From the Editor’s Keyboard

U.S. Relations with Africa: G-4 in the White House

9 April 2013 at 16:45 | 1099 views


By Dr. Peter A. Dumbuya, Guest Writer, Freetown, Sierra Leone.


Of the four countries—I call them the G-4—whose Prime Minister, Josť Maria Pereira Neves of Cape Verde, and Presidents, Joyce Banda of Malawi, Macky Sall of Senegal, and Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, President Barack Obama invited to the White House on March 28, 2013, to discuss bilateral relations, Sierra Leone has had the longest continuous interaction with the U.S. The Province of Freedom or the colony of Sierra Leone began its existence in 1787 when British anti-slavery crusaders settled, among others, more than four hundred former slaves from the U.S. in Freetown. British and American philanthropists were motivated in part by the ideal of a self-governing agricultural community where Christianity and commerce would flourish as well.

Thereafter, the colony of Sierra Leone became widely known in the U.S., its progress closely monitored by individuals like Paul Cuffe and abolitionist societies. Sierra Leone also served as a model for Liberia which the American Colonization Society (ACS) founded in 1822 for “free people of colour” from the U.S. Since independence from Britain in April 1961, Sierra Leone has maintained continuous diplomatic relations with the U.S.

The G-4 in the White House

As President Obama remarked after the meeting, he had invited Prime Minister Neves and Presidents Banda, Sall, and Koroma to the White House because they “are doing extraordinary work” in promoting democracy, free and fair elections, good governance, economic growth, education, constitutional order, empowerment of women, and transparency and accountability. Unlike previous encounters between U.S. presidents and African leaders, this meeting accentuated positive developments in Africa, even as the five leaders acknowledged intrastate conflicts, terrorism, and transnational drug trafficking as challenges to be overcome. To President Obama, progress in these and other areas of U.S-African relations requires that the U.S. “be a strong partner, not based on the old model in which we are a donor and they are simply a recipient, but a new model that’s based on partnership and recognizing that no continent has greater potential or greater upside than the continent of Africa if they in fact have the kind of strong leadership that these four individuals represent.”

Prior to his historic election as president in November 2008, then Illinois Senator Obama had articulated a foreign policy that couples long-term U. S. national security interests with the promotion of liberal democratic values in Africa and other regions of the world. Basic to this conception of liberal democracy is the people’s right to choose their own forms government in free and fair elections. In a 2007 article in Foreign Affairs magazine, he wrote: “We need to invest in building capable, democratic states that can establish healthy and educated communities, develop markets, and generate wealth.” This market-based liberal democratic model of nation-building does not only promote peace but also helps reduce insecurity, poverty, and violence. In essence democracy, good governance, and free elections are indispensable components of economic prosperity, a dream that has eluded most Africans. President Obama returned to this theme on March 28 when he reminded his African counterparts that transparency, accountability, good governance, and democracy, are indispensable for “economic development because it gives people confidence, it attracts business, it facilitates trade and commerce.” In fact every available performance measurement has found a link between good governance and democracy. In the UN Development Program’s Human Development Index (HDI), the top five (out of 187) countries with the highest HDI value for 2011 are countries with the highest levels of education, income, and health care, all of which are benchmarks of good governance. Countries with the lowest HDI value in Africa are often saddled with high levels of corruption according to Transparency International’s corruption perception index.

Liberal democracy informed the Obama Administration’s “new beginning” with the Muslim world. In his June 4, 2009, speech in Cairo, Egypt, President Obama enunciated a strategy to confront the sources of tension between the U. S. and the Middle East. While the president focused attention on the Muslim world, including North Africa, most of the sources of tension he identified-violent extremism, democracy, women’s rights, and economic development-also afflicted sub-Saharan Africa where more than a month later, on July 11, he addressed those issues in Accra, Ghana.

