by Garth Cilliers

The US and Africa: Increasing the profile

Obama’s choice of stopovers tells its own story

President Barack Obama; Africa back on his agenda
Pres. Barack Obama.jpg

As United States President Barack Obama prepares for an African visit, accompanied by a delegation of more than 1 200 people, 500 businesspeople and investors, the countries he has chosen not to visit are as interesting as those on his itinerary.

Obama will be visiting South Africa, Tanzania and Senegal. The aim, according to a White House statement, is to “reinforce the importance that the US places on (its) deep and growing ties with countries in sub-Saharan Africa“.

According to the statement, the focus is on “expanding economic growth, investment and trade with the US” and it will “underscore the president’s commitment to broadening and deepening co-operation between the US and the people of sub-Saharan Africa to advance regional and global peace and prosperity”.

In practical terms, the visit will focus on three key themes: advancing economic growth in Africa; supporting Africans’ demands for democratic governance; and engaging next-generation African leaders.

The geopolitical selection for the visit, however, tells its own story.

Visiting South Africa will most probably be the main focus, not only because it is the economic powerhouse and most advanced country on the continent, but also in light of the upcoming elections in Zimbabwe.

The elections will be a watershed, not only for Zimbabwe but also for the sub-region. It is important for the US and South Africa, with the latter's pivotal role in the process, to share notes.

This applies to South Africa’s role as peacemaker(please link to last week’s SANDF-article) in Africa, particularly in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in leading a United Nations intervention force.

Obama will most likely use the opportunity also to strengthen economic ties in a follow-up to the November 2012 visit by acting US Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank, which launched the 'Doing Business in Africa' campaign. This is aimed at helping American businesses identify and develop opportunities for increased American commerce, trade and investment in Africa.

Strikingly absent from the itinerary is Nigeria – not only America’s biggest ally in the strategically important West Africa, but also Africa’s second powerhouse.

When the possibility of a visit first surfaced in the news, Nigerian media reported that Obama would make a stopover in that country. The reason for a mere stopover, and not an official visit, was attributed to security concerns about a possible attack by Boko Haram, the Islamic militant group responsible for a string of terror attacks in northern Nigeria in recent years.

The US president had preferred Ghana to Nigeria during his short African trip in 2009 due to Nigeria’s poor democratic credentials and corruption, and it is speculated that the same concerns and reports of gross human rights violations by Nigerian security forces in northeastern Nigeria have persuaded Obama to bypass the country once again.

Steering clear of Nigeria and having already visited Ghana in 2009, Senegal is a logical choice. In volatile West Africa, a region of some strategic importance to the US, Senegal enjoys political stability and is an important member of the Economic Community of West African States, the next big African power bloc after the Southern African Development Community.

It may be by design or entirely unintentional, but including Senegal and Tanzania – two lesser countries – on his first extensive African tour, Obama conveys the message that weaker and smaller countries on the continent will not be ignored and that their endorsement of values important to the US does not pass unnoticed.

In March, Obama hosted a meeting in Washington with the leaders of Senegal, Sierra Leone, Malawi and Cape Verde, lauding them as examples of “the progress that we are seeing in Africa”. He further commended them for their leadership on food security, how they harness the potential of young people, and how they empower the next generation of African leaders.

Also discussed was how the US could expand its partnership to strengthen democratic institutions and promote economic opportunity across sub-Saharan Africa.

The Obama visit will clearly try to further advance these sentiments.

Surprisingly, but not unexpectedly, Angola has been omitted from the itinerary. Although it is the second-largest US trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa, and besides the fact that it has been exactly 20 years since the Bill Clinton Administration restored diplomatic relations after years of hostility, the relationship has not developed as planned.

A presidential visit to Angola, which is ranked by Transparency International as 168th out of 178 countries in its Corruption Perception Index, may send a wrong signal.

Tanzania is another interesting choice. Kenya, the logical first choice in East Africa and one of the staunchest US allies, is presently a 'no-go' area. Both Kenya’s president and vice president are wanted by the International Court of Justice for crimes committed against humanity, following election violence.

Although never having been high on the list of official US relationships in Africa, it is striking that Obama becomes the third consecutive US president to visit Tanzania.

The country has a recognised capacity to claim some moral high ground because of its political stability, and a strong record of mediating in the unruly central region of Africa.

Tanzania, with the exception of unrest-ridden Somalia, has the longest Indian Ocean coastline and its abundant natural resources are an added incentive for the visit.

Obama's Tanzanian visit, hot on the heels of his Chinese counterpart's stopover there three months earlier, is not coincidental; it is symptomatic of a scramble for resources between the US and China.

The visit comes at a time of growing concerns in Washington about China’s rising role in sub-Saharan Africa. Many analysts fear the Obama visit is already too little too late.

Secretary of State John Kerry recently told the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations about growing concern around China’s increasing influence in Africa. “China is now significantly out-investing the United States in Africa,” he said.

China is Africa’s biggest trading partner and bilateral trade is forecast to double in the next four years to $300 billion; Chinese investment into Africa is likely to hit U$50bn by 2015 – up 70% from 2009.

Obama’s long overdue visit was preceded by Kerry's trip to Ethiopia in May to attend the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity. Africa may be witnessing a new and more committed era in US policy toward the continent.

Africa has been very disappointed that Obama spent less than one day in sub- Saharan Africa during his first term in office, with only a quick stopover in Ghana in July 2009. The expectations that he would elevate Africa higher up the US foreign policy agenda has all but evaporated.

During Obama’s first term, his then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the most travelled secretary of state in US history, visited Africa only twice – and vice president Joe Biden once.

In contrast, China's top five leaders visit Africa every year, as do the leaders of many other countries such as France, Brazil, Turkey and India – all of which are investing actively in Africa. China's leaders have visited at least 30 African countries over the past five years.

Kerry admitted that the Obama administration has much to do in regard to US–Africa relations and has to be more engaged with the continent.

In June 2012, the Obama administration released a new but rather uninspiring foreign policy directive on Africa, which contains four key components:

  • Strengthening democratic institutions;
  • Spurring economic growth, trade and investment;
  • Advancing peace and security and;
  • Promoting opportunity and development.


During his visit, Obama will have the opportunity to put flesh on the directive and show Africa that the continent and its people do matter to the US.

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