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African-Americans, Africans Discuss Economic Development at Africa Summit

African-Americans who want to help develop the homeland of their ancestors -- and to strengthen cultural and social links with Africans -- have held a biannual meeting in Africa since 1991. The summit was created by the late civil rights leader Reverend Leon H. Sullivan, and this year’s meeting in Abuja, Nigeria was the second since his death in 2001.

The seventh Leon H. Sullivan Summit focused on forging new ties between Africans and African-Americans, and encouraging business investment in Africa. Many of the approximately 200 people on the chartered flight to Africa were employees or associates of the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation, which paid their expenses and those of several reporters on the trip. Traditional Nigerian dancers welcomed the American visitors to five days of discussions, state dinners, and musical and theatrical performances. Some of the high-profile speakers included World Bank head Paul Wolfowitz, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, and the leaders of a dozen African states, including the meeting’s host, Nigerian president Olesegun Obasanjo.

The event was chaired by two longtime friends of Obasanjo, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Andrew Young, who heads the Sullivan Foundation board, and his business partner, Carlton Masters. Their lobbying firm, Goodworks International, has received nearly $2 million from the Nigerian government since 2001 for representing it in Washington, according to government filings. The meeting’s main sponsor, Chevron, an energy extracter in the troubled Niger River delta region, is another Goodworks client.

But Andrew Young says that making money isn't the point of his work in Africa. “We have signed agreements with a number of African countries,” he told reporters in Abuja. “We don't always get paid. And that's not really that important to us. We try to help make these countries and American businesses work together. And when we do, we usually get a small commission on any project that we put together.”

Young said that only private business development can answer Africa's greatest needs. And he said that investment in Africa is a winning proposition for American companies, too. “The 17 million cell phones that sold here in Nigeria were made by Motorola, most of them,” he said. “Africa buys everything that we make. You look around here, and General Motors is represented, Caterpillar is represented. Coca-Cola is the largest employer on the African continent. And Coca-Cola makes money. Coca-Cola gets better profits here in Nigeria than they do almost anywhere else in the world.”

Reverend Leon H. Sullivan was a Philadelphia minister and civil rights activist who became the first black to sit on the board of a major American company when he joined General Motors’ board in 1971. He’s credited with helping to overturn South African apartheid by successfully pressing American companies to adopt the “Sullivan principles” for doing business: racial equality, fair treatment of workers, and the promotion of sustainable development. He also founded job training and international aid programs.

“He brought so many of my people for training to be educated for business,” recalled Chief Johnson Femi Adalemo, who first met Reverend Sullivan in 1966. “Like he said, he was building bridges. And he has built it. This is what you have seen today. We are very proud of him.”

Martin Luther King III, a son of the slain civil rights leader, said this year’s summit was his first. “I have always been moved by the vision of Dr. Sullivan,” King said. “He saw -- over 20 years ago -- that it was very important for African-Americans to have strong relationships with Africans. And any time you are able to convene heads of state, business people, people from all around the world, to talk about a common vision, in a real sense it always is a learning experience."

“One of the things we talked about is the brain drain,” said Nigerian-born doctor Alawode Oladele, who lives in the U.S. and works with Andrew Young on an Africa-centered nutrition project. “We have a lot of professionals who go off to Europe and the United States, and do not come back to be involved in their community. One of the things I did, and it was announced during the summit, was to arrange for the donation of a million dollars worth of [medical] resources and equipment to Nigeria on behalf of the Sullivan Foundation.”

Leon Sullivan also made a cause of African debt relief, Nigerian journalist Michael Maseya noted, although he did not live to see its success. In April, Nigeria was relieved of 60 percent of its foreign debt -- and paid off the rest. “We are beginning to see now the post-debt era, as a very, very successful era,” Mr. Maseya said. “Now we have time to concentrate on our education, we have more funds to divert to the health sector, and also to the infrastructure to encourage the foreigners to come in to invest. And above all, Nigerians are now creditworthy."

But despite the country's oil wealth, most Nigerians remain desperately poor. A visit to a shantytown just minutes from the luxury hotel hosting the summit reinforced that reality. Public relations executive Timothy Oviasogie said the government had begun demolishing the slum a few days before, giving residents nowhere to go. “To the best of my knowledge, this had existed here for over six years,” he said, gesturing at a field of debris, “and now it has been demolished, without adequate notice." Nigerian officials did not respond to a request for comment. The scene was a reminder of the problems that motivated Leon Sullivan to begin holding summits in Africa.

Nigerian business journalist Justus Nduwugwe said there is only one way to measure the success of the meeting. “We want to know if these summits will touch the people,” he said. “The usefulness of the summit is when it touches the people.” Ndugwugwe suggested that future Sullivan summits also include sessions to review the implementation of agreements made at the previous meeting. The next Leon H. Sullivan Summit will be held in 2008 in Tanzania.

Some footage courtesy Motion Masters, West Virginia