WASHINGTON — Nearly 50 African heads of state and government will gather this week for an unprecedented meeting in Washington that has high hopes of reframing the continent's image, from one defined by conflict and disease to one of a region ripe with economic promise.
The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit — which marks the first time an American president will have convened Africa's leaders in a single conference — faces major hurdles ranging from the ongoing distraction of other foreign conflicts to domestic budget constraints. Obama administration officials have downplayed expectations, saying the event will not conclude with the sort of flashy financial commitments that Chinese leaders have unveiled at African summits held in Beijing.
China surpassed the United States in 2009 as Africa's largest trading partner.
Instead, the meeting will focus largely on the economic potential that Africa offers America — provided that the two regions can collaborate to solve ongoing problems around electricity supply, agriculture, security threats and democratic governance. It could allow President Barack Obama to establish a broader legacy in Africa: His deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told reporters Thursday that the meeting "can be a game-changer in the U.S.-Africa relationship."
Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on African affairs, noted that the United States still has strong ties based on years of development assistance. "I think history will show Africa is the continent of the greatest opportunity this century," Coons said. "We have a moment that is passing us by, and we should build on these relationships."
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, described the summit as "cementing what is already a strong relationship between the U.S. and Africa, as equals. … We're being very clear and open, this is not a donor conference."
The event, which begins Monday, is a sprawling networking affair. It will bring together foreign dignitaries, American and African CEOs, policymakers and activists for several days of business deals and panel discussions, as well as private dinners and at least one dance party. There are close to 100 side events, on top of a three-day formal conference that includes one day solely devoted to business issues and another to discussions among country leaders on peace and security, as well as health and other development issues.
Only a handful of heads of state — from the Central African Republic, Eritrea, Sudan and Zimbabwe — were not invited to the summit,
A separate reason — the outbreak of the Ebola virus — is keeping the presidents of Liberia and Sierra Leone at home.