Obama’s Africa Visit was no “Guilt Trip”

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Obama and Michelle with the Zuma's at the SA Union BuildingWhite House

Michelle and Barack Obama with the Zuma’s at the steps of the South African Union Building in Pretoria.

There is continuing talk about U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit to sub Saharan Africa. The six-day trip, from June 27 to July 2, took Obama and his delegation to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.

The three countries selected by the White House represent some of the continent’s most successful nations. So it was no coincidence that these countries were carefully selected to represent African success stories; and there are plenty of successful African nations in the 21st century.

But what long-term impact, tangible and intangible, might the trip  have on the lives of ordinary Africans on the continent after the media leaves once again?

Was it too little, too late as some have posited? Was it a Guilt Trip, as Nwangi S. Kimenyi of the Brooking Institution wrote in a June 25 opinion piece?

I believe the trip was well planned, timed and executed. The White House worked on this for many months, long before the president embarked on the trip, and those efforts involved lots of discussion. Not many news outlets reported about those preparations. We did, here at Africa Agenda, and do not think it is a guilt trip, or that the trip was long overdue.

If President Obama is going to create a partnership with Africa, which he is doing at his administration’s own timing, must such a relationship be exactly like the ones forged by Bill Clinton or George W. Bush?  I don’t believe the administration is a “copy cat” and I don’t think his Africa policies or initiatives will mirror or need to look anything like those of his predecessors.

Besides, the idea that Obama should double his efforts in Africa just because of his special African ancestry is a fallacy. Rather, I think the president should act because it is the right thing to do and also because his administration has something unique and reasonable to offer. The other idea, one voiced by many of the president’s critics, is that he is playing catch-up to China in Africa. This is misguided. I believe China’s time in Africa is now, but it will come to pass, sooner rather than later. I believe shiny things do not last very long.

So let me put to rest some of the mischaracterization of the Africa trip , including this one from the Associated Press, reprinted in the Denver Post.  Obama is not competing, and should not be competing with the “legacies of others” in Africa.

But I could not agree more with John Campbell of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) who described the outcome of the president’s efforts thus far, as “Obama’s Modest Inroads in Africa.”  Campbell is a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.

Campbell thinks “comparison between President George W. Bush’s extensive attention to Africa and the more limited one of his successor” is unfavorable.

As it stands, a modest approach with Africa may just be what the continent needs right now. I have always thought Africans may be asking too much from Obama and it is unproductive when we are only asking and are not reciprocating with equal effort from African governments and citizens to do more for African countries.

More than his Power Africa Initiative as well as his Trade Africa Initiative, and a visit to the so called Door of No Return by Obama, for Campbell, this is significant to a larger U.S. audience which tends to see the continent as marginal.

“The trip may have been as important for Americans as for Africans,” he says. So, new attention to Africa, even for a split moment, can help Africa. Who knew?

Besides, “with this visit, the president highlighted African successes in governance, democratization, and the mobilization of economic opportunity,” Campbell says.  And he did, without much fanfare and without calling the last remaining African dictators by their name.

From an analysis of the transcripts of speeches and comments made in Dakar, Johannesburg, Soweto, Pretoria, Cape Town and Dar es Salaam, Obama expressed a love for Africa and stated he will do whatever it takes to forge a successful partnership with the continent.

In Dakar, Obama spoke about democracy and Senegal’s example to Africa.

“As more Africans across the continent stand up and demand governments that are accountable and serve the people, I believe Senegal can be a great example,” he said.

To make the point and stress the importance of dialogue in the Senegalese democracy, Obama stated, “Senegal has never suffered a military coup, there are free and fair elections, repeated transfers of power, peacefully, a vibrant civil society, a strong press, and dozens of political parties.”

I thought it was a bold statement and I wondered who was listening to the speech.

It was the Senegalese people, who in a March 2013 elections, successfully rejected former president Abdoulaye Wade from serving a third term, even after he forced an amendment to the country’s constitution and allowed himself the ability to run for a third term, against the will of the Senegalese people.

What else could be clearer than to stand in Dakar and make a statement directly alluding to the will of the Senegalese people to reject undemocratic practices by its leaders?

But the Obama administration has already accomplished much for Africa since 2009. Think Libya! Unless you believe Libya is not part of Africa. How about more than $105 million of humanitarian aid for food security in the horn of Africa. Think of the fight against al-Qaeda in East Africa?  What else is Obama supposed to do? Provide overblown assistance that is often misused or abused?

And there is not a need for pompous Africa writers and analysts to raise too many expectations and for Africans to be deluded into thinking that Obama was elected by Americans to save Africa from itself.

I say this to disagree with Mwangi S. Kimenyi of the Brookings Institution who’s “Guilt Trip” preview of the visit now seems totally misguided.

Kimenyi wrote: “Over the last four and a half years, Africans have grown increasingly critical of Obama’s limited interest in the continent — an interest that seems confined to security — and many feel that the U.S. president has taken their goodwill for granted. The excitement that accompanied his historic 2008 election has given way to widespread cynicism on the continent. Unfortunately, this trip is unlikely to change the prevailing view among Africans that Obama is out of touch with the new realities of an emerging Africa.”

