NAIROBI, Kenya — President Barack Obama has just completed his first multi-country tour of Africa, visiting three countries in the west, south and east of the continent over six days. How did he do?
He brought with him an entourage of as many as 500 businessmen, signaling a US desire to look beyond aid and charity to investment and trade.
So, how did the trip go?
Here’s GlobalPost’s scorecard for the Obama in Africa Tour. In short, it was a good first effort — but he must try harder.
The judicious choice of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania — three countries where democracy is more than just periodic elections, and elections are not attended by widespread violence and rigging — emphasizes America’s continued commitment to democracy in Africa. There are many countries that offer US companies better investment opportunities, and that are closer US security allies. South Africa and Tanzania are de-facto one-party states, and Senegal only narrowly avoided a violent denouement in its last election. But in choosing these three over, say, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Nigeria, Obama is making the point that the things the US claims to hold dear, like democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights, still count.
Trade vs. Aid (7/10)
Bringing a huge business entourage with him was a clear statement of intent. It is, says J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Center for African Studies, the beginning of a “pivot” away from public-financed aid towards privately funded trade. The fact that African economies are among the fastest growing in the world, that the continent contains a wealth of in-demand natural resources (oil, gas, coal, iron ore, timber, diamonds, gold… if you can think of it, Africa’s got it), and there is a burgeoning consumer class has not passed the White House by. It is unclear whether this bid to foster US investment in Africa will be a success. After all, it takes longer to build trade ties than it does to announce a multimillion-dollar aid package. Obama did announce $7 billion for power infrastructure, a canny initiative that both gives something to the people and facilitates business investment.
Former US President Bill Clinton was the leader that signed the bill to bring down the trade barriers that stymie African economies. George W. Bush established health programs to fight HIV/AIDS and malaria. Obama approved Africa’s first drone strikes. To many here, Obama’s presidency has been a disappointment — not least because his own African roots led to greater expectations. Under Obama, America’s Africa policy has been treading water, with neither big ideas nor new initiatives, analysts say. Obama’s high-profile visit is a message to Africa’s people and its governments that America is, after all, interested and eager to engage.
Obama handled the issue of Nelson Mandela’s illness sensitively. He also gave significant nods to the hard historical struggles for African freedom by visiting symbolically important islands in Senegal. One was the Goree Island and slavery’s “Door of No Return” in Senegal. Another was South Africa’s Robben Island, where Mandela was incarcerated for fighting apartheid’s white minority rule. His keynote speech at the University of Cape Town was also a hit. But by leaving Kenya, the land of his father (and home of his step-grandmother and other living relatives), off his itinerary — likely because of the International Criminal Court indictments against its president and deputy president — Obama was perceived to be spurning his relatives.
One-upping China (1/10)
US officials, including Obama, love to say there is no competition with China over Africa. That’s not the reality, though. Maybe it’s because Obama is too late to the party — and didn’t bring a good enough present. China’s President Xi Jingping made Africa the destination of his first foreign trip. But it took Obama until his second term to pay a proper visit to the continent. (A less-than-24-hour stopover in Ghana in 2009 doesn’t count for much). And while China offers huge loans for massive infrastructure projects that add up to tens of billions of dollars, Obama only managed $7 billion for electricity projects. China offers the clearest proof of the costs of neglecting Africa: under Obama, China’s trade with Africa outstripped America’s for the first time in history and now stands at an estimated, and not insubstantial, $200 billion a year. That’s roughly double the value of US-Africa trade. When it comes to doing business with Africa, the US has a lot of catching up to do.