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President Obama in Africa: Up Close Part II

Obama Africa Trip - white house photo w615

As the President and First Family wing their way home today from their last stop in Africa, I have to start any post-mortem analysis with a confession.   Like many observers on the continent and here in Washington, I was a bit cynical about the Obama tour d'Afrique. I thought this trip was scheduled too late in his presidency, was structured in such a way as to avoid addressing the difficult issues facing the continent or between U.S.-Africa relations, and lacked a focus on the Africa Union (AU) and Regional Economic Communities (RECs) which a stop in Addis Ababa would have rectified.  I also knew there were groups in Africa who disagreed greatly with U.S. policy on Afghanistan, Iran, Libya and a number of other issues, and would make their concerns known.  And, as we all watched in sadness the physical deterioration of Africa's greatest son and a world icon of leadership and reconciliation, I recommended caution and sensitivity on how the Obamas would handle that situation, which so easily could distract from the primary purposes of the trip.

Obama's Africa Trip a Success

My fears were mostly unfounded in the end.  The Obama visit has been a triumph.  Let me start with the reason I say that, and flag the remaining concern I have.   Obama gave focus and primacy to U.S. policy in Africa.  His visit and the various initiatives he announced have elevated Africa on the policy agenda of America and put the power of the President behind that policy.  My concern is in the follow-up.   Will Trade Africa, Power Africa, the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, and the two summits he announced raise Africa to the level of other global commitments, to wit the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership?   Will these policy initiatives be sustained?

Only time will answer those concerns.  But, there is no doubt, that the Obamas leave in their wake a continent that is encouraged and entranced.   From the adoring crowds along the streets of Dar es Salaam with the women in their Obama printed sarongs, to the cheering young people gathered in person and by video link in Soweto for a town hall discussion, to businessmen and presidents, Obama has set the right tone, said the right things, and shown a remarkable understanding of the wide range of challenges facing Africa.

The tone is the first point.  Obama did not use the "bully pulpit" of the presidency to chide and cajole, as he had done in Ghana in 2010, never mind the truth of his observations there.   He approached this trip and all of his audiences in the spirit of partnership, self-sufficiency, and admiration, but with sensitivity to the fact that Africans must lead.   In his University of Cape Town speech, he encapsulated this theme when he said,  "We are moving beyond the simple provision of assistance, foreign aid, to a new model of partnership between America and Africa – a partnership of equals that focuses on your capacity to solve problems and your capacity to grow."

He also balanced the delicate issues of celebrating Africa as one of its sons, imbuing his own children with a sense of their roots, and showing respect for the condition of President Mandela.  His sensitive handling of this situation by choosing not to impose himself in any way was laudable.

On policy initiatives, Obama used every stop and every speech or press conference to highlight a U.S. policy direction.  Some were new and some were repackaging of existing efforts.  In Senegal, for instance, the announcement by USAID of the new Scaling Seeds and Technologies Partnership, a $47 million, three-year partnership intended to accelerate smallholder farmer access to transformative agricultural technologies, was just building on the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition announced by President Obama at the 2012 G8 Camp David Summit.  The New Alliance includes nine member countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Tanzania, and Senegal.

In South Africa, Obama announced the new Washington Fellowships for Young African Leaders, in which the US government will partner with private universities to host young Africans scholars and entrepreneurs.   He also announced a "Youth Summit," time and place undetermined, in which he would bring African youth to the U.S. to discuss their issues and ways to address them, much like the two summits already held in Washington over the last three years.

New and Sustainable Investments for Africa's Future - Africans Leading Africa

The "big" news was the power and trade initiatives, announced respectively in South Africa and Tanzania.   Power Africa was billed as an effort to double access to power across Africa.  Partner Countries were highlighted and all aspects of power generation touched on, from hydroelectric, gas, oil, wind and solar.  Obama pledged $7 billion in support, but the bulk, $6.5 million was in insurance, guarantees, credit enhancements and technical assistance.  The estimated need of $300 billion to achieve universal electricity access in Africa will be met by African governments and the private sector.  Obama highlighted major energy infrastructure projects and that private sector role by visiting a power plant in Tanzania developed by American investment.

Trade Africa, the other major policy pillar, building off of the existing Partnership for Growth policy, was focused on the East African Community (EAC), involving a "Regional Investment Treaty" with the EAC and focused on breaking down intra-Africa trade barriers to open up markets and movement of goods.   The announcement was made at a business leaders' forum, arranged by the Corporate Council on Africa.  Obama began by reiterating his commitment to renewing and improving the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), but saying that "improving AGOA is not going to be enough."   Obama voiced the hope that this effort with the EAC could be replicated across the continent "in years to come."

I can cite a number of other issues that Obama addressed at various venues or in impromptu press talks on Air Force One, and having clarity on these issues may be one of the more important aspects of his visit.   On China and the threat of it usurping the American position in Africa, Obama said:

"It's a good thing that China and India and Turkey and some of these other countries — Brazil — are paying a lot of attention to Africa.  This is not a zero-sum game.  This is not the Cold War.  You've got one global market, and if countries that are now entering into middle-income status see Africa as a big opportunity for them that can potentially help Africa."  

Speaking to the threat of terrorism in Africa, Obama discussed those threats, but cautioned that there is "no military solution to terrorism," and that the core causes of conflict and disaffection must be addressed.   He used a question at the town hall meeting to debunk the fears of many Africans that the US seeks a military presence in Africa or pursues confrontation with extremists around the world.   At every stop, Obama repeated what became the theme of the trip: Africa must take the lead and the US can only be a partner.

Missed opportunities?

Addressing one concern I had expressed in terms of the role of the AU and RECs, Obama made a point of meeting with AU Commission Chair Dlamini Zuma in South Africa, and included the African Development Bank head, Don Kabureka, and EAC Secretary General, Richard Sezibera, in his discussions in Tanzania.   While I still think an address at the AU would have been helpful, and I have not seen yet that he did – or did not – meet with the heads of SADC, COMESA, ECOWAS, or the other RECs, his recognizing of the need for regional integration in his remarks, and the focus of Trade Africa on breaking down intra-African barriers is very positive.

So, we come to my final concern.  Will this welcome heightened policy focus on Africa be sustained?  Certainly, Obama's words of commitment in Tanzania augur well for such continuity.  He promised to invest long-term in Trade Africa, announcing that the new Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker, will lead a major trade mission to Africa in her first year, and other American trade missions would focus on forging new partnerships in agriculture and energy and infrastructure.  He promised that the Treasury and Energy Secretaries would come to the region as well and the Administration would bring American investors and businesses together in a major conference on doing business in Africa.

Finding the Missing Link in U.S. - Africa Policy

More than this, however, and the reason I am giving the trip a thumbs up overall, is the under-publicized announcement at the University of Cape Town of a Heads of State Summit on Africa in Washington, DC in 2014 that will, in the President's words, "help launch a new chapter in U.S.-African relations."  This has been a missing link in U.S. policy on Africa.  China has a forum once every two years for African Heads of State to consult on policy issues.  The European Union does the same, both at Heads of State and Foreign Ministers levels.  Years ago, the African-American Institute used to plan and implement a series of annual "African-American Dialogues" with full U.S. government involvement, but those efforts ended in 1996.   Such a forum will go a long way to sustaining the high-level commitment that Obama's trip has signaled and should be made a bi-annual event.

We will be watching, not just judgmentally, but to be available to assist in any way these efforts to - again using Obama's words -  "across the board… step up our game."

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