I don’t know which segment of Africans Kimenyi is referring to, who are critical of the president, except for many elites with access to huge blogs and famous newspapers, who are hunkered in University campuses and think tanks in far-away places.  While there is a vocal minority who put up protests against the United States in South Africa, Obama still enjoys huge favorability throughout the continent, according to Gallup.

This analysis from the Washington Post could not be clearer that, despite disagreements over his policies, Obama is still a symbol of hope to many in Africa.

And for those who protested against the trip, it was not because they thought the president had ignored the continent or that he was no friend of Africa. According to the Washington Post, the protests were against Obama’s stance on homosexuality, Guantanamo Bay, issues which transcend the current U.S administration. By and large they were protesting against U.S. global policies, not against Barack Obama, according to the Washington Post

I also question Kimenyi’s so-called “U.S. presidential standards,” which he uses in contrasting the president’s travels to Africa. Who set those standards, for heaven’s sake?

To the contrary, the administration has shown that it is different from previous U.S. administrations, and will pursue a different strategy towards Africa, even while it continues to commend efforts made during the Clinton and George W. Bush era. And no two U.S. administrations can ever be the same.

During an American-style town hall meeting in Soweto, Obama stated his commitment to what appears to be a signature initiative of his administration, an effort to inspire and motivate Young African Leaders to tap into their imagination, hope and aspirations to change the continent.

It is called The Young African Leader’s Initiative (YALI). The program was started in 2010 and now works with U.S. embassies in African countries, the Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and is investing “in the next generation of African leaders” to strengthen African democracies and economies.

At the Soweto meeting, Obama likened the effort to “the ‘yes we can’ attitude of young African like you.” He said, “this won’t be the most expensive program we have. But I actually believe this is going to end up being one of the most important.”

And very important it is, in my view.

After I watched a speech Obama gave at the University of Johannesburg, in front of many the young people in South Africa, I was anxious to hear more. Imagine what would happen when young Africans begin to stand up and challenge the status-quo within the last posts of dictatorship in the continent. Imagine what would happen when young people in Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea begin to stand up and demand real change from their leaders?

Can anyone figure out and attach a price tag to this?

I also disagree with the notion that the “trip is unlikely to change the prevailing view among Africans that Obama is out of touch with the new realities of an emerging Africa.”

While many like Kimenyi think Obama ought to quadruple the number of trips he makes to the continent, the contrary shows an administration that is deliberate and has chosen a different path to African affairs.  I believe that path has put peace and security in the horn of Africa and around Eastern Africa foremost.

Given a choice between security, handouts from America or cheap goods and trickery from the Chinese government and their businesses in Africa, I’ll take security first.

And many pundits may not remember that the 1998 terrorist attacks in Kenya and Tanzania devastated the economies of the nations around the area, for which Obama as well as former president, George W. Bush, thought it was important to make the area even secure if Americans are going to do business with Africa in the future.

Besides, exactly how does Obama’s priority differ from previous U.S. administrations?

In Tanzania, on the final leg of the trip, Obama repeated statements he made in Senegal and in South Africa, saying he “wanted a new kind of relationship between the United States and Africa — a partnership rooted in equality and shared interests”

Former president Bill Clinton, beloved as the “first Black U.S. president” for his work in Africa, focused on many African initiatives, but he is being remembered more than a decade after, more for the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), than anything else that he did.

Initially considered a killer by many Africans, for gross violations of human rights by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, George W. Bush is today a hero in Southern Africa, not because of war, but because the results of his work on the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief (PEPFAR) and on HIV AIDS, which are now bearing fruit.

But while these efforts appear good and well intentioned, African nations may have become too dependent on U.S. assistance, which can lead us to quickly criticize those presidents who do not fulfill the same expectations. Obama is right when he emphasizes that the relationship should be “rooted in equality and shared interests”, and not on aid or assistance alone.

After all, Campbell, who is part of the highly influential CFR, the same organization whose 2006 task force report on Africa, More Than Humanitarianism, can be considered a blueprint for U.S. strategic relations with Africa for the twenty first century. The CFR task force was created at the time “to examine whether the United States was getting Africa policy right.”  I believe the Obama administration may have found just the right combination of policies, approach and assistance, to do more business with in Africa, encourage civic engagement, and promote democracy.

While Kemenyi’s “Guilt Trip” article focused largely on statistics about who has made more trips to Africa and who has more projects going on there, he failed to provide context about “the new African realities of an emerging Africa.”

I think one question we Africans can ask ourselves is how many African leaders have traveled to the United States during Obama’s term in office and met with American leaders and business people in an effort to boost trade and investment with the U.S.? Did they get support from the White House or were they blocked or turned down by Americans and for what reasons?

While Obama is just a few months into his second term, it is very likely he will travel to Africa again before he leaves office in 2016.  Which countries will he pick for that trip?

And just like it takes time and effort to plant crop, the Obama administration’s efforts in Africa will take time to nurture and for the results be seen by all. That could be in the next five years, 10 years, or more, long after Obama is no longer U.S. president.

 

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