These days, well-behaved African heads of state are rewarded by Barack Obama with the chance to meet with him in groups of four and have their picture taken with him. It’s like meeting Beyonce, but you get to call it a state visit. That’s what happened on Friday when Malawi’s Joyce Banda, Senegal’s Macky Sall, Cape Verde’s José Maria Neves and Sierra Leone’s Ernest Bai Koroma were paraded before the White House press corps, sitting in star-struck silence as Obama reeled off a kind of Wikipedia-level roll-call of their accomplishments. They beamed like competition winners. It was all very feudal.
You get the sense that they were given a nice White House tote bag, perhaps a signed copy of Dreams from my Father, and were then patted on the head and sent off to inconsequential NGO-led roundtables. Presumably the thinking is that being thus sprinkled with all-American stardust plays well back home. (Joyce Banda has already boasted of being the first Malawian president invited to the White House, perhaps forgetting that Kamuzu was a master of political theater and would never have allowed himself to be wheeled out as somebody else’s prop.)
The wider symbolism is unmistakeable: These guys, Obama is saying, work for me. African visitors (unlike all other heads of state) can be received in groups, and, as they’re all Africans, don’t need to be spoken to individually. Politics? Negotiations? They’re just happy to be here. The East African newspaper called it as they saw it: “The meeting was to reward them for their support for US interests in Africa.” Though some others wanted to be there. In Uganda, some sites were wringing their hands over why Museveni hadn’t been invited. Of course, in the past, Barack and Michelle have been happy to be snapped with any old African leader, so it seems the realization that these photo calls can themselves be a kind of diplomatic prize has been relatively recent.