and getting the public and private sector at the table is critical.

As an investor in over 20 African countries and founder of the largest entrepreneurship program on the continent, I would particularly like to see an event that prioritizes trade, investment, and business linkages, including the role of SMEs and young entrepreneurs. The power of the private sector to drive economic growth and social development in Africa is at the core of my economic philosophy of Africapitalism.

Another key component of Africapitalism is the need for an accountable public sector to create the enabling environment for businesses to thrive. We must push African governments to do a better job of providing security, infrastructure, and the policy reforms necessary to encourage growth — and they must hear this message not only from their own people, but from international partners like the U.S.

I firmly believe the transformation of Africa must be driven by Africans, and that it must be driven by the younger generation, but we still need the support of our friends. We simply need to reimagine the nature of that support.

Africa needs partnerships that foster a collaborative approach to building infrastructure, investing in human capital, and generating economic opportunities that will bring mutual prosperity. This summit represents an opportunity to build that kind of partnership.

It has been encouraging to hear support for this summit from important constituencies, including the diplomatic corps, private sector groups, and Congress, where enhanced U.S.-Africa engagement has long enjoyed rare bipartisan support.

In May the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution cosponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and my good friend, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), referring to the promised summit as “an important opportunity to strengthen ties between the United States and African partners” and calling for a roadmap for planning future summits and other events.

While it may seem that high-level diplomatic summits can be just a backdrop for photo-ops, there is real value.

First, a high-level, media-saturated event provides motivation for deals to get done. Meetings can spark new bilateral or multilateral government initiatives, or public-private partnerships.

Second, high-level linkages are critical to shaping policy. The conversations that take place will provide an opportunity for U.S. officials to hear directly from African stakeholders. Let policymakers hear the needs of a diverse continent of people that want investment, not only aid assistance.

Finally, the symbolic impact of these events is important. My greatest wish for a second summit would be to see African entrepreneurs sharing the stage with heads of state. This is an image that would clearly say to the world: The U.S. is engaging with Africa in a whole new way.

We need a catalyst for a sustained, substantive relationship between Africa and the U.S. There is so much to gain from our shared history, culture, and outlook. The second summit could be the beginning of a new chapter in U.S.-Africa relations, one in which we engage as equal partners, leverage the power of the private sector, and reimagine support in a form that promotes self-reliance and independence.

Tony Elumelu is a leading investor and philanthropist. The Tony Elumelu Foundation has funded, mentored and trained over 15,000 entrepreneurs across all 54 African countries and connected over one million African entrepreneurs through the TEFConnect digital network. You can follow him on Twitter @TonyOElumelu @TonyElumeluFDN

Tags Africa Antony Blinken Barack Obama Biden Biden foreign policy Power Africa Initiative US-Africa Leaders Summit US-Africa policy

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