by Arijeta Lajka
(OPride) – President Barack Obama’s second tour of Africa was overshadowed by the illness of South Africa’s anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela. Mandela’s condition deteriorated and became critical only days before Obama arrived in Dakar, Senegal on a three-nation tour.
However, after neglecting the continent of his father’s birth during his first presidential term, Obama sought to lock Africa’s emerging markets and long coveted resources. The Obama family departed on a pricey $60-100 million weeklong multi-nation trip on June 26. The tour was intended to raise Obama’s profile in Africa after his half-day stop in Ghana during first term. The Obamas concluded their extended African trip in Tanzania on Tuesday, where he pitched White House’s newest initiative, dubbed “Power Africa.”
During the trip, Obama also unveiled other key proposals to deepen America’s engagement with the fastest growing continent. On Saturday, speaking to more than 600 young leaders from South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda, Obama announced the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. A flagship program of the President’s Young African Leaders Initiative, the fellowship will bring some 500 young African leaders to U.S. universities each year to train and mentor them in public management, business and civic leadership.
According to analysts, Obama’s African tour resembled a business expedition. For example, he brought with him an entourage of over 500 businessmen. However, the trip also had a historical significance for Obama, the first U.S. president of African descent. Earlier in the week, the Obama family toured Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, the hub of Atlantic slave trade until the 19th century. Over the weekend, the Obamas were also given a guided tour of Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island, located outside of Cape Town, South Africa. Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in that cell.
The three countries that Obama visited align with Washington’s economic and democratic agenda for Africa. Senegal’s democratic election last year was recognized as a “model” for Africa, where there was a peaceful transition of power from Abdoulaye Wade to Macky Sall. Noting that Senegal has never experienced a military coup, and the presence of “a vibrant civil society, a strong press, and dozens of political parties,” Obama praised Sall for seeking “a new mindset, a new consciousness — and a government that upholds the sanctity of the public good.”
Tanzania’s ideal location and vast resources have sparked the interest of the world’s two leading superpowers – China and the United States. Tanzania connects the Indian Ocean to Central Africa and its copious resources include oil, gas and uranium. According to Reuters, the East African nation holds an estimated 41.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
During the trip, Obama was not shy about his intentions to secure economic opportunities for U.S. market in the region. “Ultimately the goal here is for Africa to build Africa, for Africans,” Obama said during his visit to Tanzania. “Our job is to be a partner in that process…we are looking at a new model that’s based not just on aid and assistance.” Throughout the tour, Obama tried to distinguish U.S. firms from China’s touting American companies for adding value and creating local capacity.
South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, also aligns with White House policies relative to democratic rights and key initiatives in the health sector. The country established a unified health system that removed maternal fees and increased immunization requirements. “It is important that the president of the United States is visiting South Africa,” said Ebrahim Ebrahim South Africa’s Deputy International Relations Minister ahead of Obama’s trip. “We have very good political and economic relations. The United States is an important player and we think we would benefit from discussing with the US the problems of Africa.”
Despite a growing discontent with U.S. policy toward Africa, Obama received a relatively warm reception. In Senegal and South Africa, many carried banners that read, “Welcome Home.” However, there were also protests. In South Africa, police dispersed protesters attacking Obama’s foreign policy gathered outside the University of Johannesburg in Soweto, where Obama spoke to students.
Obama’s no-show in Africa
Obama last visited Africa in 2009, where he stopped in Ghana for less than 24 hours during his trip to Russia and Italy. In Ghana, the President emphasized his personal connection to the continent, since his father was born in Kenya. “I have the blood of Africa within me and my family story encompasses both the tragedies and triumphs of the African story,” he said.
At the time, Obama noted only good governance would advance Africa further. Despite his moving speech and ancestral ties to Kenya, four years later, Africa and African Diaspora activists are as dissatisfied as ever with the president’s lack of dynamic policies and personal engagement during his first term. Obama initially hoped to continue Bush’s efforts to tackle HIV/AIDS. He stated that “too many still die from diseases that shouldn’t kill them” and promised to give Africa a staggering 63 Billion dollars in aid to fight the disease. However, while the U.S. contributed 6.8 billion to Sub-Sahara Africa during his presidency, less than 1 billion was infused into public health.
