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Just another BRIC in the wall for Obama at US-Africa summit?

All smiles - but Africa is simply not a foreign policy priority for Barack Obama at the moment. EPA/Michael Reynolds

The US-Africa summit held last week in Washington DC was a damp squib. Barack Obama had to host at least one such summit, given how successfully the Chinese have used such meetings, but the occasion was low-key and lacklustre. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, flew back from his labours in the Middle East, orated briefly, and flew back to the Middle East.

Africa is not a priority for the US right now. Israeli overkill in Gaza and the sweeping military successes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria far overreach Africa in urgency. The stand-off between Ukraine and Russia is not good for Obama’s nerves either. Never very good at foreign policy, he has left it to two skilled and adept secretaries of state, Kerry and Hilary Clinton, but has never seemed to know when to step in and throw his weight powerfully behind key strategic initiatives his long-suffering secretaries have engineered. So, at the summit, Obama mouthed all the right words but seemed curiously drained of commitment and passion.

Almost 50 African presidents turned up. They had made no protest against some “pariah presidents” like Robert Mugabe being pointedly not invited. When the European Union was contemplating whether or not to invite Mugabe to its own summit, African leaders made it pointedly clear that he too had to receive an invitation. But the US event was one that, unlike Europe’s, promised engagement with someone who was still the world’s most powerful man – even if he was embattled and tired.

Both Kerry and Obama promised greater US investment – but this was couched very much in terms of American business outreach. And, indeed, the new generation of oligarchic but increasingly technocratic business leaders of Africa had been making a huge show of being viable and reliable partners – with or without the US-Africa summit. US businessmen understood they no longer had to cosy up to presidents when African business leaders had finally attained enough clout to operate as independent capitalists.

The other key business at the summit was a purported surge in funding for African rapid response forces to counter terrorism. But planning for this has been underway for some time, and events in Mali and Central African Republic have merely brought the plans forward. Whether a five-year investment of US$550m will be enough to do anything remains to be seen. It would not be enough to modernise the Nigerian army to defeat Boko Haram, cleanly – without brutalising the very population it was meant to protect –let alone matching Boko Haram for mobility, ordinance and daring.

BRICS bank

In many ways, the Chinese stole a march on this summit with the announcement, just three weeks before the US-Africa summit, of a BRICS bank. Although all the BRICS nations were to be involved in the subscription of capital, so that the new bank would rival the World Bank and IMF, it was clear the Chinese would be the principal bank-rollers. Its headquarters will be in Shanghai, and its fund will total $100 billion. It made the US investment figures look paltry.

But, before Africa gets carried away about a powerful new source of liquidity, it is worth contemplating a sting in the Chinese tail. To what extent will Chinese subscription of funds to the bank mean that, increasingly, liquidity to Africa will come not directly from China but via the bank? If increasingly via the bank, then this bank, like any other bank, especially one run by the BRICS countries on a one-country-one-vote basis, will have to abide by sound monetary policies and rules.

In short, will this bank signal a slow introduction of what will effectively be conditionality attached to Chinese money? Not political conditionality – but will the era of endless soft loans and the anticipation of future writings-off of loans become a story from fairy tales of the past?

If African businessmen have grown up enough to be courted on equal terms by their American counterparts, it may well be that the Chinese too will impose “equal terms”. No more free lunches for those who have now grown up. Or should have grown up. Ironically, the August US-Africa summit in America and the July BRICS summit in Brazil may lead to two animals of pretty much the same species.

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