His visit highlighted Ghana’s successful transition from decades of brutal military dictatorship to democracy. There he proclaimed that “The 21st century will be shaped by what happens not only in Rome or Moscow or Washington, but by what happens in Accra, as well.” President Obama also asserted Africa’s economic, security, health, and political importance to U.S. strategic interests and declared: “So I do not see the countries and peoples of Africa as a world apart; I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world.” This interconnected world is based upon the concept of partnership in four key areas: democracy; economic opportunity; public health; and conflict prevention and resolution. And so President Obama declared that “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”

Sierra Leone in the Spotlight

President Koroma’s invitation to the White House was, without a doubt, in recognition of the more than ten years of progress Sierra Leone has made since the end of the civil war in 2002. The four presidential and parliamentary elections (1996, 2002, 2007, and 2012) that have been held since the outbreak of hostilities in 1991 constitute one of the most notable accomplishments of Sierra Leone’s political leaders. President Koroma won the 2007 presidential election, which most international observers declared to be free and fair. For instance, the Commonwealth Observer Group noted that the 2007 “elections provided an opportunity to test the ability of Sierra Leone to live peacefully within a system of electoral politics premised on respect for human rights, peace, stability and competitive party politics.”

These general elections were held after the departure of UN peacekeepers (in 2005) that had been deployed to the country at the height of the civil war in 1998. The elections returned the APC to power. They were also part of the continuum of post-conflict reconstruction and stabilization of the country. During the decade-long civil war (1991-2002), whose origins are partly located in the politics of the Liberian civil war, the government of Sierra Leone faced a crisis of legitimacy stemming from its inability to secure the country’s territorial sovereignty, deliver basic services, provide human security, and end the war itself. In managing the root causes of the conflict, the government focused on (1) consolidating the peace and reforming the security sector; (2) rebuilding the state; and (3) delivering services to the citizens. These projects called for partnerships with the U. S., UK, and other donor countries and institutions. The World Bank and European Commission (EC) followed with measures aimed at improving public finance management especially capacity building in the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) and the National Revenue Authority (NRA) which was established in 2002.

The success of President Koroma’s All People’s Congress (APC) party in the 2007 presidential and parliamentary elections can be ascribed to rising unemployment, abject poverty, high adult illiteracy, corruption, and crumbling infrastructure. In 2012, the people re-elected President Koroma to another five-year term on some of the same issues that catapulted his predecessor, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah (1996-2007), to re-election victory in 2002: continued peace and political stability. The victory came on the strength of various infrastructure projects and service delivery in Freetown and around the country. The World Bank also noted an increase in the gross domestic product (GDP) from 5 percent in 2010 to 5.9 percent in 2012. This is attributable in part to recovery of the mining and agricultural sectors of the economy. These electoral accomplishments did not go unnoticed by President Obama who observed that “under President Koroma’s leadership, we’ve seen not only good governance, but also significant economic growth.”

However, if democracy and good governance equal economic development, then African leaders like President Koroma have their work cut out for them. For example, even though the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has projected a 5.3 percent growth in GDP in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) this year, trade between the U.S. and SSA is still paltry. According to a November 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service, U.S. imports from SSA in 2011 amounted to $74 billion, constituting about 3.4 percent of America’s worldwide imports of $2.2 trillion. For the same year, U.S. exports to SSA amounted to $20.3 billion, or 1.5 percent of worldwide exports of $1.3 trillion. Then as now, the U.S. conducts import/export trade mostly (79 percent) with Nigeria, Angola, and South Africa. Trade between the U.S. and Sierra Leone in 2011 amounted to $102.8 million, declining slightly to 101.6 million in 2012. Africa’s trade with the U.S., and indeed the rest of the world, is limited to primary products, and so there is an urgent need for SSA to launch a scientific and industrial revolution if the region as a whole wants to compete in the manufacture and sale of industrial products to the world.


President Obama has been to Africa twice as president, once in Cairo to address the Muslim/Arab world, and the second time in Accra on his way from L’Aquila, Italy, where he had attended the G-8 summit on the global economic recession and its attendant financial crises. The Obama Administration has focused attention on entrenched African leadership as an obstacle to the promotion of democracy in Africa. The Arab Spring of 2011 tested this commitment. But much work remains to be done on all fronts, including stabilizing Somalia and now Mali where a French-led force is battling Islamists in the north of the desert country. Overall, President Obama’s meeting with the G-4 is a good beginning, one that will send a clear message to Africa’s entrenched leaders that democracy has its own rewards.