Jean-Jacques Cornish

Look who Barak Obama’s having to dinner

By Jean-Jacques Cornish

There are more questions than answers as the United States hosts four dozen African leaders for their first summit in Washington this week.

Will it produce the deals and investment being sought by the fastest growing continent on the planet?

Or will it become a public relations exercise for Barak Obama showing yet again that he is only as African as one wants him to be?

One awkward question has been answered by South African foreign affairs chief Maite Nkoana Mashebane.

President Jacob Zuma snubbed the Europe-Africa summit in Paris last December because Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe was excluded.

He said then Africa will decide who to send, and it’s not for the hosts to decide on the guest list.

Yet Zuma’s at the Washington gathering to which Mugabe was pointedly not invited.

It’s about mechanisms, explains Nkoana Mashebane. Europe has form on summits with Africa. Washington does not.

Obama’s summonsing African leaders was a first.

Joining Mugabe off his invitation list is Omar Al Bashir of Sudan, Issaias Afeworki of Eritrea and interim Central African Republic president Catherine Samba Panza.

No word of complaint has been heard from Africa.

Presumably it is acceptable for Barak Obama to decide who he’s having to dinner, but French President Francois Hollande does not have the same right.

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al Sissi has indicated he will not be there.

The Cairo leader plays a pivotal role in the Middle East, so the summit will be the poorer for his absence if Obama was planning to air the greatest crisis this region is undergoing in a century.

It is not crystal clear exactly what will be discussed.

Ministers accompanying the leaders will deal with issues of trade and investment, security and multilateral cooperation in communications, health, infrastructure development and the like.

They will construct the final documents for their leaders who generally to not board their aircraft heading for a summit meeting without draft agreements and a communique remarkably close to the final versions.

This time there is barely of hint of what will be inked.

Wish lists are plentiful.

US officials are talking about scaling up security cooperation with Africa increasingly best with problems from Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, Boko Haram and other militatnt Islamist groups that cause both African and American security operatives to wake up clammy with sweat in the early hours


They have to deal with an Africa quick to take what Washington offers but reluctant to be seen getting into Uncle Sam’s pocket.

Best example of this is the inability of the US Africa command to find a permanent home on the continent it is designed to help safeguard.

Africans, in their turn, want an extension without conditionality on the African Growth and Opportunity Act giving their exports preferential access to US markets.

They’re pressing for Obama to announce a 15 year extension.

The reality is that whatever the US president offers has to pass a sceptical Congress with a plethora of local interests to protect.

The African leaders would be mistaken thinking they will be received with open arms by US lawmakers, already on their summer holiday.

They will be very fortunate to avoid being roasted by the US media that takes a perverse delight in spitting in the soup of the president’s dinner guests.

They have been asking for weeks why Obama is breaking bread with counterparts guilty of corruption, human rights violations and profligacy.

They will leap at their chance to take those leaders to task personally.

Many questions may linger, but excitement is a central ingredient on the menu this week.


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Jean-Jacques Cornish is a journalist and broadcaster who has been involved in the media all his adult life.

Starting as a reporter on his hometown newspaper, he moved briefly to then Rhodesia before returning to South Africa to become a parliamentary correspondent with the South African Press Association. He was sent to London as Sapa’s London editor and also served as special correspondent to the United Nations. He joined the then Argus group in London as political correspondent.

Returning to South Africa after 12 years abroad, he was assistant editor on the Pretoria News for a decade before becoming editor of the Star and SA Times for five years.

Since 1999 he’s been an independent journalist writing and broadcasting – mainly about Africa – for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape
Talk, Radio France International, PressTV, Radio Live New Zealand, Business Day, Mail & Guardian, the BBC, Agence France Press,
Business in Africa, Leadership, India Today, the South African Institute for International Affairs and the Institute for Security Studies.

He has hosted current affairs talk shows on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He appears as an African affairs pundit on SABC Africa and CNBC Africa.
He lectured in contemporary studies to journalism students at the Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Pretoria.

He speaks on African affairs to corporate and other audiences.
He has been officially invited as a journalist to more than 30 countries. He was the winner of the 2007 SADC award for radio journalism.

He’s been a member of the EISA team observing elections in Somaliland, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Egypt and Tunsiai.

In October 2009 he headed a group of 39 African journalists to the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

In January 2010 he joined a rescue and paramedical team to earthquake struck Haiti.

He is immediate past president of the Alliance Francaise of Pretoria.

Jean-Jacques is a director of Giant Media. The company was given access to Nelson Mandela in his retirement years until 2009.
He is co-producer of the hour-long documentary Mandela at 90 that was broadcast on BBC in January 2009.