US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama are planning a three-nation tour to Africa, 26 June to 3 July. The visit is one that has long been anticipated by Africans, but has it come too late to generate the kind of enormous buzz that might have happened had this trip happened several years earlier? J BROOKS SPECTOR looks at the possibilities.
While still a young man, in a true-to-life bildungsroman, Barack Obama had written a bestselling book, Dreams from My Father, that was part of his effort to achieve a personal connection with his long-absent father – and the African side of his heritage. Then, by the time he had been elected as a US senator from Illinois, Obama had authored a second book, The Audacity of Hope, in which he set out his evolving views on both foreign and domestic issues.
As this second book was published, Obama was also travelling abroad to broaden his first-hand exposure to world issues – visiting, among other places, Iraq, Kenya, the Chad (to examine the condition of Darfuri refugees), and South Africa. Kenya, of course, was his father’s homeland, while South Africa was where a large political evil had been banished and whose changing political circumstances had had a seminal influence on Obama’s early political education.
Back at the time of his 2006 African visit, Time magazine’s Simon Robinson had written of him, “The junior senator from Illinois, a man talked about as a future US President, is a celebrity in his father’s homeland. His visit [in Kenya] has been front-page news for days, and at each stop crowds of hundreds, sometimes thousands, gather to cheer him, a stark contrast to South Africa, which he toured earlier in this trip and where most people have never heard the name Obama.”
The recognition factor in South Africa has clearly changed since that earlier low-key visit. That time he met then finance minister Trevor Manuel, visited the Constitutional Court, saw community health projects in South African townships, and spoke in Cape Town to the Institute of International Affairs; but failed to score meetings with other top South African government leaders. It will be different this time around.
During that trip, in his Cape Town lecture, Obama had described how his involvement in politics had evolved out of anti-Apartheid student activism in his university years. It was, he said, “the one issue that moved me for the first time in my life to become politically active and play a leadership role in my community. The issue was Apartheid. And as a young college student, I became deeply involved with the divestment movement in the United States… I tell this story, from time to time in the United States, to remind audiences that America simply has not been as exporter of a democracy and freedom. We have also been inspired by the struggles in other nations that have, in turn, helped shape and perfect the very freedom and rights held dear by citizens of my own country.”
In fact, both his book, The Audacity of Hope, and his comments in Cape Town had set out themes he would return to during the 2009 speech he gave in Accra, Ghana after being elected president.
In Accra, Obama had told his audience, “I will focus on four areas that are critical to the future of Africa and the entire developing world: democracy; opportunity; health; and the peaceful resolution of conflict… Governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful than governments that do not. With better governance, I have no doubt that Africa holds the promise of a broader base for prosperity… People must make responsible choices that prevent the spread of disease… promoting public health in their communities and countries. America will support these efforts through a comprehensive, global health strategy… Africa’s diversity should be a source of strength, not a cause for division. We must stand up to inhumanity in our midst. It is never justifiable to target innocents in the name of ideology… I am speaking to the young people. You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people…” And he concluded with, “I can promise you this: America will be with you. As a partner. As a friend. Freedom is your inheritance. Now, it is your responsibility to build upon freedom’s foundation.”
That earlier Cape Town speech had, in fact, been something of a scene setter for his declaration in Accra that the era of the big man in Africa had ended. Back in 2006, Obama had said that Africa’s problems “thrive where corruption is rife and the majority of the population is impoverished and uneducated. And they can tear apart the social, economic, and political fabric of a region in a matter of days.” All of this has eventually fed into the key themes of his administration’s comprehensive strategy for Africa that the White House issued last year. This broad discussion set out what is a fairly unexceptionable policy agenda of strengthening democratic institutions; spurring economic growth, trade, and investment; advancing peace and security in the region; and promoting individual opportunity and development.
