Ebola Crisis Looms Over US-Africa Leaders Summit

African leaders’ motorcades rolled into Washington, D.C., on Monday for a large-scale summit and state dinner, but anxiety over the deadly virus threatens to derail the Obama administration’s plans for the event.

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A meeting at the World Bank during the U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., Aug. 4, 2014

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

More than 40 African heads of state touched down in Washington, D.C., on Monday for the first-ever three-day U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit and White House gala, but concerns about the deadly Ebola virus loom over the event—potentially overshadowing the festivities.

As the summit kicks off, a second American infected with Ebola is expected to be brought to the U.S. on Tuesday and admitted to Emory University Hospital’s infectious-disease unit for treatment, Fox News reports.

According to Fox News, two West African leaders—Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai—have apologetically pulled out of the event amid concerns over the outbreak of the lethal virus, which is concentrated in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It has already killed at least 729 people, the Los Angeles Times reports, and threatens to spread.

White House officials said they are screening all African delegations to safeguard against any possible spread of the Ebola virus to the U.S., the newspaper reports.

Although the U.S. government is “taking the necessary steps domestically to protect the American people,” an administration official added that there are “no plans to change the agenda of the summit, but we will obviously adapt as needed and in consultation with our partners, depending on their requirements,” Fox News reports.

Despite anxieties, President Obama said Friday that the show must go on. “It is going to be an unprecedented gathering of African leaders,” he said, according to Fox News.

An extension of Obama’s tour of three countries in Africa last summer, the high-profile conference is meant to signal the administration’s growing commitment to fostering diplomatic relations throughout the continent.

“The way in which we approach the summit is to view Africa in the way in which African views itself in terms of its political organization,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said, according to the Times. “We didn’t simply do a sub-Saharan African summit. We invited all of Africa.”

Yet African leaders who have a poor track record with democracy and human nights were omitted from the guest list, including Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed Al-Bashir, who was charged in 2009 with war crimes by the International Criminal Court; and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, whose administration has been internationally sanctioned for accusations of corruption and violence.

Representatives of the war-torn Central African Republic were also left off the invite list because the African Union has suspended the country’s membership. An exception was made for Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, however, despite 2011 charges by the ICC of violence tied to the hotly contested 2007 election in that country, according to the Times. 

Undoubtedly, the timing of the summit could be better, given the outbreak of the virus, which is conjuring the very stereotypes about Africa that the event was intended to dispel, notes the Times. Still, President Obama expects much ground to be covered on topics ranging from food security to African commerce and terrorism, reports Fox News.

Although Obama plans to spend some time during the gala dinner chatting with each of the leaders or their representatives, reports the Times, not everyone is happy that the White House nixed leaders’ requests for one-on-one meetings so as not to alienate any particular country.

Although the Obama administration has softened its expectations for the summit, carrying on with the event reflects Obama’s desire to promote U.S. security interests in the continent and boost his reputation among Africans who have expressed disappointment that the son of a Kenyan has not implemented any signature programs, in contrast with Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, notes the newspaper.

Obama’s pivot toward Africa is indicative of his acknowledgment of its considerable economic potential as the location of six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies. “Africa is growing, and you’ve got thriving markets and you’ve got entrepreneurs and extraordinary talent,” Obama said in a press conference Friday, according to the Times. “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.”

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