With about 50 African leaders coming to town for a summit and massive gala dinner at the White House this week, the Obama administration had to adjust for a last-minute party spoiler: the deadly Ebola virus.
Two West African heads of state, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma, have sent their regrets, choosing instead to stay home and deal with an outbreak that has claimed at least 729 lives 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 because 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.
Advisors 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,” deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes said. “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.
The president joked Friday about the many motorcades soon to be jamming the streets of the capital. “I won’t lie to you,” he told White House reporters. “Traffic will be bad here in Washington.”
Obama will take part in group discussions and host a White House dinner at which he plans to spend at least a few minutes talking to all heads 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 Sudanese 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.
The administration invited Kenya, whose president, Uhuru Kenyatta was indicted by the International Criminal Court. Kenyatta was charged in 2011 in connection with violence that followed the disputed 2007 Kenyan election.
Though the U.S. is not a member of the International Criminal Court, any reception of Kenyatta by the White House could be seen as 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 took his first major tour last summer, visiting just three countries. Some bristled at the limited itinerary.
The president also has no signature programs that compare with those of his predecessors. Under President George W. Bush an emergency plan for AIDS relief is credited with saving tens of thousands of lives in Africa, and President Clinton’s 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.
In a news conference Friday, Obama emphasized the economic potential of the continent, home to six of world’s 10 fastest-growing economies.
“The importance of this for America needs to be understood,” Obama said. “Africa is growing and you’ve got thriving markets and you’ve got entrepreneurs and extraordinary talent ... among the people there.¿And Africa also happens to be one of the continents where America is most popular and people feel a real affinity for our way of life.”
Times staff writer Kathleen Hennessey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.