This coming month, Obama will, after years of waiting, finally carry out an expansive, extended, three-country trip to Africa, visiting Senegal, South African and Tanzania. Pointedly, Kenya has been left off this particular itinerary. While the three countries selected are there, at least in part, in recognition of their democratic virtues, by contrast, a logical stop by virtue of his often remarked upon family connections, Kenya, is off the schedule, presumably because its newly elected president, Uhuru Kenyatta, must confront charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.
In describing the relief African leaders must feel now that a trip is finally imminent, The Guardian (UK) explained, “There will be immense relief in South Africa, the continent’s biggest economy, where an Obama no-show would have been regarded as a snub and fed paranoia that its pre-eminence was in jeopardy. On the day of Obama’s re-election last year, Lindiwe Zulu, international relations adviser to the president, Jacob Zuma, told the Guardian they would expect a visit ‘because if he doesn’t, we won’t forgive him for that!’” One can only imagine how a decision like that would have played out in the South African media, and with the population at large, if Obama had scheduled Nigeria or Ethiopia instead – especially since George W Bush, of all people, had in fact visited South Africa during his second term of office.
Officially, this upcoming three-country tour focuses on three key objectives: improving the continent’s economic growth and promoting international trade; support for open governance and democratisation; and building deeper connections with Africa’s burgeoning population of young people, a population that may reach half a billion people in less than a decade. But it also comes as America’s chief international competitor, China, has made major political and economic inroads on the continent.
For some critics though, the visit to Africa by Obama, now well into his second term of office, is rather late in coming. Imagine for a minute by contrast how he would have been received on this continent had he arrived here shortly after taking office, for example. Given the historic nature of his election as America’s first black president and given his status as a man with close family ties to Africa, the welcoming crowds wherever he visited on the continent would certainly have rivalled those enormous gatherings that were a feature of his 2008 European tour prior to his election. They would have just as certainly been similar to those that greeted John Kennedy during his trip to Latin America in 1962, at his Berlin speech or during his visit to Ireland – or at Obama’s own inaugural crowd in January 2009.
Years later, many, perhaps most, Africans have now accepted the fact that Obama, despite his personal connections, intellectual sensibility, and emotional predilections towards the continent, could never have occupied the status of a hoped for transformative “African” political figure. Rather, he is, increasingly, seen as yet another American politician – admirable, but not unique.
Obama may yet be a particularly attractive political figure with an especially appealing family and virtually unparalleled rhetorical gifts, but he is a man brought down to near-normal size by the sheer weight of a presidency affected by the drip-drip-drip of all those small bureaucratic scandal brushfires, a slow-speed economic recovery, the ongoing foreign policy wrangles with North Korea, Iran, the Middle East and the Maghreb, and China – as well as a near-intractable budgetary snarl with the US Congress. Those who had carried hopes that this descendent of a Kenyan exchange student in Hawaii would give increased priority to Africa are disappointed that now in his fifth year as president, Obama has actually spent less than a full day in sub-Saharan Africa – only that short trip to Ghana four years ago.
But more than anything else, it may be the China factor that quietly dogs America’s relationship with Africa. Beyond the highly visible weight of Chinese foreign investment, trade, and aid, the new Chinese president, Xi Jinping, has already made a widely heralded multi-country Africa trip – including South Africa – and his predecessor had visited Africa several times as well. Most recently, in South Africa, Xi attended the five-nation Brics summit in Durban in March, bringing an entire charter airliner’s worth of experts, business figures and advisors along with him.
To many observers, by contrast to the Chinese, despite the increasing frequency of US trade delegations coming to the continent to garner at least a chunk of the big spend on infrastructure that is poised on the horizon, Americans have largely missed the chance to get in sync with the “Africa rising” meme that inhabits conferences and international meetings, takes over the covers of international weekly news magazines, is the topic of innumerable studies by international business consultants and academics and fills the dreams of every manufacturer of heavy equipment and infrastructure on the planet.
