Over 50 African countries will be represented in DC next week for the first ever U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit. The high-level gathering, which will bring together presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers from a majority of African nations, and will be a unique opportunity to deepen and widen the U.S.-Africa relationship on a number of fronts.  Here are a few key areas to watch during next week’s summit:

Economic partnership at the forefront

The agenda for the summit is heavy on the business and trade discussions, reflecting a particular interest and focus of the Obama administration on growing the economic ties between the U.S. and Africa. Hosted by Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and Bloomberg Philanthropies head and former Mayor of New York Mike Bloomberg, the U.S.- Africa Business Forum, held on August 5, will bring together some serious political and economic heavy-weights – from former president Bill Clinton and vice-president Joe Biden, to the CEO of Coca-Cola, Mastercard and the head of the World Bank, the star-studded day-long event is central to next week’s summit. As the United States seeks to expand its commercial presence on the continent, the outcomes of this forum will be interesting to watch.

One of the key trade topics will likely be whether the “seamless renewal” of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), promised by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 will go through as promised. Granting preferential access to U.S. markets for African countries, this key trade agreement between the U.S. and Africa has been at the core of economic policy towards the continent for the last 14 years, and is set to expire in 2015. Analysts are calling for Congress to act and renew this agreement, a call which is likely to be reprised by summit participants in DC next week.

Peace and security 

The U.S. security agenda in Africa has been driven primarily by dealing with transnational threats across a vast east-west swath of the continent, primarily the Sahel region but also extending deeply into eastern Africa. Terrorism and radicalism rank high in the list of priority areas for U.S. engagement on security issues in Africa, but dealing with trafficking and other shadowy networks has also been a key preoccupation. The U.S. has also been involved as a peace broker, with somewhat limited success, in places like South Sudan. Part of the difficulty with advocating an agenda of peace and security at a multilateral government summit is that many of the governments represented at the Summit are parties to the violent conflicts that have been rocking the continent – these are sensitive topics that do not lend themselves well to drilling down in such high level, highly political forums. At most, we should expect to see some basic, lowest-common-denominator language about a commitment to peace and security. Conflict and security experts are not holding their breath for any significant or new commitments from the Obama administration on security issues.

Human rights

There has been much chatter about how the lack of civil society participation in the Summit – despite the last minute decision to include a civil society forum on the first day. It is unsurprising that human rights, democratization and fundamental freedoms are not high on the agenda. Indeed, similarly to peace and security issues, these thorny topics often shine a light on some of the less savory policies, practices and behaviors of some African governments. The We Are Africa campaign managed to get the civil society forum on the agenda, which was an important accomplishment. But, as John Kerry’s relative silence on freedom of expression during his recent trip to Ethiopia – immediately after journalists had been jailed without charges – demonstrates, human rights issues take a back seat to trade and economic ties.

The U.S.-Africa Summit is the capstone event of the Obama administration’s engagement with Africa. It is long overdue – indeed, most other key global economic actors have already been engaging with African leadership at similar summits for years.

African Leaders' Summit Graphic from the Brookings Institute: http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/africa-in-focus/posts/2014/06/17-us-africa-leaders-summit-pugliese-westbury-sy

African Leaders’ Summit Graphic from the Brookings Institute:

Summit watchers will be looking for concrete commitments on the expansion of trade and economic ties. While civil society concerns with regards to civil and political rights seem to be overshadowed, business owners and private sector actors – on both sides – will be paying close attention to the promises and outcomes of the summit.

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