Aside from the personal connection and Africans’ own unrealistic expectations following his election, the legacy of Obama’s predecessors in Africa still haunts his presidency. “On the policy side, Africans have been gradually disappointed, especially when they look at the focus on Africa by previous presidents, in particular President Clinton and President George W. Bush, who did quite a bit there,” said Mwangi S. Kimenyi, Director of the Africa Growth Initiative.
Both President George W. Bush and Bill Clinton visited Africa on numerous occasions during their presidential terms. According to Washington archives, Bush on three separate trips, made an appearance in countries like South Africa, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Mozambique and Zambia to promote reforms on education, HIV/AIDS and economic development.
What has Obama done for Africa?
The U.S Strategy for Africa, which was only released in June 2012, focuses on bettering the continent’s economic relations and political systems. Key propositions include: (1) strengthen democratic institutions; (2) spur economic growth, trade, and investment; (3) advance peace and security; and (4) promote opportunity and development.
The delayed announcement as well as Obama’s overall negligible achievements further infuriated his African supporters. Obama’s subpar engagement with Africa was blamed on pressing domestic issues, U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and the Arab Spring uprisings in Middle East and North Africa.
Despite these circumstances, America has to catch-up with Africa’s new and promising reality. While U.S. and European markets are still struggling, Africa became home to the world’s fastest growing economies. In 2012 alone, a quarter of African countries, including Sierra Leone, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and Rwanda, grew by 7 percent or higher, according to the World Bank. While some of Africa’s surging economies are expected to show sustained growth in the current fiscal year, almost half of Africa’s countries have already achieved middle-income status.
The new scramble for Africa
Under Obama’s watch, China surpassed the U.S. in its trade with Africa for the first time. But Beijing is also diversifying its engagement. While Western governments are traditionally known for providing aid to Africa, China invested $75 billion in targeted aid between 2010-2011 almost as much as the U.S who contributed $90 billion, according to the Economist. Yet, China remains focused on natural resources, since most of its aid is going to transport and energy sectors.
Obama’s announcement this week in Tanzania mentioned investing $7 billion in providing electricity to African countries, which shows deliberate efforts to chip away at China’s growing investment. “We’re starting with countries that are making progress already with reforms in the energy sector,” Obama said speaking at the Business Leader Forum in Dar es Salaam. “With a focus on cleaner energy, we will initially add 10,000 megawatts of new electricity generation, which expands electricity to 20 million homes and businesses.”
In an effort to boost trade with and within Africa, Obama also announced another partnership called Trade Africa. Trade Africa will commence with a new trade treaty with the East African Community. Obama pressed U.S. firms to invest in Africa and called for a shift away from aid-based engagement.
The War on Terror
The rise and threat of extremist groups throughout Africa, especially in Mali, Nigeria and Somalia, remains a concern for the Obama administration. Over the last few years, the U.S has focused on providing military assistance to African states by increasing its military presence on the ground. Under Africa Command, the U.S. has sent over 5,000 American troops to various parts of Africa. It has established drone bases in East and West Africa to target Al Qaeda and intensified surveillance activities. “I believe additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities are necessary to protect American interests and assist our close allies and partners,” said Army Gen. David M. Rodriguez, in a written statement provided to the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year. ”The recent crises in North Africa demonstrate the volatility of the African security environment.”
During his Africa trip, Obama downplayed the increased militarization of U.S. Africa policy. Officials acknowledge that a large presence of American boots on African grounds may actually have a rallying effect for extremist groups. “We don’t need a large presence. It’s not appropriate. And as a military commander, I don’t think it would be particularly helpful,” said General Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command during an interview with South African journalists. “I think we’re best when we tailor our U.S. military presence and support to the specific requests and needs of a particular country or a particular region.”
Whatever will become of Obama’s legacy on Africa, his recent trip underscored the deep connection many Africans feel to the president. His recent scramble to propose a series of policy initiatives focused on aiding Africans are great steps in improving Africa economically. However, the surge of U.S. military presence on the continent will also likely be part of his legacy.
In all, Obama missed yet another opportunity to be on “the right side of history” by boldly calling on U.S. allies in the continent to improve their press and human rights records. One such country would have been Ethiopia where bloggers, activists, and opposition leaders remain incarcerated for exercising basic human rights.
*Arijeta Lajka is an OPride intern and a sophomore at Wagner College, where she studies political science and English literature. Follow here on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Arieta_Lajka