Obama’s impending Africa trip – how is the continent responding?
Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa is now less than a month away. Virtually no public details have yet been announced for this trip, not even the final order of the countries to be visited on as part of this itinerary. Nevertheless, American government officials continue to stress that as far as the US is concerned, there are three key themes the president and his party will be focusing on during this upcoming visit: economic growth and trade promotion with Africa; support for open, democratic governance; and a focus on connecting with the successor generation of young Africans. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
Despite the announced themes, however, two rather large, rather restive elephants are in the room – publicly, at least. These are the continuing instabilities arising out of Africa-based Muslim fundamentalist movements - tied together with regional uprisings on the one hand; and the growing impact and influence of China on Africa on the other. So far, at least, public statements about this upcoming trip – at least as far as the US is concerned - have danced away from these two questions. African commentators have not joined in this.
Even in America, in recognition of one of those metaphorical pachyderms, Stephen Hayes, CEO of the US-based Corporate Council on Africa, a public interest group supporting greater US investment and trade with Africa, says, “The trip is long overdue. Other than a brief stopover in Ghana on his way back from a more important visit to Russia in his first year, President Obama did not visit Africa in his first term. Africa was covered by Hillary Clinton twice, Joe Biden once and by the Acting Secretary of Commerce this past December. The number of countries touched by anyone in the administration can be counted with the fingers of two hands, with possibly a few left over. In contrast, China's top five leaders are in Africa every year, as are the leaders of many other countries such as France, Brazil, Turkey and India, all of whom are investing actively in Africa. China's leaders have visited at least 30 African countries over the past five years.”
Hayes argues further that American priorities for dealing with Africa are significantly different than those of China. He notes that nation says it eschews any interference in government - that it only wants to trade and support economic growth. In contrast, American priorities in “its engagement with African nations are clearly different from those of other nations such as China…. We are concerned with issues of terrorism, youth unemployment, development of democracies as we define the word, women's rights and a myriad of other issues such as the growing drug trade of West Africa and rising piracy on the high seas in both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. We tend to view Africa still as a case for development, more than we do as an opportunity for partnership, despite verbiage to the contrary…. One can only hope that as he [Barack Obama] peers through the window [of Air Force One] he can see more clearly than those that have gone before him and understand that windows are not mirrors. On the other side of the window are those looking back, defining America by his words and what they believe they see.”
African media have, naturally enough, responded vigorously in speculating about the purposes, results and effects of this upcoming trip. Just the other day, Adekeye Adebajo, the Nigerian-born head of the Cape Town-based Centre for Conflict Resolution had written, “the unrealistic expectations that Obama would act as a ‘messiah’ for Africa have not even come close to being fulfilled. Despite Obama’s Kenyan ancestry, he has had other pressing policy priorities that have taken precedence over Africa. US policy towards Africa also still lacks consistent congressional support, while the Congressional Black Caucus at present has one senator out of 100 and 39 out of 435 members in the US House of Representatives. The four pillars of Obama’s Africa policy are: to support democratic governance; to foster economic growth and development; to increase access to quality health and education; and to help manage conflicts.”
But Adebayo adds the Obama administration has also maintained several of his presidential predecessor’s less salubrious policies. These have included an increasingly militarised engagement with the continent, continuing the policy of “extraordinary rendition”, supporting autocratic regimes such as Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, searching out those “mad mullahs” in the deserts and open spaces of sparsely settled frontier regions, carrying out military training programs and using drone craft in Northeast Africa. While Adebayo approved of support for the recent multinational efforts in Mali, he deplored the cuts in AIDS/HIV funding towards Africa – although he also noted that Obama’s opponents in Congress have often hemmed him in on such policies.
In Adebayo’s opinion, “In order to influence US policy towards Africa in Obama’s second term, it is important that pro-Africa lobbyists work closely with progressive legislators in the US Congress and Washington-based interest groups, as they successfully did in sanctioning Apartheid South Africa during the 1980s. The tens of thousands of highly educated Africans in the US must also be mobilised to build a viable constituency for Africa” for debt relief, greater agricultural trade liberalisation and support for other trade-enhancing measures.
Still, even that tool kit of policies is not universally seen in a fully favourable light – let alone an altruistic one on the part of the president. Kenya’s “The Citizen” asserted, for example, that “Experts who spoke to Kenya’s The Citizen, shortly after the tour was confirmed by both the US and Tanzanian governments on Tuesday, argued that Mr Obama’s visit, coming hot on the heels of his Chinese counterpart, is not coincidental. The visit, they add, is the continuation of a scramble for resources between the two major economic superpowers. He is coming here with a group of 500 businessmen and investors. All these are looking for investment opportunities in the country because it is stable and peaceful. [Tanzania's minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Bernard] Membe said Mr Obama will be accompanied by a total delegation of more than 1,200 people….” Some of these will almost certainly be business figures eager to embrace trade, sales or investment opportunities in Africa’s upcoming big infrastructure spend during the coming decade.
