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robert i. rotberg

Ebola epitomizes Washington's Africa problem. With more than 40 African leaders meeting President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joseph Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry in the U.S. capital this week to celebrate the continent's burgeoning economic prospects, governance weaknesses remain sadly real and a big drag on development.

The presidents of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea stayed away from Washington this week, the better to try to manage the continuing Ebola epidemic that has killed 887 citizens in the three countries (with one additional death in Nigeria). Ebola spreads human to human, by direct contact.

Its transmission partially results, as well, from a deep lack of trust in officialdom – an inability of governments in West Africa to persuade skeptical rural dwellers to let the authorities care for and isolate victims and to quarantine those in contact with victims. Many villagers prefer indigenous health practitioners (so-called witch doctors) to a remote, often corrupt, bureaucracy. Governments are far off things; some villagers even believe that ruling elites are responsible for the re-emergence of Ebola.

The spread of Ebola represents an uncommon emergency, but as Mr. Biden chided the African leaders on Monday, corrupt practices are omnipresent, undercutting African growth by 1 per cent or more each year, distorting priorities, weakening the moral fibre of their nations and making too many of the leaders attending the Washington summit rich and powerful beyond the imagination of their followers. Hence the disaffection between rulers and ruled in sub-Saharan Africa and the attractiveness to some among Africa's youth of radical Islamist and other insurgent ideologies.

Washington is using such a grand gathering of Africa's leaders to showcase the rise of 54 nations, especially the 49 sub-Saharan African ones, from deep poverty to astonishing GDP growth. As Mr. Kerry remarked on Monday, 10 of the 15 fastest growing global polities are African, with commodities and sometimes services propelling rapid economic expansion in places as disparate and different as Rwanda and Botswana. Sub-Saharan Africa overall is growing this year at about 6 per cent, with some petroleum-rich countries rising at double-digit rates.

The United States wants to improve the investment climate for Americans in Africa and is not-so-subtly using the summit to lobby congress to re-authorize the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which expires next year.

The AGOA permits the tariff-free entry of goods from Africa into the United States, with no reciprocity required. So far, petroleum has constituted about three-quarters of all American imports under the act, but some countries have exported textiles and other manufactured goods satisfactorily. (The AGOA constitutes a mere 2 per cent of all U.S. imports.)

The summit also constitutes an attempted answer to China's dominance of trade with Africa ($170-billion a year compared to $60-billion for the U.S. and Africa) and to China's almost total dominance of the heavy construction efforts (especially dams, roads and railways) in Africa.

But it is, in reality, a palpably weak reply since China provides faster services and better economic and political terms than Europe or the U.S. can possibly provide. China is content to overlook environmental concerns and usually agrees that if a set of rulers wants a project, local or international protests are of no concern.

The U.S. aid approach is very different from China's. But, as the media and the protesters outside the State Department have reminded Washington, this week's summit is distinctly not about violations of human rights in Africa or chiding African governments to be more democratic.

The U.S. is not distancing itself from the many autocrats within its midst. For diplomatic and security reasons, Washington still has to work with those whom Freedom House, a prominent think tank, this week called the "ratpack" of African repressive leaders.

Washington did not invite Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Sudan's Omar al-Bashir to attend the summit, but it welcomed Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, indicted by the International Criminal Court along with Mr. al-Bashir. It also invited Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (despite his assault on gays and lesbians), Faure Gnassingbé of Togo, and many other heads of African state who rule arbitrarily and with no more than a disdainful glance at the needs of their citizens.

Has Washington conveyed anything more than platitudes to these kinds of leaders?

Mr. Kerry has told Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo to cease even thinking about abrogating his country's constitution and running next year for a third presidential term. But will Mr. Kabila listen?

Does the United States have sufficient leverage these days to encourage leaders in Africa to enrich their peoples rather than themselves, and publicly to chasten African leaders who abuse their office and their citizens?

The African leaders and their entourages will doubtless return home with positive memories of Washington's hospitality and with loads of goods from surrounding malls, but with too few gentle lessons about how they may better serve their peoples.

As China's soft power has grown in Africa, so has the United States' diminished role, despite the real affection and concern for Africa expressed by Mr. Obama and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

Given the greater urgent strategic importance today to the United States of countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Ukraine, and given the policy pivot to Asia, Africa naturally receives less immediate and regular attention from Washington. This is so despite the fact that the U.S. has an array of active surveillance drones, energetic mediation initiatives in South Sudan, as well as a few hundred troops on the ground in Africa, assisting the struggle against al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and the Lord's Resistance Army.

As important as Africa will become as its population numbers surge in this century and its youth bulge dominates consumerism and fills immense cities, and despite the symbolism of the Washington summit, the United States' attention is focused elsewhere. It has too little political space nowadays to help Africa to tackle its profound governance deficit, or even to help remedy rule of law and other weaknesses, moves that are fundamental to Africa's continued growth and prosperity.

Robert I. Rotberg, of the Harvard Kennedy School, is Senior Fellow at CIGI, and last year was Fulbright Research Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University. His most recent book is Africa Emerges: Consummate Challenges, Abundant Opportunities (2013).