William Ruto
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Why Ruto endures summits ‘shame’

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President William Ruto (left) shakes hands with his South Korea counterpart Yoon Suk Yeol. 

Photo credit: PCS

The first South Korea-Africa Summit took place in early June, and now eyes are on the older and bigger ninth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which is coming up in September.

It is interesting that South Korea joined the Africa Summit bonanza at a time when they have been deeply unpopular and ridiculed on the continent — at least among the commentariat and African social media.

President William Ruto attended the South Korea-Africa Summit in Seoul, and the South African-based Institute for Security Studies’ ISSToday publication noted that he was “taking some ribbing in the media. About a year ago he was publicly lamenting how demeaning it was that African leaders all had to go off to foreign countries to attend their summits with Africa. The African Union (AU) and regional economic community heads should be enough to represent the continent.”

“Last week he was apparently quite happy to traipse off to Seoul though. He attended the first South Korea-Africa Summit with some 24 other African heads of state and government, representatives of 23 other African nations, and AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat. Earlier this year Ruto attended the first Italy-Africa summit – in Italy.”

There’s a view that President Ruto deserves a little slack. He vowed not to attend summits organised by Western leaders who invite all African heads of state in April 2023 while speaking to Sudanese-born philanthropist and entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim, seven months after taking office, before the hard realities of governing a country in this age had fully sunk in.

As the boxer Mike Tyson put it: “Everyone has a plan (for a fight) until they (enter the ring) and get punched in the mouth.”

Africa drowning in summits

Although the August 2014 US-Africa Summit held by President Barack Obama became perhaps the most headline-grabbing, the Japanese started it all with the first Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD I) in October 1993.

China got into the picture with the inaugural FOCAC in Beijing in October 2000. However, it took the ascension to power of President Xi Jinping, who had far greater global ambitions than his post-Mao successors, to give FOCAC oomph.

Today Africa is drowning in these summits. In addition to the ones listed earlier, there is the India-Africa Forum Summit, Turkey-Africa Summit, UK-African Investment Summit and European Union-African Union Summit, among others.

At the Russian-Africa Summit, there is usually a weapons exhibition, and it is very popular with African delegates who take photos brandishing guns and post them on social media. Those Russians understand our people well.

Even before President Ruto expressed his reservations, it had become difficult for his brother presidents, especially its “elder statesmen” like Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and Cameroon’s Paul Biya, and rulers threatened by mutinous troops at home, to attend them all.

There are many reasons why these summits endure and new ones keep being born. The superpowers and rising economies see Africa’s vast natural resource wealth, a huge potential market and a vacuum where no African power dominates the continent, and they want a piece of it.

African development

Gathering at the feet of a Western or Asian ruler might be humiliating, but there is something in it for African leaders. An African leader seen to be first among other leaders abroad gets a lot of acclaim among his partisan constituents and a section of the middle class back home. Supporters of President Ruto, for example, often go gaga about him being a “leading African light” on the world stage.

These summits also present African development, and many of the continent’s challenges, as international issues. African leaders love this because it allows them to present their shortcomings as a result of the failure of the international community; they didn’t come up with the money to help fight hunger in Africa, to supply free antiretroviral drugs, to battle climate change, to build roads and schools, and to support efforts by the AU to stabilise Somalia and fend off Al-Shabaab militants.

There is also a conceptual power in these summits. They do understand that Africa has 16 landlocked countries, the highest of any continent, and events in one country often have far-reaching impacts on its neighbours. For most of the major issues of the times, you can’t expect to achieve much, without reckoning with that interconnectedness.

Even though they usually end up in grand statements and promises that, excepting a few cases of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, don’t turn into much concrete action on the African ground, their communiques are usually fairly dumbed down and clear.

They will call simply for increased investment in infrastructure, energy and health, support for agriculture and food security, debt reduction, trade, security, and such things.

Expect near full house at FOCAC in September.

The author is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. @cobbo3