Meanwhile, Nigerian commentator Abiodun Oluwarotimi complained about his nation’s exclusion from this trip – in addition to the fact it was written out of the schedule of Obama’s earlier foray to West Africa in 2009. Oluwarotimi wrote, “Although, the White House, up till now, has not given any official reason for the exclusion of Nigeria in President Barrack Obama’s planned visit to Africa, feelers said that the action may not be unconnected to the present security condition of the country.… It is no longer a news that the American president was initially having it in his plans to visit Nigeria but changed his mind as a result of the unfavourable security reports that he receives about the country on a daily basis.” Save for that nagging security footnote, on the three expressed themes of the multi-nation trip, Nigeria would certainly have been a logical inclusion, given its size, population and economic importance to Africa and the world.
Oluwarotimi adds he was told by State Department officers “Obama had been in constant touch with President Goodluck Jonathan for over two months regarding the visit as a way to pacify Nigeria over the way and manner a planned trip to the country was aborted in 2009.” Moreover, according to Oluwarotimi, Nigerian officials in the United States and in Nigeria had made efforts to gain a place for the country on Obama’s agenda, although eventually the “American government decided to rule out the idea as a result of the high level of insecurity in the country…. When the negotiations for the president’s visit were on-going, the Department of State told the federal government to curb the insecurity in the nation and as well resolve election-related crises in the affected areas, for President Obama to consider the proposal.
Oluwarotimi also quotes Nigerian political commentator Laolu Akande, pointing directly at the first of those elephants in the room for the upcoming Obama visit, who observed, “On several occasions, the US described Nigeria as one of its three major strategic partners in Africa therefore the decision to leave Nigeria out because of a major but fleeting security challenge could turn out a strategic mistake. If the president of the US considers it too high risk to visit Nigeria, that only proves the need for concerted global action to neutralize an international terror group whose dastardly acts have already claimed the lives of people from 15 nations.”
However, Sam Nda-Isaiah, in the Nigerian publication Leadership, notes the second down side to a Nigerian leg of any presidential trip, writing that “coming to Nigeria at this time would clearly be an endorsement of the Jonathan administration, and no serious world leader would want to tarnish his image by doing that. The matter of Nigeria's bad government and the issue of bad governance have become a global subject of discussion. Everyone knows that the problems of Nigeria are inextricably tied to the quality of leadership that the country has received. Corruption under President Jonathan has become something of a fairy tale.”
Meanwhile, over on the other side of the continent, in Kenya, The Nation newspaper, not surprisingly, also highlighted the fate of another major bypassed nation during this trip. It noted, “Obama will meet officials, businessmen, and civil society leaders, including young people, on the trip between June 26 and July 3 -- an unusually long journey for a president who normally dashes across time zones on trips abroad. It would likely be seen as unseemly for Obama to appear with Uhuru Kenyatta, elected president in March, who will go on trial in July at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity in post-election violence in 2007-08.”
This means, of course, that the Obama trip will end up doing a fly past of what the paper called his “ancestral homeland”, even as skipping a visit there would be, in their words, “a glaring omission.” The Nation added that a US administration official, speaking on background, had explained, “Kenyatta's election had been a complicating factor in setting Obama's schedule in Africa,” a trip intended to supposed to highlight issues of democratisation and economic growth. Explaining further, “The Star” of Kenya quoted Kenyan government spokesman Muthui Kariuki saying, “Although Obama sent a congratulatory message to President Uhuru after the Supreme Court ruled that his election was valid and legal, the pending case at the ICC in which Uhuru is accused of crimes against humanity following the 2007-08 post-election violence puts Obama in a difficult situation as the association will be considered unseemly.” There’s that word, “unseemly” again.
“The Nation” went on to remind its readers that a year ago, “Obama unveiled a sweeping new Africa strategy, with the goal of reinforcing security and democracy on a continent facing the threat of Al-Qaeda and a Chinese economic offensive. The new US blueprint seeks to boost trade, strengthen peace, security and good governance and bolster democratic institutions, declaring that a continent torn by poverty, corruption and discord could be the world's next big economic success story.” This paper reached back to describe other recent Obama initiatives, including meetings in the White House with several other African leaders recognised for their efforts on democratisation and open governance as a way of highlighting further the Obama administration’s support for ongoing democratisation efforts.
Meanwhile, in Kenya’s “Africa Review”, Peter Nyanje has written of his deep ambivalences – almost sensing a whiff of economic neocolonialism about this upcoming trip – and an earlier one by Xi Jinping. Nyanje writes, “There will, predictably, be handouts and most probably “investment” deals which, we will be told, are aimed at hastening economic transformations. If I were Kenyan, I would worry about why Mr Obama excluded Kenya. But I worry even more that he should pick next-door neighbour Tanzania for attention. I say so because I see the visit as another conduit of robbing us of our much-needed natural resources. We are all aware of the ‘improving economic ties’ farce always attached to such visits while Big Brother’s main aim is to sniff out how it can strategically place itself to enjoy Africa’s untapped wealth. After the much touted visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, I very much expected Mr Obama to ‘revenge’ with a similar tour. We were told that Mr Xi’s entourage signed 17 deals. These agreements were supposed to be public, but the authorities have so far treated them as a confidential affair. Months later, the promise to disclose what is in the contracts remains just that—and probably just a handful of Tanzanians know what their country agreed to give to China and what China granted Tanzania.”
