Africa Activism: What Direction Now?

From February 16 to 20, some 2,300 committed and energetic delegates from throughout the United States gathered in Washington, DC, for a five-day, high-profile “summit” dedicated to building a politically powerful coalition for Africa, but there was much uncertainty about how to do it. The official program and plenary sessions were dominated by U.S. and African government officials, members of Congress, and corporate leaders. But the energy in the workshops and hallways of this event, as well as the commitment of delegates to use their own funds to get to Washington for the meeting, demonstrated again the potential for Africa activism that still exists in the United States ten years after the South African victory over apartheid. Particularly noticeable was the high attendance—upwards of 30%—of Africa expatriates who established themselves during the conference as key players in any future constituency for the continent.

The National Summit on Africa (NSA) was a four-year effort, generously funded with almost $8 million by the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The NSA approved a 254-point platform—a sometimes-contradictory laundry list of policy recommendations—the “National Policy Plan of Action for U.S.-Africa Relations in the 21st Century.”

Beginning in May 1998, the National Summit on Africa convened a series of “regional summits and policy fora” around five broad themes in U.S.-African relations: 1) democracy and human rights; 2) economic development, trade and investment, and job creation; 3) education and culture; 4) peace and security; and 5) sustainable development, quality of life, and the environment. Each regional summit elected state delegations who, together with 500 at-large delegates, participated in the deliberative process at the Washington gathering. The NSA’s National Policy Plan will be presented to policymakers with the view that it will form the blueprint for a new and broader U.S. engagement with Africa in the 21st century.

Among the specific proposals endorsed by the summit were an urgent request for the U.S. to provide increased funding for AIDS research, education, and prevention and a demand for comprehensive debt relief for Africa. The final summit document also calls for conditional support of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act trade bill that is currently before the U.S. Congress and for a new “Marshall Plan”—scale commitment of additional financial resources for African development. The recommendations urge Washington to support a ban on landmines, end sales of small arms to Africa, and provide far more money for peacekeeping missions in Africa.

But the final assembly, addressed by two of the most widely respected black politicians, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr.(D-IL) and former Rep. Ron Dellums (D-CA), was clouded with charges by many grassroots and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) rooted in the antiapartheid movement that the mobilizing effort put into the summit risked being hijacked by a leadership with a “corporate-friendly” agenda. “Somehow all the hard work we put into making our voices heard here was for nothing,” complained Nunu Kidane, a former cochair of the California delegation. Kidane had helped organize the San Francisco regional summit, but she resigned in disgust because of what she characterized as the top-down nature of the NSA.

“Many of the people who went to Africa to do solidarity work in the 1960s and 1970s, knew they would never get paid,” said Prexy Nesbitt, a Chicago-based activist and educator who serves on the board of the Africa Fund and has worked with TransAfrica, the Washington Office on Africa, and many of the other national Africa groups. “But today,” Nesbitt explained, “[with the emphasis on trade and investment], you’re getting more and more people going with a sense of ‘what is in it for me?’ This [meeting] is controlled by the latter type. These are the new colonizers.”

Although Nesbitt didn’t mention him by name, he appeared to describe Leonard H. Robinson, Jr., the NSA’s “president and CEO”, who had defended Washington’s “constructive engagement” policy with apartheid South Africa as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the Reagan and Bush administrations. More recently Robinson worked as a lobbyist for both Sani Abacha’s military regime in Nigeria and Togolese president Gnassingbe Eyadema, one of Africa’s longest ruling dictators. Robinson apparently intends to transform the NSA into a permanent organization directed with a board half of whose directors will represent U.S. corporations active in Africa. “We’re going to need a board that brings a lot more to the table,” said Sunni Khalid, the former National Public Radio reporter who is now the summit spokesperson. “It takes a lot of money to do this.”

As originally conceived, the summit was to be used to mobilize and expand a variety of groups and interests worried about Africa’s marginalization following the end of the cold war. Since the 1980s, aid to Africa has declined sharply, despite half-hearted Clinton administration efforts to increase it. After the 1992-93 Somalia debacle, Washington’s refusal to act decisively to stop or prevent civil conflicts, including the 1994 Rwandan genocide, fuelled fears, according to the summit’s literature, “that the United States would continue to disengage” from Africa despite “unprecedented opportunities…to promote democratic values and free markets.”

“Little urgency is given to our problems, and when assistance is rendered, it is relatively too little and often delayed,” Organization of African Unity (OAU) Secretary-General Salim A. Salim told the delegates during the opening speeches. “This is in remarkable contrast to how other societies are treated in this regard. It boils down to the fact that Africa lacks a strong constituency in the United States,” Secretary-General Salim added.

Over the past two years, the National Summit on Africa has convened six regional and three policy conferences—in Boston, Chicago, Baltimore, San Francisco, Denver, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston, and Oklahoma City—with attendance ranging from a low of less than 400 in Chicago to well over 3,000 in Atlanta. A summit press release claimed that more than 10,000 participated in these regional forums.

Almost from the beginning, however, the NSA secretariat and executive committee were criticized for a “top-down” approach that failed to adequately consult with existing local groups and long-established NGOs with national networks. Many of the national activist NGOs, fearful of alienating the powerful donors who were behind the summit, joined the national board but confined their criticisms to internal discussions. From early on in the process, according to several board members, representatives of the International Human Rights Law Group, Africa Fund, Constituency for Africa, American Friends Service Committee, and Africa Policy Information Center voiced strong concerns about the huge expenditures (more than $400,000 on one regional conference, including $40,000 for fresh flowers) and the failure to adequately consult with local activists and groups. Salih Booker, who until recently worked with the Council on Foreign Relations and who drafted the original proposal as a consultant for Ford and Africare, resigned from the board in October 1998 to protest the lack of transparency with which the process was being conducted and the lack of a policy for accepting financial contributions from corporations with questionable records in Africa, including Chevron.

Unease on the twenty-eight member board increased last December when Robinson circulated an internal memorandum in which he laid out the case for creating a new organization after the summit to act as the “central repository on Africa-related issues and affairs.” Arguing that the lobbying network for Africa had been “moribund [especially since the conclusion of the Free South Africa movement], largely ineffectual over a sustained period and considered a nonfactor by the various power centers of decisionmaking in Washington,” Robinson asserted that “it would be a travesty if the summit failed to capitalize on the momentum it has generated to fill the void.”

As originally conceived, the NSA was supposed to cease to exist a few months after the Washington meeting and the formulation of the National Policy Plan of Action. Robinson’s memo, however, went on to propose an initial annual budget for an “American Council on African Affairs” of almost $1 million. Robinson wrote that, based on recent conversations “with corporate executives and with representatives of the foundation community”—including Coca Cola, Sara Lee, World Space, Carnegie Corporation, Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation—”it is very conceivable that the summit will attract additional, substantial capital as a consequence of the February 2000 event.” Robinson noted that the corporate interest in providing financial support “represents a sea change in attitude and receptivity and should mushroom—anticipating a knock-out summit in February.”

The following month, the six member executive committee endorsed Robinson’s idea and called for the new organization to be headed by a board with 50% corporate representation. Though some NGOs would remain on the board, others, according to the memo, would shift to an advisory committee. “[T]he new board cannot afford to be perceived as being other than ‘corporate-friendly,’” stated a January 18 memo from the executive committee.

That agenda became clearer by the time the 2,300 delegates began arriving to hear President Bill Clinton and half a dozen other administration and official dignitaries kick off the summit with a call for participants to lobby their members of Congress and senators to quickly approve the corporate-backed Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). “All of the hard work we had put into trying to get a balanced view of the bill was excluded,” lamented California delegate Kidane, as speaker after speaker exhorted the delegates to push for the AGOA. (During the NSA’s policy sessions, the AGOA was rejected by one of the five policy working groups and endorsed with reservations by another. Yet a press statement released at the end of the summit by the secretariat cited “support for the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act” as the first of half a dozen of the major policy recommendations of the summit participants.)

More disappointments were to come. Grassroots and NGO delegates were incensed both about the sponsorship by corporate giants Chevron and Monsanto of specific events and about the appearance of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi as the sole African head of state to address the meeting. “Taking money from Chevron was a violation of decisions taken earlier in the summit process and of the people who are struggling in the Niger Delta,” said Jennifer Davis, director of the New York-based Africa Fund, which played a leading role in the antiapartheid movement and more recently in the struggle against military rule in Nigeria. “I would have preferred to do without a couple of dinners and not have Chevron and Monsanto as donors,” said New York cochair Mojubaolu Olufunke Okome, a Nigerian who addressed the final plenary session on behalf of many of the dissidents and won a standing ovation for her comments. “Chevron’s policies in the Niger delta are morally bankrupt,” she said, adding that a member of her own family had been killed in the violence that has wracked the oil-rich region.

Ezekiel Pajibo, who works with the Africa Faith and Justice Network and was cochair of the Maryland delegation, said he was so outraged that Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi was the only African head of state on the program that he helped organize a demonstration outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel where Moi addressed a luncheon gathering. Delegates arriving for the luncheon not only had to walk through a line of demonstrators shouting “sham” and denouncing Moi as an “African Pinochet,” they also had to cross a line of picketers from the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union who were protesting the hotel’s refusal to allow a union. Vice President Al Gore, who was scheduled to address the same luncheon, refused to cross the picket line, and his remarks were instead broadcast into the gathering.

Summit dignitaries defended Moi’s presence. “We invited many heads of state to come,” said NSA cochair Andrew Young, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and ex-mayor of Atlanta, who stood by Moi as hecklers were led from the hotel banquet hall by security officials. “President Moi came.”

Still, Moi’s presence was symptomatic of a larger problem at the summit. Although the discussion in the policy groups was lively and participatory, the plenary sessions were dominated by official and corporate voices, charged Bread for the World President David Beckman. “Whereas representation by African official and privileged sectors is strong,” noted a petition signed by scores of delegates, including some board members, ”representation within the official summit process by other Africans in the U.S. and by African civil society, including women’s, farmers’, labor, human rights, youth and other grassroots organizations is woefully inadequate. If the NSA is about peoples participation in policymaking, why are these views and voices not given (at least) equal prominence?”

The petition, which charged that the summit process “has been concentrated in a small, centralized group,” also called for a “full evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses” of the summit to date and the adoption of a “Framework of Guiding Principles” on governance, participation, and transparency before any decisions are taken on the organization’s future. But Robinson, who agreed to allow Okome address the final plenary session as a representative of the dissenters in order to avoid a disruptive protest from the floor, declined to be pinned down on precisely what his organizational intentions were. Instead, he stressed that he wanted to fully cooperate with the NGOs and others. “As long as the National Summit on Africa has a nickel to spend,” he said, “we guarantee that we will work with anybody who has Africa—not self-interest—in mind. He asked “Why can’t we work together to make this happen?”

Salih Booker remains skeptical. In a memo he sent to the board in early February, Booker strongly opposed perpetuating or transforming the organization, noting that Robinson’s recommendations “suggest the creation of an entity dominated by U.S. corporations to act as a catalyst for working against the existing people-centered NGOs and their public education and public advocacy networking efforts. These proposals will only lead to a further diminution of funding possibilities for existing Africa-focused organizations, especially politically and economically progressive organizations including African-American ones,” he argued.

Others agree. “Any new organization that has that kind of money behind it has the potential for defunding the groups that have been the mainstay of Africa work generally,” said Melvin Foote, director of the Washington-based Constituency for Africa (CFA). Foote, who resigned from the NSA board in January, said that it has been difficult for many of the NGOs that have participated in the summit to criticize it publicly for fear of offending their donors. Ford and Carnegie have long dominated Africa funding in the foundation world.

Despite all the profound disagreements and criticisms, the National Summit on Africa demonstrated decisively that there is a powerful network of activists in the United States who are working on, or trying to work on, Africa issues and are not being reached by existing Africa-focused groups. With $8 million to spend, the NSA succeeded in drawing local organizers who had not been part of existing networks into the regional summit process and eventually to the national summit in Washington.

But, as the protests at the meeting and the resignations from the summit board showed, many activists and local networks were not prepared to be paraded into Washington simply to endorse a corporate—and U.S.-government—dominated agenda handed down from on high. For every person who protested publicly at the summit, there were at least two more who told reporters that they saw the problems but believed they would be fixed in the future. “They brought us together in New Jersey, and we plan to stay together and keep organizing, but we’re not going to be taking orders from this crowd in Washington,” said one delegate who asked that his name not be used.

The NSA organizers have already said they are heading in a “corporate friendly” direction, so the question for other Africa-focused organizations is whether they can pick up some of the energy generated at the summit and channel it into a new movement.

Ten years after the end of apartheid in South Africa there are still hundreds of local community groups with linkages to Africa, but the range of activism on Africa crosses over a number of issues and is much less nationally focused. Beyond the direct campaigns for democracy and human rights and against oil companies in specific countries such as Sudan or Nigeria, there are global coalitions on trade issues, debt and economic justice, landmines, and small arms that focus attention on Africa. In addition, more radical groups in the Black community, such as the Black Radical Congress and U.S.-based activists organizing for Afrocentric schools, chose to stay away from this gathering but are passionately committed to Africa work.

Whether the organizers of the National Summit on Africa manage to attract additional foundation or corporate funding for their new project, what they have done is demonstrate the potential for Africa organizing and present a challenge to Africa activists in this country. The question now is who will pick up this challenge?