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The US-Africa Summit: Lousy for DC Traffic, Good for the Hospitality Industry

The week’s schedule includes many related parties, but most are off the record.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and David Gergen on stage at a small US-Africa Summit related dinner at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

While President Obama’s unprecedented US-Africa 2014 Summit is likely to make global news as it rolls along in Washington through Wednesday, at the local level—the level of residents and commuters—it has a different impact. No, not regarding the Ebola virus, though there’s certainly anxious chatter on that subject. The more pressing impact for Washingtonians is the annoyance of road closures and parking restrictions enforced by the Secret Service and the Metropolitan Police Department. “The morning commute begged patience,” noted a DC tourism executive on Monday. On the other hand, it’s a windfall for the hospitality industry as almost 50 African heads of state and their delegations fill up hotels and restaurants at a usually sleepy time of year. “It’s a great boost to the August revenue,” said caterer Bill Homan, owner of Design Cuisine, who has been booked by the State Department, Bloomberg, and “several” restaurants.

Think of any high-end downtown DC hotel, and it is likely the hub of one or more African delegations. The Four Seasons is cordoned off with barriers and tents, signs that say “Caution: Police Checkpoint,” and strategically parked MPD vehicles; adjacent 29th Street, Northwest, is closed from M Street down to K. (We don’t know who is staying in the hotel’s over-the-top “royal suite,” booked in the past by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and P. Diddy.) There are official events at State, the World Bank, on Capitol Hill, and at various government agencies, and a dinner at the White House on Tuesday. But there are also related private social events going on across the area, hosted by the visiting countries and designed to promote their interests.

The event onslaught started in earnest on Sunday night, with a number of dinners and receptions around town, at venues as diverse as Mount Vernon Estate (hosted, we’re told, by a nonprofit), the tony and private Metropolitan Club (for the President of Somalia), and a small, plush meeting room at the Ritz-Carlton (for the President of Nigeria.) Spotted at a Willard Hotel party was Ward 8 Council member Marion Barry, the night after being hospitalized for a diabetic episode and related fender bender. Mayor Vincent Gray was there, too. We stopped by the Somalia party briefly, before dinner at the Ritz with President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria.

Many of these Summit-related events have a caveat: restricted media coverage. The Somalia dinner forbade photographs or interviews. The Nigeria invitation came from the African television network ARISE, and was unequivocal: “This is an off-the-record conversation and background dinner and will serve as an opportunity to engage with the executive leadership of the country and to share ideas and perspectives.” In flowing white African robes, well-connected Nduka Obaigbena, founder of ARISE and publisher of Thisday newspapers, repeated the admonition when he welcomed his guests.

Still, even with those ground rules, an impressive roster of Washington media and other notables showed up. Sitting at President Jonathan’s table were well-known political consultants James Carville and David Gergen, who also served as a master of ceremonies. Among the other 80 guests were PBS Washington Week anchor Gwen Ifill, ABC News bureau chief Robin SproulWashington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, Bloomberg bureau chief Jonathan AllenWashington Post White House correspondent Juliet EilperinThe Atlantic and National Journal executive Steve Clemons, Foreign Policy’s Yochi Dreazen, and Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times. There were also foreign policy veterans of the Clinton and Bush administrations.

What did off the record mean exactly? Attendees could not quote from remarks made by President Jonathan or anyone else, but we saw plenty of photos being taken with smartphones and even spotted a couple of video recorders. As dinners go in Washington, it was not lavish but still designed for comfort and quality. Pretty flowers adorned each of the round tables. The menu served included sea scallops with cauliflower purée and white truffle cream, “lavender-honey” roasted duck breast on wild rice with toasted almonds, cranberry, and Kirsch-marinated cherry reduction, and a dessert of pistachio white-chocolate cremeux and blueberry compote, accompanied by Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc and Steele Pinot Noir.

The swag bag, a handsome canvas tote designed in the green and white colors of the Nigerian flag, did not hold the usual sweets, soaps, and other luxury gifts. Instead, the 13 items inside included upbeat reports on Nigerian government programs and initiatives, plus four books, among them the pocket-size Memorable Quotes of Goodluck Jonathan.

Find Carol Ross Joynt on Twitter at @caroljoynt.

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