US President Barack Obama speaks at a news conference at the close of the US-Africa Leaders Summit at the US State Department in Washington on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS
US President Barack Obama speaks at a news conference at the close of the US-Africa Leaders Summit at the US State Department in Washington on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS

A POWERFUL ally always comes in handy, so long as you keep his interests in mind and do not try to rip him off. Africa is juggling no fewer than three powerful allies, starting on Monday, after the US joined China and the European Union (EU) on the list of the continent’s newest new best friends.

Time will tell whether the trio are going to compete with each other or whether they intend to work in some loose harmony, for their own benefit and for that of most Africans.

But at least in the short term when President Barack Obama announced, as he did in Washington last week, that the first US-Africa Leaders Summit generated about $37bn in deals, investment and financial support, it sounded like more evidence that Africa is on the up and up.

China was not invited to the summit and neither was Europe.

But all the absentees, friend or foe, were surely well briefed about what went on and can judge for themselves the extent to which the US is "back in the game" as General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt put it when he announced $2bn of new investment across Africa over the next four years in sectors ranging from gas turbines in Algeria, locomotives in South Africa and skills training in Nigeria.

That sum was part of the $14bn in private-sector deals announced at the three-day summit — two days, by a purist’s computation — split between business and security issues, with governance coming in a distant third.

The US corporates and African partners, often public entities, seemed happy with an additional $7bn under the Doing Business in Africa programme of guarantees for trade and investment in the next two years.

"In a very competitive world where we are up against China Inc and Europe Inc, it’s good to have this sort of support," Mr Immelt said.

It is not like America finds itself on foreign territory in Africa. Think back to John F Kennedy’s Peace Corps or the western country which found and extracted the lion’s share of Africa’s crude oil over the past five decades or who is tightest with Africa’s most effective armies — such as those of Ethiopia, Rwanda and Uganda.

African Union Commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma who reminded some summiteers that the largest investor in Africa is still the US, despite China’s fast advance over the past 15 years and the combined weight of 28 countries in the EU including all the main colonisers of the 19th century.

America’s problem has been that it took its eye off the ball at just the wrong time, when the Africa Rising narrative started to make more sense and China was moving in to snap up resources to fire its industrial boom.

But Made in America remains a powerful brand. Mr Obama himself is a magnetic drawcard — even managing to look as if his problems with the US Congress are just in a day’s work.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and the presidents of Sudan and Eritrea were the only leaders instructed to stay away by Washington and if there was any solidarity protest, it has been inaudible so far.

Even South Africa’s pro-Chinese government stopped looking miffed about America’s brash return to the African centre stage. President Jacob Zuma said the summit had transformed South Africa’s relationship with the US and taken it to another level, adding that Mr Obama’s successors, starting in 2017, would "find it difficult to ignore Africa following this initiative".

The agreement about the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) was a big plus for trade for South Africa, and Africa, although the US Congress could upset that apple cart before the expiry of the present deal in September next year.

There was no joint communique, only Mr Obama’s chairman’s statement, which was the outcome of some to-ing and fro-ing with African delegations. So African delegations have an easy option of deniability if anything they objected to in the statement is attacked when they get home.

More worrying was the low profile adopted by almost all African delegations, with the partial exception of South Africa. Nigeria and Kenya shrunk from any public communication.

Perhaps their virtual silence allowed two of Africa’s most important subjects to pass virtually unmentioned. The summit had almost nothing to say about 200 schoolgirls held captive in northeast Nigeria by Boko Haram guerrillas and the attacks in Kenya by other Islamist extremists.

Legislative hounding of gays in Uganda and a few other countries were ignored; stepping up efforts to deal with the Ebola outbreak got modest attention, most of it concerning the mooted US support to create an Atlanta-style African Centre for Disease Control and Prevention somewhere in Africa (read: in South Africa).

Perhaps the fear was that addressing such sensitive political matters would be bad for business and if ever a summit was about the nexus between presidents and business, this was it.

• Kotch’s trip was partly funded by the US state department.