- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2000

"People don't say what they mean here," Kibisu Kabatesi, a Kenyan journalist, said when asked what struck him most about America. "They never say 'no' to you, but then they don't follow through on their commitments," he told The Washington Times before a press conference on the National Summit on Africa (NSA). Mr. Kabatesi was one of more than 400 journalists from four continents who came to Washington to cover the summit last month, a conference some Africans complained was more about U.S. Africa policy than it was about a dialogue between Africans and Americans.

The summit, whose 2,300 attendees approved a 254-page proposed national policy plan for U.S.-Africa relations, was only attended by one African head of state, though many more were invited. The policy plan offered a strategy toward the betterment of the African continent in areas from trade to human rights, but Mr. Kabatesi was hesitant to call the summit a failure or success based on what went on during the five-day conference. That could only be answered once the proposals were implemented, he said.

Leonard Robinson, the president of the National Summit on Africa, blamed lack of input from the African side on the summit's limited financial resources. But at a press conference Monday he said he thought the summit process was "amply informed by the African side," with Africans comprising at least 30 percent of participants in the six regional summits. Still, there was concern that corrupt African leadership was being heard more than the people it ruled.

"On the day that [Kenyan] President [Daniel Arap] Moi spoke, my fellow Kenyans were outside protesting his presence there. How do you reconcile Mr. Moi's presence with your commitment to human rights and democracy?" another Kenyan journalist asked Mr. Robinson at Monday's press conference.

Mr. Robinson again blamed lack of funding, but the more telling statement about the summit's purposes for Africa was who controlled the summit's agenda. Mr. Robinson himself has recently worked as a lobbyist for Sani Abacha's military regime in Nigeria and Togolese dictator Gnassingbe Eyadema, according to a just-released report by Foreign Policy in Focus. Prexy Nesbitt, a Chicago-based activist for the African cause, called those who controlled the summit "new colonizers" who were only concerned with their own interests, the report said. And Mr. Robinson wants to make the NSA a permanent venture, with a vision to educate Americans about how to maintain a strong U.S.-African relationship. This may be hard to do if the NSA prefers communication with Africa to be limited to a monologue.

The African journalists have every right to be concerned. If this is the attitude the United States wants to convey toward Africa, it is doubtful whether the proposals will really assist African needs, even if they may serve U.S. interests in the short-term. Human rights could be the first fatality if summit leaders don't take time to listen to the African people.

"Where is the input of the African-American into challenging African leadership on corruption?" Mr. Kabatesi asked. "For instance, it was the African-American leaders during this forum who were trying to introduce Moi into America this time. They know his record on human rights; they know his reluctance with democracy. But they were the ones who were taking him around. This will definitely affect the opinion of Africans toward African-Americans."

If Mr. Robinson is championing the rights of Africans, why did he lobby for African dictators known to be human rights abusers, interrupt the Kenyan woman at the press conference who was asking why her people were not being heard, and blame lack of representation on money problems, when the Ford Foundation and Carnegie Corporation had put up $8 million for the cause? Mr. Robinson and the NSA can still break stereotypes and prove to Mr. Kabatesi and his colleagues that Americans mean what they say. If they really intend to forge a relationship with Africa, it is time they took their fingers out of their ears.

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