Obama (finally) comes to Africa

Despite claims that the US president's tour is 'too little too late', it may yet serve its purpose.

'China 1, US 0.' This is how the United States (US) news website Globalpost titled its comment on US President Barack Obama’s long-awaited trip to Africa. The visit, which also took him to Senegal and South Africa, ended in Tanzania on 2 July. Clearly, a trip that cost US taxpayers $100m was a way for the US to counter the huge amount of trade China has been conducting with Africa over the last few years.

Chinese trade with the continent reached close to $200 billion in 2012, while US trade was less than half that, at $95 billion, according to the US trade office.

Obama’s visit came on the heels of new Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to South Africa, Tanzania and the Republic of Congo in March this year. His predecessor Hu Jintao made 4 visits to 18 African countries during his term in office.

Africans have been particularly disappointed that Obama waited this long to visit sub-Saharan Africa, especially given that his father hailed from Kenya. He only made a short one-day trip to Ghana in July 2009.

Many agreed with the title of Al Jazeera’s ‘Inside Story’ debate on the visit that it was ‘Too little too late.’ The Financial Times went a bit further with the headline: ‘Too little … very late.’

And yet not everyone saw the trip as a failure. Obama’s inspirational speeches to the youth, criticism of corruption and dictatorship, meetings with leaders such as Senegal’s President Macky Sall and Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete and a first-hand look at Africa’s vast economic potential could be seen as money well spent.

Obama’s choice of countries to visit out of a host of potential candidates will always be controversial. Aides will add that, contrary to the Chinese leaders, US presidents only visit democracies.

Choosing Senegal is indeed a feather in the cap for Sall, the leader of a small country consistently punching above its weight. Senegal’s gross domestic product (GDP), for example, is only $14 billion against Nigeria’s $244 billion, according to the World Bank. This is a significant difference, even though everyone agrees GDP is not the only criterion for being a heavyweight country and that issues such as democracy and security have to play a role.

Nigeria – vying with South Africa for the position as continental leader – could certainly be vexed at being bypassed. However, Obama insisted during his press conference with South African President Jacob Zuma on 30 June that South Africa was the driver of growth in Africa.

‘Then why not Kenya?’ a citizen of that country asked him during a debate with students in Soweto. Obama answered that he couldn’t visit a country whose leaders had ‘international obligations’, referring to the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. This is ironic since the US, under Obama, is still not a signatory to the Rome Statute. Tanzania is an easier choice in East Africa, with no leader who has overstayed his welcome or one who is accused of supporting rebel movements in the eastern DRC.

During his visit Obama repeated the message of his memorable 2009 speech in Ghana that ‘Africa doesn’t need strong men but strong institutions’. While in South Africa he singled out Zimbabwe, saying free and fair elections was the only way to restore dignity and democracy to that country. Obama also defended US military action in Africa, saying it was only ‘supporting African efforts’ to bring peace – a debatable point for those who point to, among other things, several reports of drones strategically positioned across the continent.

When asked about an African permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Obama agreed on reform of the institution, but warned that such a seat came with ‘collective responsibility for decisions’. This could have been a veiled reference to South Africa’s stance on Libya, when, as a non-permanent member of the UNSC, it voted in favour of Resolution 1973 authorising a no-fly zone and then criticised the Nato intervention in that country.

During his stay in South Africa Obama also invited African heads of state to a summit meeting in Washington in 2014. One wonders what that could achieve. Is it only because China, France and Africa’s leaders like these expensive photo opportunities that the US now also has to get on the bandwagon? If the likes of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir and Kenyatta are still around by then, it will certainly not be possible to welcome all Africa’s leaders to such a summit.

White House spokespeople insisted before the trip that Obama’s focus in Africa would be business, and justifiably so. Growth and development has become the focus of the African Union Commission, led by its chair Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who also met with Obama in Pretoria. The South African president also welcomed increased trade with the US and invited it to invest in a range of ‘bankable projects’. Obama emphasised that the US was in Africa for ‘trade, not aid’ – not a new notion, but a worthwhile reminder to those who criticise the scaling down of funding for issues such as AIDS prevention.

Obama also refuted claims that Chinese investment was a wake-up call for American business and said he was happy with ‘as many players as possible’ in Africa to boost development and create markets ‘for us to sell iPods and … aeroplanes to’. Though in the real world it is clear countries like China and India are competitors – perhaps not selling that many aeroplanes, but certainly electronic equipment.

The trip would also not be memorable if it weren’t tied to some big project announcement. While China is involved in various energy projects in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Ethiopia and elsewhere, Obama chose cooperation with the private sector on a continent-wide energy project to bring ‘light where there is currently darkness’. The US will spend $7 billion helping to improve Africa’s energy supply, he said. How this will be done is still unclear.

He also promised to renew the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), started under former US President Bill Clinton, which allows 41 African countries to export a list of goods tariff-free to the US. However, this Act should be measured against the fact that of the total AGOA imports to the US ($53,8 billion in 2011), $48,8 billion was crude oil, mainly from Nigeria, according to US trade office figures.

The US clearly does not have much more business to offer Africa than the Chinese. Yet Obama has personal qualities that resonate far deeper with African citizens than any Chinese leader. While many thought the ill-health of former President Nelson Mandela would cast a shadow over Obama’s visit, the opposite was true. Obama repeatedly referred to how he had been inspired by Mandela – even reading the poem ‘Invictus’ at a welcoming dinner. Zuma noted at their joint press conference that Mandela was the first black president of South Africa and Obama the first black president of the US. No one can challenge that.

If Obama had come on a tour of Africa shortly after his election in 2009 he could have ridden on the wave of ‘Obamamania’ sweeping the continent. People would have lined the streets of every capital city in sub-Saharan Africa he went to. This was a more subdued event. But better late than never.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

Media coverage of this ISS Today:

ISN Blog

Related content