Hours before I started writing this piece, two West Africans, one European and I (East African) talked about the just concluded Britain-Africa investment summit. It is the latest conference organised by countries that call the shots in the world and know perfectly well that they can ‘use’ Africa to get what they want.
Some call this kind of cooperation a win-win situation. But countries that are courting Africa, mainly because of its natural resources, have benefited more than Africa itself. And Africa has become a ladder of sorts for smart countries that want to scale economic heights.
During our chat, the European whipped out her smartphone and showed us an old image showing African leaders in a group photo (in Europe) with leaders that colonised Africa. She seemed surprised. The West Africans recalled—I do not know if they were right—that during the Britain-Africa investment summit, African leaders were literally scrambling to shake hands with Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister.
Everyone taking part in the conversation was wondering why African leaders have continued to attend investment and trade summits in foreign countries, often invited by one man leading just one country, when they can brainstorm and map plans for the future of their continent and invite foreigners they think they can work with.
The summits began in real earnest in 2006, kicked off by China, the factory of the world, which relies heavily on Africa’s raw materials to manufacture anything from high-quality to substandard products. Sadly, the substandard products often end up in poor countries, mainly African and Asian.
Once China showed the world that African leaders are malleable and easily get excited by invitations to investment and trade summits, other countries followed suit.
In April 2008, India (for the first time) invited African leaders to talk trade and investment. Japan did the same in May of the same year and, like China, has continued to hold such summits on home soil.
The United States joined the bandwagon in 2014, inviting African leaders, along with their spouses, for the first time to a trade/business summit in Washington. The conference attracted 50 leaders, although the presidents of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone failed to attend because their countries were in the grip of an Ebola pandemic.
The European Union and Russia have also been part of this craze. But unlike Asian countries and Russia, the EU and the Arab world have been polite and courteous enough to let African countries host summits. The summits alternate between Africa and Europe, and between Arab nations and Africa.
At the Britain-Africa investment summit, one senior British government official told the media that “Africa is the future”—and gave reasons why his country wants to do business with Africa.
But anyone who keeps track of what is going on in Africa knows that foreigners tend to use very diplomatic and politically correct language when talking about Africa. They deliberately steer clear of all the bad statistics and the near-insurmountable challenges the continent has to tackle and paint a rosy picture. And African leaders often fall for this propaganda.
If Africa is the future and is rising, as we have previously been told, why are African leaders not the ones inviting world leaders to their continent to talk trade and business? If Africa is the future, why is the European Union, of which Britain has been a member, spending billions of dollars to stem mass migration from Africa to Europe?
What Britain did not tell African leaders is that it now desperately needs Africa, not because Africa is the future but because Britain is out of the EU, which remains the biggest goods exporter to Africa with a total value (as of 2018) of nearly $170b (Shs627 trillion), according to the Financial Times. By contrast, Britain’s exports to Africa are worth $12b (Shs44 trillion).
Africa, it seems to me, stands to gain more from stronger cooperation with the EU than Britain. More importantly, Africa’s future—as former US president Barack Obama said on his first (official) trip to Africa in 2009 and as he reiterated in 2014 when he met African leaders—is up to Africans.
Africans, not foreigners, have to plan for Africa. If Africans were great planners and were the ones making smartphones, computers, planes, cars and everything else that other countries manufacture, they wouldn’t even have time for annual trade summits in China, Japan and India. They wouldn’t even let China build the headquarters of the African Union, because it would be an affront to the continent’s sovereignty.
The writer is a journalist and former Al Jazeera digital editor in charge of the Africa desk