Why are African leaders bowing and scraping at useless European summits? It’s time for independent thinking

Giorgia Meloni, the prime minister of Italy, has surprised her detractors. Before being sworn in, she was billed by the apoplectic Left as a xenophobic, homophobic, and misogynistic fascist. Since taking over, however, her leadership style has turned out to be so normal that the Economist recently declared, clearly in relief, that she “belongs to her country’s mainstream.”

Last week, as if to confirm this characterisation, Ms Meloni added another fluffy feather to her cap. She hosted 25 heads of state from Africa, alongside several leaders of African multilateral institutions and business, in Rome, for the first-ever Italy-Africa summit. For context, that’s more heads of state than Mr Putin, who has arguably done more to curry favour on the continent, got for his second such pow-wow in St Petersburg last July.

In Rome, there were the usual group photos, grand statements, promises of Italian investments in Africa, and rhetoric about equal partnership and shared interest. Ms Meloni unveiled the so-called Mattei plan, a US$6 billion scheme to boost economic linkages with Africa, turn Italy into a European energy hub (based on the importation and distribution of African energy resources), and ultimately curtail illegal migration from Africa to Europe.

There were also a few rookie mistakes, of the sort that Ms Meloni would have avoided had she taken some lessons from her peers who have hosted such summits before. For instance, her government didn’t consult any African stakeholders while crafting the Mattei plan, so that its unveiling blindsided the Africans, earning her an awkward reprimand from the chair of the African Union Commission.

In any case, there is little doubt that the shindig was a momentous achievement for Ms Meloni. She joins the rarefied group of leaders of the great and emerging powers who have convened African heads of state in a foreign capital, for what often turns out to be a very expensive photo-op, and little else. Among the major economies, this is about as mainstream as it gets.

The only problem is that she did so at a time when whole routine is starting to get a little long in the tooth. Like a TikTok trend from five minutes ago, the idea of African heads of state showing up at summits of this kind has long lost its shine. Not only does it belie the performative rhetoric about equality, it also amounts to a colossal waste of public funds, in the very countries that can least afford it.

Recognising this, the African Union decided last year that, going forward, it would take charge of assembling (much smaller) delegations to represent the continent at such summits. The reason was that, as the president of Kenya, William Ruto, said while speaking of the plan at a governance summit in Nairobi last year, “It is not intelligent for 54 of us [heads of state] to go and sit before one [foreign leader].”



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If you overlook the fact that Mr Ruto was part of the exuberant crowd of heads of state posing for a group photo with Ms Meloni at the Madama Palace last Monday – let his own words judge him – it’s not hard to see the sense in his words. Aside from the increasingly questionable optics, a gaggle of African heads of state descending on a foreign capital to ostensibly represent the continent’s interests to one country simply doesn’t make sense any more, if it ever did.

On the other hand, the attractiveness of convening such summits to foreign leaders is clear evidence of a rising recognition, among them, of the importance of Africa to the future success of their own countries. The continent’s natural resources and its people represent the most lucrative prospects for global economic growth. And its growing international profile makes it an ever more important geopolitical player.

Now, of course, to unlock these opportunities, Africa will need the input of the rest of the world. But summits of the sort that just happened in Italy are a rather clumsy and wasteful means of organising that input. Besides, they hardly ever produce anything meaningful beyond grandiose pronouncements. They belong on the dust heap, and should be replaced with much nimbler approaches.

As for the leaders of major powers still itching with the desire to take photos with large numbers of African heads of state, perhaps it’s time they came to Africa to meet them, preferably on the side-lines of an African Union meeting. 

Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image: Giorgia Meloni on X (Twitter).



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