Saturday, June 29, 2013

Obama’s Africa trip And Why It Matters

As President Barack Obama embarks on the first major trip to Africa of his presidency on Thursday, those of us who have been studying the continent for some time cannot help but understand just how vital this trip is to America’s political and economic future and to the securing of its relationship with the continent which is, without a doubt, on its way to becoming one of the world’s most powerful regions.

In the years since President Obama was first elected in 2008, the world as we know it has changed dramatically. The fortunes of the west have been on the decline, with recurring recessions and economic stagnation, while prosperity in the emerging world – Africa, especially – has been on a steep upward curve.

According to recent statistics released by the International Monetary Fund, Sub-Saharan Africa is now the second fastest growing region in the world behind Asia, and five of the ten fastest growing countries in the world are African. None of the fastest growing economies are, by the way, located in the western hemisphere.

Africa can no longer be ignored

Coupled with a huge youth population and a growing middle class, as well as large and lucrative untapped markets for trade and investment, Africa is not a place that any administration can afford to ignore.

Unfortunately, contrary to what many Africans had expected from the first American president of African descent, President Obama’s sole 24-hour visit to Ghana in 2009 served only to signal that the U.S. had not adequately recognized the rapid turn around that the continent was undergoing.

Comments made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about China’s relationship with Africa on a longer trip to the continent in 2012 were also perceived by many to be condescending and symptomatic of an older, more paternalistic attitude towards the continent and also suggested to Africans that the U.S. was not willing to participate in what was going on in the continent in a new, progressive and meaningful way. Other efforts by the administration have also been criticized as not going far enough and lacking in substance.

As a result, the U.S. has unwittingly allowed its competitor China – now Africa’s largest trading partner – to gain a very deep foothold on the continent, which – considering China’s growing economic and political might – is not something that America wants. To put that in some context, Sino-African trade currently stands at some $200 billion and is expected to increase to $325 billion within the next couple of years while American trade with Africa fell from a high of $104.1 billion in 2008, to $94.3 billion in 2011. In other words, the U.S. has a lot of catching up to do.

Open for business?

On trip to Africa, therefore, President Obama needs to make up for lost time and to demonstrate to African leaders that the U.S. is open for doing business with Africa – and that it can do so better and perhaps more ethically than the Chinese, who have taken an ask-no-questions approach to investing and providing loans which potentially allows human rights and political abuses and violations to go unchecked.

With all that being said, it is worth asking why it is that, out of 54 countries, President Obama has chosen to go to Senegal (West Africa), South Africa and Tanzania (East Africa).

Of all the West African nations, Nigeria, arguably the most powerful West African nation (and certainly the wealthiest), is the first place that comes to mind when one thinks about a presidential visit. There are, of course, good reasons for going to Senegal.

Apart from being beautiful (as all three of these countries are), Senegal, which gained its independence from France in 1960, is relatively stable compared to surrounding regions such as Mali which have been suffering from the effects of political and religiously-motivated violence and terrorism in recent times. A majority-Muslim nation, it is an example of how democracy can work alongside Islam. It is, therefore, a political and economic safe point for America and is one of the nations that can be an ally in advancing the democratic cause in Africa. Its current leader President Macky Sall, with whom President Obama will meet in the capital Dakar on Thursday, was elected peacefully and democratically in 2012.

South Africa and the U.S. have always enjoyed a positive relationship. It is politically and economically stable, and there is much that the U.S. has in common, historically, with the country. It is, like the U.S., steeped in an extraordinary racialized history of legalized discrimination and segregation, but it has also turned away from that past and embraced a democratic process that allows all South Africans to have a voice and a vote.

There is much that the U.S .and South Africa could learn from one another when it comes to advancing race relations.

In the shadow of Mandela

South Africa has also given rise to transformational leaders such as Nelson Mandela, who spent 30 years in prison for his fight against the apartheid regime. Although currently in critical condition, he remains a defining international figure who is also a voice of reason not just in South Africa but on the continent in general, and who President Obama – who is also advocating for the next generation of African leaders – could use as a figurehead for the kind of African leadership that the U.S. would support.

Tanzania is the East African country that many analysts would not have expected President Obama to visit, thinking instead that he may have gone to Kenya, the birthplace of his father. Tanzania is, however, not only politically stable and peaceful, ranking as the most peaceful country in Sub Saharan Africa, but it is also one of China’s major African trading partners.

There’s no doubt that there is a competitive element motivating their featured role on President Obama’s tour. China’s president Xi Jinping has already visited Tanzania this year and has openly showed his commitment to working closely with the country. Tanzania is one country in particular that exemplifies how the U.S. has fallen behind, with contracts that have been awarded by the U.S. to Tanzania for infrastructure projects now being fulfilled and completed by Chinese workers.

This visit to Africa, and to these three countries specifically, will be a defining moment for the relationship between Africa and America, particularly in the so-called Obama Era. The only difference is that unlike in the past, where it was Africa seeking America’s help, this time it’s very much the other way around.


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