China actually passed America as Africa’s biggest individual national trading partner some four years ago (although it is still outweighed by the European Union’s trade figures as a whole). Moreover, its rather non-judgemental “we’ll build your infrastructure if you sell us your minerals”-style policy framework has been making significant inroads into Africa’s mental landscape of determining where the continent’s international friends for the future are located. China’s visible reluctance to criticise African governments over human rights and other touchy topics, allows America to take the high ground, but part of that approach means the US may miss out on many of the economic benefits. Koffi Kouakou, a political commentator and Witwatersrand University academic told the Guardian, “The Chinese are coming and the Americans are not taking this thing seriously. Even Britain is out of the game. They’re not engaged because of problems at home and the Chinese are having a field day. He’s totally neglecting Africa. There’s not enough time to catch up. It’s a strategic neglect that is going to be costing America big time.”
While Obama’s visit to Africa is designed to emphasise those three objectives – democratic governance, connections to the continent’s future leaders and economic growth and trade – at least in Senegal and Tanzania, international security issues will also get their moment in the sun. The continuing instability in Mali in the western part of the continent and the near-permanent condition of Somalia, the Eastern Congo and the presence of the Lord’s Resistance Army across borders would seemingly inevitably mean that the issues of political instability will necessarily get some serious face time with Obama – although the US government has given out virtually no details about the trip yet.
In South Africa, while international political stability issues will be less prominent, even if such topics will inevitably be part of any high-level bilateral discussions by virtue of South Africa’s participation in UN-sponsored peacekeeping the Congo, much more time will be focused on issues of trade, economic growth – and youth. Watch for some kind of engagement with young leaders or students in line with what took place in Accra, in Cairo, or most recently in Jerusalem – or at that gathering of young African leaders that was convened at the White House. Obama seems to have a gift for how he conducts such encounters; despite the possible pitfalls of bringing together such an audience while America’s engagement with the Islamic world remains problematic for many here. Moreover, during Michelle Obama’s solo visit to South Africa, she also met with young South African women leaders and that went well. Given all of this history, the White House almost certainly will be tempted to follow this tried and true path yet again.
The schedulers for the South Africa portion of the visit will similarly be interested in picking an opportunity to focus on aid projects that support economic growth of the country’s historically disadvantaged population. The real challenge to such an approach will be the essential fact, however, that America’s foreign aid budget remains under a continuing budgetary threat. There is virtually no support in Congress for increasing it and much downward pressure on it – all as part of the larger federal budget problem. Too much focus on aid in too large a public event might well draw unhappy attention to the fact American support for the President’s Emergency plan for Aids Relief (the American HIV/Aids programme Pepfar) is on a gradually declining trajectory as well.
Of course there is always the chance the Obama visit could focus on more direct people-to-people activities such as a night out at some place like the historic Market Theatre or the new Soweto Theatre, or even include a visit to a natural resource, ecological or environmental effort – there are always those rhinos to be saved.
Whatever the schedule includes there will be huge motorcades and gargantuan traffic snarls. And one thing is certain: If Air Force One lands at Waterkloof Air Base rather than OR Tambo International Airport, there will be no craziness this time around about whether or not any misapplied name dropping was used to gain permission for that big plane to touch down in South Africa – or if the full run of pomp and ceremony is appropriate for the moment. The Obama’s arrival will be in all the papers and on all the television channels. DM
- The Future of America’s Partnership with Sub-Saharan Africa on the White House website
- Remarks By The President To The Ghanaian Parliament – at the Accra International Conference Center Accra, Ghana on the White House website
- Senator Obama in SA: 2006. President Obama in SA? At the Daily Maverick
- What Barack Obama Can Do For Africa — and Vice Versa (in 2006) at Time
- Illinois Senate Candidate Barack Obama (the 2004 Democratic convention keynote speech) at the Washington Post
- Senator Barack Obama’s remarks at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Cape Town, 2006 at the US Embassy website
- House appropriators set to advance foreign aid cuts at Devex.com
- Obama’s Africa tour leaves ancestral homeland of Kenya as loser at the Guardian
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama step out from Air Force One upon their arrival in Columbus, Ohio May 5, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque