A summit of African leaders in Washington tries to move beyond 'speed dating'

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Marco Werman: Chances are if you're in Washington this week you'll bump into an African leader and maybe a motorcade or two. Nearly 50 African heads of state have been invited for a special US-Africa Leaders Summit. It's the first of its kind meeting hosted by President Obama. The White House sees the summit as a chance to focus on economic ties and build diplomatic links. Chris McGreal is with The Guardian newspaper, he's in Washington for the summit. This morning UN Ambassador Samantha Power described this gathering networking summit for the next few days as a kind of speed dating moment, a lovely metaphor but it implies great hope that relationships are going to be cemented. What are African leaders in general hoping to take away from this summit? Chris McGreal: That is a difficult question because African leaders in general - of course, it's a continent, not a country - and they've come with a hugely disparate list of items they'd like to talk about. There are those countries where security is very high up the agenda - that'd be Kenya and Nigeria, for instance. There are other countries principally concerned about trade, opening up greater trade opportunities with the United States, particularly parts of Southern Africa, bits of West Africa. There are health issues - we've got Ebola, which is an immediate health issue - but there are other things, such as the drawdown of US direct aid, the Pepfar program on AIDS, which is having an impact in countries like Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa. So there's a whole lot of issues here and that's partly why Samantha Powers I think made that reference to speed dating, which is that it's not everybody sitting down to talk about the same thing all at once. It's actually broken up into lots of different components. Werman: Is there enough good will to build on at this summit? McGreal: I don't know what the expectations will be in the end of this summit. They probably won't be realized. But there will at least be a feeling, I suspect, that at least the US is paying a degree of attention that it hasn't paid in the past. Now they're going to want to see concrete results. An important subtext here of course is security. The Chinese may come in and play a big role in trade and infrastructure construction and various other things, but when it comes to security it's the Americans who are up to the fore, particularly in parts of West and East Africa and North Africa, and that's an important subtext in this whole thing. There are more than a few leaders who want to talk to the Americans about security and the Americans want to talk to them about it. Werman: You mentioned Ebola. How has the Ebola outbreak actually colored this summit in Washington? Is it a summit spoiler? McGreal: No, I don't think it's a summit spoiler. It is in the sense that 2, possibly 3 African presidents of the affected countries are not coming but I think that it's part of addressing overall health issues. Obviously AIDS has been the big health issues of the past 20, 30 years in Africa. But the spread of Ebola is a warning of the dangers of poor health systems in parts of the continent and emphasizes why they need to be addressed and that actually is on the agenda here anyway, and so I think Ebola will just accentuate that work that needs to be done. Werman: So health, security, diplomacy, trade and economics are obviously huge. You haven't mentioned human rights yet - are human rights on the agenda? McGreal: I haven't mentioned them because they aren't. There is no segment about human rights and it's quite interesting because there is a whole meeting about wildlife trafficking but nothing on human rights. So I think there's obviously a deliberate attempt to underplay it but I think that in talking about security in particular, there very significant human rights issues. It complicates the American involvement in Nigeria, for instance, because the United States can't be seen to be too close to the Nigerian government in combating Boko Haram because the Nigerian military has plenty of blood on its hands. It's been killing civilians, it's been destroying property and has shown very little respect for human rights. Werman: And its effort to go after Boko Haram. McGreal: Exactly. And the same with actions of the police and the military in Kenya. But there are other broader human rights issues - the rise of anti-gay laws, for instance, in Africa is a very big issue. It's one of the reasons that the United States cut aid to Uganda. Again, that isn't officially on the agenda here. Werman: Odd though. Animal rights on the agenda but not human rights. McGreal: Indeed. Werman: And it's summer vacation, Congress is on break. Are there enough parking spaces in the capital for all the VIPs? McGreal: Well, tomorrow is going to be very bad with large numbers of roads closed down as you move around all of these heads of state between different venues. I noticed today they were towing cars left, right and center near the State Department. Obviously people hadn't realized that their usual parking spots are a no-go today. Werman: Chris McGreal, senior writer for The Guardian, thanks so much. McGreal: My Pleasure.