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President Obama in Africa - Up Close Part I: Prioritizing U.S.-Africa Policy


On Wednesday night, June 26, President Barak Obama begins his long- anticipated trip to Africa.  While he has made two earlier visits to the continent - as a Senator in August and September 2006, when he visited five African Countries, and one-off stops in Egypt (June 2009) and Ghana (July 2009) as President - this is the first trip as President that incorporates stops in multiple countries – Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.  The significance of this trip compared with the others is that it provides a unique opportunity for the President to outline and give impetus to his Administration's Africa policy, which is what most Africans and those of us who follow African policy are waiting for.

A highly touted Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) on Africa, signed by the President in June 2012, set four general areas of U.S. policy concern:

  1. Strengthening democratic institutions
  2. Spurring economic growth, trade, and investment
  3. Advancing peace and security
  4. Promoting opportunity and development

However, it did not delve into specifics, nor did it seem to engage the "whole of government" in promoting these elements or give them a high strategic economic priority for the U.S. government.

For the last year, the Washington policy community, with the Africa Program of the Wilson Center as a leading convener, has been engaged in a series of consultations and dialogue around making these principles a reality, with particular emphasis on the second objective to spur economic growth, trade and investment.  This is tied to the urgent renewal and hopefully the expansion of the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), which will lapse in 2015.  All of us who welcome this trip and will be following it closely would like to see as a result both a clarification of the tenets of the PPD, and an infusion of Presidential authority and commitment in making them a reality and a higher priority than they seem to currently be.

The stated purpose of the trip, according to the first press release by the White House, is to "reinforce the importance that the United States places on our deep and growing ties with countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including through expanding economic growth, investment, and trade; strengthening democratic institutions; and investing in the next generation of African leaders."  It further stated the President would meet leaders from "government, business, and civil society, including youth, to discuss our strategic partnerships on bilateral and global issues."   In subsequent briefings at the White House, an NSC spokesperson said the trip was to "send a signal of increased engagement in the second term."   It is this "increased engagement" that observers are hoping for as an outcome of the trip.

The trip itinerary and specific details were the result of months of planning between the State Department, the National Security Council, the White House and other executive branch agencies.  Africa UP Close has learned that little to no Congressional input was sought, and, conversely, a request by key Congressional leaders to be included was turned down.  We are also disappointed that the appointment of the new Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, a seasoned and knowledgeable career diplomat, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, could not have been rushed through to have her on this trip. This trip would have established her mandate from the highest level to follow through on policy initiatives.

While little is known of how each of the three visits will be structured, the NSC spokesperson said there were specific reasons for each country choice.  Senegal is seen as a partner and functioning democracy, but the President will address broader security issues such as northern Mali and extremist threats, along with food security.  South Africa was chosen for its regional role in various aspects, including peace and security, trade and investment.  Tanzania is seen as a partner on all development sectors, regional and security challenges.  There is an assumption by those of us outside the inner policy circle that select U.S. business representatives will be included, particularly for the Tanzania portion where there is a great of deal of American investment already, which will focus on energy infrastructure, gas, oil, and hydroelectric power generation.  The NSC spokesperson did state that the "economic team" would accompany the President and that he would be making a case for why Africa is important to the U.S. and investment in Africa is in our national interest.

In the course of the President's trip, Africa Up Close will be analyzing each stop, asking for input from our Southern Voices Network partners on the ground, flagging local African reporting for you, and giving you an alternate view from what might be running in the mainstream press.  We will be watching for certain elements; for instance, our disappointment that the President did not seek to address the Africa Union, where he could speak to all of Africa, might be ameliorated by the possibility hinted at by the NSC spokesman that he would use each individual stop to speak to "officials from other countries."  This could mean using the stops as hubs for regional groups such as the West African Economic Community (ECOWAS), the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), and the East African Community (EAC).  Similarly, the stated intention of reaching out to youth, women and civil society is imperative, but the way in which it is done, and how one identifies real grass roots leadership in each sector is critical.

Finally, there are two interesting and possibly distracting events unfolding.   One is the health of former South Africa President Nelson Mandela.  Will it still be appropriate for the First Family to visit Robben Island, or even try to see the ailing President under these circumstances?  The celebratory aspects of the South African portion must be duly tempered.  Second, with another former US President George W. Bush on the continent at the same time visiting Zambia and Tanzania, where Mrs. Laura Bush is chairing an African First Ladies' Summit to which Michelle Obama is invited, this trip could prove to have been awkward timing.  We will be watching these developments closely.

So, stay tuned to these pages as the trip unfolds and get the scoop on the President's trip, up close.

By Steve McDonald, Director, Africa Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, The Wilson Center


Related Program

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more