Reflection on the US Africa Summit – My 3 Day Diary

Published By UNNGOF |  August 11, 2014

The first day started off with high energy.  Disregarding the jetlag, we all were ready to get to the registration by 6:45 a.m. having been warned that the level of security would be unbearable. After a ten minute taxi ride we arrived at our venue to flashing lights of all kind of police cars and ambulances, barricades, a  huge tent for registration and thorough security check.  After that we were ushered in the National Academy of Sciences building where every room was dedicated to a session with different civil society experts already assigned.  These ranged from topics like Judicial Freedom, Open Government, Conflict, Decent Work, Inclusive Development and several others.

I started my day at the Towards Inclusive Development Consultation.  There were several speakers who included our own Tina Musuya, Executive Director CEDOVIP.  She spoke on issues of domestic violence and how inclusive development cannot happen in a context of violence against women.  The session was co-moderated by Carla Koppel – Chief Strategy Officer and David Yang Deputy Assistant Administration from the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance.  On the  Panel we had two ministers from Ghana and South Africa who were joined by civil society representatives for; Indigenous people from Kenya, Persons with Disabilities from Malawi and Sex workers and Sexual Minorities from Kenya.  The panel was full of energy.  Each panelist helped us see the connections between inclusive development and what they were working on.

The person from the disability movement showed us how disability has a high cost that needs to be borne by the state – for example inviting a deaf person will also attract the cost of including sign language interpreters, handlers for the blind and some lame and several other costs that the state forgets when focusing on the question of inclusive development.  Tina made the point that domestic violence is not just a cost for women but a cost for all countries.

The speaker on sexual minorities noted that the conversation has to change, she noted that development cannot be inclusive when people always have to fight and only be able to speak about their sexuality in courts of law. We ended with a few recommendations bringing to the fore the point that whatever happens we cannot forget that inclusive development is about inclusion of voice, inclusion in policy actions and implementation and inclusion on results delivery and accountability. If inclusive development does not get to the issue of what benefits go to who and how benefit are enjoyed – talking about inclusive development will be a mirage and not a reality. This was defined as the generational challenge for Africa.

This session was then followed by the Town Hall Session. We all converged on the global townhall for the plenary session.  John Kerry and a panel of two presidents and two civil society leaders graced the occasion.  The session was a lively one with  John Kerry speaking with passion about Africa and how it is very important to the US.   His reminder to the audience that he started his career as an activist was refreshing. These few insights brought an air of connection into the room.  In a very convincing way he affirmed that civil society is the life blood of society.  He also added that a country without a civil society cannot be one that lives up the values of a democracy. His opening statement was followed by a panel moderated by our own  Shaka Sali of VOA.  The panel touched on several interesting questions from the floor that included questions from online contributors on issues like rights of LGBTI, oil in Ghana, homosexuality, transparency in the oil sector, young people in Africa and what they sought to take out of the summit, advice to Mugabe by the President and several other interesting issues.  The presidents on the panel were in a jovial mood doing very well to please the audience. They answered questions, laughed some off and largely excited the audience.

The afternoon of the same day was followed by parallel sessions on several aspects of development.  I attended the decent work session since this is an area that I knew little able about and I figured out that if I was to learn this is a place that I would learn something new about.  In the session, not surprisingly it was attended by trade union activists from all over Africa.  In many ways it was a space where the same crowd talked to the same people about the same subject.  In my mind I wondered what was new for all the people in the room apart from the fact that they were in a new venue – the state department – talking about all the things they knew already.

But the session did touch on some interesting perspectives around the issue of decent work.  The presenters made the case that decent work is not only about work that focuses on the welfare of the workers that it should be broad enough to also touch on issues of the type of work people do, how they are remunerated, if that work is sensitive to factors like environmental sustainability and is rights based. The discussions that ensued touched on all these issues but largely participants lamented about the conditions of workers in Africa and how they are not recognized and appreciated within African economies yet the development of Africa fundamentally depended on the conditions of workers and the productivity of workers.

The day then ended with no plenary discussion from all the parallel sessions and no chance to synthesize what had been talked about in afternoon.  Everyone then left unceremoniously and waited for the next day. The CSO Forum had ended and for many CSO they felt lost not knowing how their recommendations were going to feed into the head of state summit.