Meanwhile, The Zimbabwe Mail also focused on that burgeoning Chinese role in sub-Saharan Africa. That periodical (quoted by Inside Ethiopia) argued, “As concern grows in Washington about China's role in sub-Saharan Africa, pressure has been mounting for President Obama to pay more direct attention to the continent.” To buttress this argument, the same article also quoted Secretary of State John Kerry, when he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently, saying, “We have a lot to do…. China is now significantly out-investing the United States in Africa… China's growing presence is having an impact on business practices…that has not been a positive one in some regards.”
Senegal’s “L’As”, meanwhile, projected Senegal would be President Barrack Obama’s first stop on the trip, and in describing the overall shape of the visit, hinted a side trip from Tanzania to Rwanda – a growing economic mini-powerhouse - might be added to the itinerary. By contrast, Nigeria, despite heavy-duty lobbying by the Nigerian president, will stay off the agenda - and an early idea the trip could include Ethiopia has now been scrapped, says AllAfrica.com, noting that “the US-Sub-Saharan Africa Trade and Economic Cooperation Forum where the President was tentatively slated to speak has now been postponed. This Forum was created under the rubric of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa).” Agoa is US law supported by Presidents Bush and Clinton both, is due to expire in 2015. Agoa provides for duty-free entry from qualifying African countries for over 3,000 African exports and this measure should certainly form part of the background for discussions with whomever Obama meets. Congress has yet to begin debate over its renewal, extension or revision and the congressional clock can move very slowly.
Not surprisingly, the Tanzanian press, meanwhile, has been trumpeting the upcoming visit as if it were a special kind of coming-of-age-party for Tanzanian tourism, what with the expected wide international exposure that will happen as a result of the Obama visit in a few weeks, even though Tanzania already holds considerable pulling power as an international tourism destination. As the Tanzania Daily News asserted, “’President Obama is the leader of the richest and most powerful nation in the world and his presence in Tanzania is bound to make a big impact globally,’ stated the Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Ambassador Khamis Kagasheki, and implored the local media to promote the country's good image during the visit.”
Turning to the larger question of where Africa fits in the Obama administration list of priorities, The North Star, an African American-edited e-journal that draws its inspiration from Frederick Douglas’ famous 19th century abolitionist paper of the same name, says this upcoming trip, “comes late for many Africans who had hoped that the son of a Kenyan would give priority to the continent. After more than four years in power, he has spent less than 24 hours in sub-Saharan Africa – a solitary visit to Ghana in 2009. Former Chinese president Hu Jintao, by contrast, has made five trips to Africa as head of state, while his successor Xi Jinping sped to three resource-rich African countries just a month after taking over. The Asian giant has exercised soft power through building schools and hospitals. China has quickly overtaken the U.S. with an infrastructure-for-minerals approach that wins friends and influences people. Some governments have welcomed a lack of ‘preaching’ on human rights, pointing out that America's own record is checkered.”
Despite this relative lack of engagement with Africa from within the Obama White House, The North Star added that despite the Obama administration’s relative disinterest, “Elsewhere, however, a new mantra of ‘Africa rising,’ can be heard at investment conferences, from think tanks and in media commentaries. ‘He's totally neglecting Africa,’ said Koffi Kouakou, a Johannesburg-based political commentator in a press interview. ‘There's not enough time to catch up. It's a strategic neglect that is going to be costing America big time. Our expectations were too high,’ he added. ‘His visit now won't have the same degree of reverberation as when he first became president.’ ”
Meanwhile, rather than addressing the likely impact of such a visit, South Africans, in the absence of any concrete public announcements about the schedule for that country so far, have been left to an unseemly tussle over whether Obama should receive the “freedom of the city” award from Cape Town offered last year to the US president by that DA-controlled city. (That offer has become controversial, given strong criticism of the award by several Muslim groups active in South Africa.) In addition, South Africans must also sort out an appropriate national response to a new proposal from DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko that “Parliament must continue to assert its role as a premier speaking platform and the most important public square in South Africa. An address by President Obama is another opportunity to make this a reality. There can be no doubt that President Obama's first state visit to South Africa constitutes a significant enough milestone for Parliament to accommodate a special parliamentary session.” Either of these possibilities could put the ANC-led national government in a bind, having either to embrace the opposition party’s proposals for a speech and the award, or looking churlish and petty towards the US president during a state visit by refusing to accede to them. There will be more on this before everything is tied down for the South African portion of this Africa visit.
And so, as things stand now, absent a sense of excitement about new initiatives and opportunities and given uncertainties about how to measure this visit up against earlier ones by China’s leadership, as well as a degree of questioning about American military plans in the region, the upcoming Obama visit may be victim to both lowered expectations about the effect of the fact that the trip has only come five years into his presidency. For some, there are unanswered questions over what the US’ real goals are for this trip, five years into the Obama administration. But for others, the bigger question is much easier to phrase: What’s really in it for Africa and Africans? DM
* Additional reporting by Jessica Eaton
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Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama pauses as he announces his three nominees to fill vacancies on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in Washington June 4, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque