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Dinner and a deal highlights African human rights issues

It wasn't just African leaders who had controversial records at a White House dinner last week, but also some of the corporations dining with them.

White House Africa leaders dinner

The invitation list for a White House dinner last Tuesday served as a reminder of the tenuous state of civil rights and social responsibility in parts of Africa, as controversial leaders dined beside representatives from corporations with contentious records from their operations on the continent.

President Barack Obama hosted the party on the White House lawns as part of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit which took place in Washington, D.C. last week. 

In addition to the African leaders, representatives from over 20 companies were also invited to the three-course dinner, according to the official guest list. Expanding American corporate reach into Africa was a priority of the summit with the Obama administration announcing commitments of $33 billion.

IBM, whose chief executive and president Virginia Rometty was invited, works in more than 20 African countries. During the summit, IBM announced new deals in Ghana and Ethiopia.

But the company’s growth across Africa coincides with ongoing accusations it aided and abetted South Africa’s apartheid regime. A 12-year litigation against IBM (and another U.S. company, Ford Motors) was revived in April, when a New York court allowed South African victims of the country’s former apartheid regime to seek compensation against the New York-based company.

In her ruling, Judge Shira Scheindlin held that the South African victims could “plausibly plead” that IBM “acted not only with the knowledge but with the purpose to aid and abet the South African regime”. South African victims of apartheid alleged that “IBM actively implemented apartheid by purposefully or knowingly producing race-based identity documents” used to strip South Africans of their citizenship, restrict their travel and permit segregation.

IBM declined to comment on the case. However, a company spokesman told ICIJ, “Across Africa, IBM is working with our clients and partners to put in place the systems, infrastructures and processes to underpin the continent’s economic and social transformation.”

President Barack ObamaAccording to Jeffrey Smith, Senior Advocacy Officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, the summit’s clear focus on business came at the expense of discussions around human rights issues, including in corporate deals.

“Human rights and good governance were absolutely side-lined at the summit, which is very troubling,” he said. “Obviously, the U.S. wanted to focus on private investment.”

Mr Smith said that increased American investment in Africa was “a very positive thing,” but warned it needed to be closely monitored to ensure it was fair and sustainable.

“At the end of the day, if you want to improve economic and sustainable development, you first have to address good governance and human rights issues, including at the corporate level.”

While the accusations against IBM stand out, other corporate guests at Tuesday’s dinner have been sanctioned by courts across Africa for alleged workers’ rights issues.

Coca Cola, whose president and chief executive attended the Washington dinner, has been repeatedly hauled before South Africa’s Labour Court, according to the Southern African Legal Information Institute. 

In separate judgments in 2009 and 2013, Coca Cola bottlers were ordered to reinstate sacked workers who had been unfairly dismissed

“These matters relate to two individuals who worked for our bottlers in South Africa and each matter was resolved by the courts and have been closed for some time,” said a Coca Cola spokesman in a statement, pointing to the company’s adoption of numerous human rights, workplace and supplier policies.

“The Coca-Cola Company strives to be one of the most inclusive companies in the world, where rights are respected and employees are valued,” said the company’s spokesman. President Obama praised the company last Tuesday, highlighting a $30m clean water project in Africa.

Unlike IBM and Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart is a new player in the African market. Its recent arrival in South Africa caused uproar among unions and politicians. The retail giant was slammed by a South African union when more than 500 workers were sacked in the lead up to the company’s merger with a local partner. A South African Labour Court held that Wal-Mart must re-employ 503 South African workers who, the court heard, may have been fired to sweeten the deal allowing Wal-Mart’s entry into the country.

South Africa’s government also expressed concern at the U.S. company’s merger, fearing Wal-Mart’s size would “significantly increase imports and reduce purchases from local suppliers in South Africa.”

A Wal-Mart spokesman told ICIJ that its South African arm is finalizing the reinstatement of a final group of 93 employees “who were offered reinstatement in the original phase of the reinstatement exercise but who were, for a variety of reasons (on both sides), not reinstated.”

Its “Supplier Development Fund (SDF) is fully operational and is providing support to small manufacturers and smallholder farmers,” said Wal-Mart.

Another dinner invitee was Nigerian businessman Aliko Dangote, reportedly Africa’s richest man. His companies, the Dangote Group, recently announced plans to invest billions in the African energy sector.

However, the billionaire’s West African cement plant has been a subject of controversy for years. In 2012, Dangote’s cement company paid over $12 million in an out of court settlement in Senegal following a land dispute, according to company filings. The disputed land, outside the Senegalese capital Dakar, allegedly belonged to Serigne Saliou Mbacké, the former leader of one of Senegal’s most powerful Muslim organizations.

Dangote Group did not respond to requests for comment before publication.

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