But while we enjoyed the bowels of the air-conditioned state department, the streets did have several pockets of demonstrators focusing on different countries. There were groups protesting against Eriteria, Ethiopia, Sudan and several other countries. The only unique thing being that while the protesters were very loud, there was no tear gas and indeed the protests went on and ended peacefully.

Day 2:

The second day of the summit was marked by several Presidents from Africa arriving in private jets and some of the first ladies in flamboyant fashions touching down in style.  As usual  Chantal Biya is trending on social media for her first forward fashion and sometimes daring sense of style.  The most important business of the official one day summit is around issues of trade with Africa.  The summit kicked off with a  sumptuous dinner in honor of the President and the very elegant White House photos – with Mrs. Obama choosing a color I am sure excited President Museveni. Thanks to the social media savvy assistant of the President were treated to several spectacles of the President, that included; a short video trailer of President Museveni’s arrival and the Portrait with the Obama at the White House. But no one can forget the award winning one of  President Kagame and daughter.

At the summit the word AGOA which in Uganda brings back memories of the  AGOA girls was the buzz word.  The speeches I heard were about celebrating AGOA, reenergizing AGOA and ensuring that AGOA come back to life as discussed in the session on Growth and Opportunity in Africa Forum hosted by the Office of  Karen Bass of the House Africa Sub Committee.  The impressive panelist that included Ecowas, AU and EAC Commissioners did make the point that Africa is not a country, it is a continent with diversity and lots of promise. Indeed we spent significant times of the day speaking about the promises of Africa, including the number of mobile phones on the continent, Africa’s economic growth without energy and the big number of young, unemployed young people who if well mentored can turn the continent round.

The session was very much is a town hall fashion and we spent time dashing for the microphones stands in the hall pathways hoping to make our point in a few minutes.  Several interesting perspectives came through from the audience with many people asking the US to do more for Africa and the Congressmen like true politicians promising and committing to do more. Several of them walked in at different intervals and we staged standing ovations as they quickly downloaded words of inspiration and encouragement, many of them leaving us yearning for more from the outstanding oratories that they delivered. That was a half day very well spent and one where we learnt a lot about what many would want to see happening in Africa.  I took a chance to take a  photo with my namesake and Secretary General of the  EAC – Richard Sezibera and we agreed that when we meet for the Secretary General’s Structured Dialogue where we would take some of the ideas forward.

I then spent the second part of the day with colleagues at the  National Endowment for Democracy. We spent the afternoon listening to group work from sessions earlier in the morning that looked at issues like human rights, good governance and accountability, elections, media, conflict and security and civil society challenges. True to civil society, the energy in the room was real with several contributions that called for all kinds of reforms; these included things like making rape and violence against women in conflict a crime against humanity, that media needs to rethink what it says about Africa, that elections should be reformed so that the winner never takes all and several other very bright ideas. It was clear to all in the room that in this ball-game civil society was very much at the peripheral with discussions happening between civil society and civil society. Some members in the group noted that at least the US has done well with some short presentations by the Vice President – Joe Biden and the Secretary of State – John Kerry. It was noted that in other spaces like the African Union this kind of interaction would not have even happened.  The day was certainly intense and filled with new energy as we prepared to head off to  Cannon House – that 1908 architectural marvel.

Day 3:

At Cannon House on the third day it was for me a session that got my head going round.  I am not sure what is it that we achieved, but the room was full of the same civil society leaders that had met at NED. The session was chaired by a Congressman it went rapidly from one session to the next. It covered several session ranging from human rights, good governance and accountability, elections, media, conflict and security and a panel on civil Society challenges.  The day was closed by remarks from House Democratic Whip, the Hon. Steny Hoyer.  It was a packed day but the afternoon was poorly attended for several reasons including the fact that methodology of the sessions was very monotonous and little could be achieved to keep the audience engaged. There were some interesting messages that could lead to some kind of action if there were heard by the African leaders that were in town during the same time.

This marked the end of our official events and what was left were one on one meetings and networking events and of course looking at the sunny Washington. In the days to come I will be doing a short reflection piece on the summit.

Richard Ssewakiryanga – Executive Director

Uganda National NGO Forum

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