WASHINGTON – With about 50 African leaders coming to Washington for a summit this week, the Obama administration had to adjust for a last-minute development- the deadly Ebola virus.
Two West African heads of state, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma, have sent their regrets, choosing to stay home and deal with an outbreak that has killed at least 729 people and threatens to spread.
Now the Ebola outbreak has necessarily taken a more prominent place in event planning. White House officials stress that they are taking all precautions to screen delegations to ensure the disease does not spread to the U.S.
The timing was unfortunate since it brought unwanted attention to the very kinds of African stereotypes about poverty and disease that the high-profile summit was meant to break. But in organizing the first-of-its kind gathering, the administration is still betting the event will burnish its credentials on U.S.-Africa relations while also broadcasting a hopeful new message about the future of the continent.
Advisers to the president say they want to signal the administration’s growing engagement with the entire continent, emphasizing an inclusive “all-Africa approach” to diplomatic relations.
“The way in which we approach the summit is to view Africa in the way in which Africa views itself in terms of its political organization,” said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. “In other words, we didn’t simply do a sub-Saharan African summit. We invited all of Africa.”
The African leaders are expected to come to Washington on Monday with their delegations, security details and motorcades for a three-day summit at the State Department and the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Obama will take part in group discussions and host a White House dinner, where he plans to spend at least a few minutes talking to each head of state or their emissaries.
Not all African leaders have embraced the mass meet-and-greet approach. To some critics, the size of the event diminishes the importance of individual African countries, and many leaders sought one-on-one meetings with Obama during their stay. But the White House declined the requests to avoid isolating any single country.
Diplomacy can be especially delicate in interactions with African leaders, several of whom have spotty records on democracy and human rights. More than one has been accused of crimes against humanity.
The White House said it excluded what it viewed as the worst offenders, including Sudan President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, indicted in 2009 on suspicion of war crimes by the International Criminal Court, and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, whose government has been subjected to international sanctions over allegations of corruption and violence.
The Central African Republic, where an ethnic-driven civil war is raging, was left off the list because of concerns of the U.S. and the African Union, which has suspended the country from its membership.
Even so, the administration agreed to include Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, marking the first time someone indicted by the International Criminal Court will visit the White House. Kenyatta was charged in 2011 for his alleged role in inciting violence after the disputed 2007 Kenyan election.
White House officials said an exception was made for Kenyatta, who became Kenyan president after the indictment, because of the country’s strategic importance to the U.S.
Though the U.S. is not a member of the International Criminal Court, Kenyatta’s official reception by the White House will deal a blow to the court’s legitimacy.
The administration downplayed expectations for the event, but it probably reflects Obama’s effort to bolster his record on Africa, which thus far has been a disappointment to Africans who expected the son of a Kenyan to transform U.S. relations and deliver a flood of aid and assistance.
Obama has traveled to the continent only twice. He took his first major tour last summer, visiting just three countries. Some bristled at the limited itinerary.
Obama’s achievements pale in comparison with those of President George W. Bush, whose emergency plan for AIDS relief is credited with saving tens of thousands of African lives. Under President Bill Clinton, the African Growth and Opportunity Act expanded U.S. trade with sub-Saharan Africa.
Obama, for the most part, has been known for promoting U.S. security interests in Africa, a reputation the White House is now looking to expand.