Obama’s Second Africa Visit

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In the final leg of his weeklong three-country visit to Africa, U.S. President Barack Obama received the most ecstatic welcome of his visit in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on Monday July 1 2013.  In a news conference with President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, Obama called for a new partnership with Africa, one he said, that would be based  not just on aid and assistance but  on trade and partnership. “Ultimately the goal here is for Africa to build Africa for Africans”, he was quoted to have said to cheering crowds, much larger and louder than those he saw on his first two stops in Senegal and South Africa.

Obama claimed that while Africa was  perceived as a desperately basket case during his first visit to the continent as President of the United States four years ago, by the time of  his current visit, the perception has changed, with the continent now seen as a  booming young market for the future.

Apparently searching for his own legacy in Africa,  Obama unveiled an ambitious programme to double access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa, saying that for two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africans to lack access to electricity  was “unacceptable in 2013”. Under Obama’s new initiative, the US would invest $7 billion in financial support for a programme called ‘Power Africa’. The new initiative will for instance help Tanzania, which is one of the six participating countries in the programme, to add 10,000 megawatts of generation capacity and reach 20 million households that lack electricity right now. Obama’s predecessor in office, George W Bush, invested billions of dollars in a bid to stem the AIDS epidemic that was then ravaging several African countries.Though Obama’s second Africa visit as President was overshadowed by headline stories about the declining health of Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid hero, the substance of his messages was remarkably more affirmative of the possibilities in Africa than was the case during his visit four years ago when critics lampooned him for talking down on Africans as if they were school children.  It remains  however unclear whether Obama’s conversion to an ‘Afro optimist’ was  genuine or informed  by the pains of the lingering economic crisis in the West, with Europe slipping in and out of  recession while, (if one believes the IMF figures),  sub-Saharan Africa witnessed an average growth of 5.1 percent last year. There are also conspiracy theorists who believe the new found Afro-optimism in the West is a ploy aimed at encouraging Western businesses to move into Africa to contain China’s growing influence in the continent.

Aside from a change in the substance of President Obama’s messages and  an apparent search for  his own Africa  legacy (many American presidents and British prime ministers often want to have an Africa legacy towards the end of their tenure in office), Obama’s  second visit to the continent as President also generated angst and recriminations. For the countries favoured during the visit (Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania), there has been a certain chest-thumping, a belief that the choice is a reward for good governance and/or an enhanced strategic importance of their country to the USA. Among the countries not favoured, in particular Nigeria, which prides itself as the giant of Africa, there is palpable anger among the citizens. The general consensus seems to be that the country was snubbed as a way of sending a powerful message to the government of the day that it has not lived up to expectations. Nigerians appear particularly slighted that ‘little’ Tanzania and Senegal were chosen over their country during Obama’s second Africa visit – just as ‘small’ Ghana was also chosen over them during Obama’s visit four years ago. For the critics of the Jonathan administration, the by-passing of Nigeria by Obama during his first and second visit to the country is an indication of how much their country has been diminished by a ‘visionless leadership’

I beg to disagree with the above analysis.

While I believe that the Jonathan government could do far better than its current efforts, a country’s economic performance or strategic importance to the U.S. does not necessarily determine the order in which an American president arranges his overseas trips. For instance while no one doubts that Britain enjoys a special relationship with the USA, Britain is not always the first country in Europe to be visited by an American president. When George W Bush made his first European visit in June 2001, he visited Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Poland and Slovenia. None of Europe’s leading powers – Britain, Germany and France – was visited during that period or took offence that they were not visited. This means that it is rather very simplistic to tie a visit or non-visit by an American president to a country’s strategic importance in the world.  The tradition has been that Canada, America’s northern neighbour, gets the first visit, but even this tradition was broken in 2001 when George W Bush chose Mexico as his first overseas trip.

Similarly, the good governance argument, (i.e. that a visit by an American president is used as a tacit reward for good governance and democracy) is overstated. An American President could decide to snub a foreign leader to register America’s displeasure over the foreign leader’s specific action. But the same leader could also choose to visit the country to cultivate personal friendship and persuade the recalcitrant leader to drop his/her unwanted line of action. This was perhaps what happened in 1978 when Jimmy Carter visited Nigeria as the first sitting American President to visit sub-Saharan Africa. President Carter’s visit to Obasanjo could have been aimed at persuading Obasanjo to soften his harsh rhetoric and radical policy on apartheid South Africa, which conflicted with America’s policy of covert engagement (or secret collaboration as it was accused by Obasanjo). Carter’s visit could also have been to tacitly ensure that the Obasanjo-led military junta did not renege on its promise of handing over power to civilians in 1979.

In fact if the democracy and good governance argument were to be the yard sticks for prioritising which countries an American president would visit in Africa, then South Africa (which is also the home of the iconic Nelson Mandela), and Botswana would be in pole positions to receive Obama during  his first Africa visit. It is instructive that Obama never visited South Africa during his first term in office – despite the fact that the country is Africa’s economic powerhouse and enjoys the added advantage of being the home of the iconic Nelson Mandela. Botswana, one of Africa’s crown jewels in terms of good governance, was not chosen during Obama’s first or second Africa visit. In fact, if the democracy and good governance argument were to hold water, then Egypt could not have made the list during Obama’s first Africa visit.

The point here is that it is often difficult to fathom out the exact reasons why a particular country is visited and another not visited by an American President. It is also equally difficult to figure out the politics that informs the invitation of some African Heads of State to the White House. For instance, the first African Head of State to visit Obama was President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, not the president of a major African power. It was reported that Obama and the Tanzanian president debated some of the African continent’s biggest challenges. This obviously raises the question of whether in terms of power configurations in the continent, the Tanzanian President was the most strategic person to discuss such issues with an American President.

Some have argued that by not including Kenya in both his first and second Africa trips, Obama has snubbed, if not disrespected, the country of his father. I beg to disagree because this line of reasoning wrongly assumes that it is only by such a visit that Obama can show sensitivity to his father’s country.

My personal opinion is that rather than fret on which country was visited or not visited (a hangover from our ethnic politics?), it would perhaps be better to close ranks and see President Obama’s visits the same way that much of the world will see them – visits to AFRICA. The challenge for us as Africans is what we will make of this wave of Afro-optimism in the West which Obama is trumpeting powerfully during his second visit – whether real or designed to contain the rising influence of China in the continent. We should bear in mind that several waves of Afro-optimism in the past came to nothing. In fact countries from Asia that we were far better than in most indices of economic development in the 1960s and during the other waves of Afro optimism have since left us behind. As Africans, it is time we stopped chasing shadows and focus on things that matter.

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