NewsNorth AfricaObama in Africa: In for business or tailing China?


Posted on Tuesday, 25 June 2013 09:43

Obama in Africa: In for business or tailing China?

US President Barack ObamaIt was high time the president of the United States stepped on African soil, again. But will his three-country stop usher in a new era of US-Africa relations?

Prior to his second visit, Obama had spent four and a half years at the White House without stepping foot in Sub Saharan Africa, with the exception of a 21-hour stop in Ghana in July 2009.

Hours after Obama's re-election, Lindiwe Zulu, an advisor to the South African president, Jacob Zuma remarked that "if he does not come during his second term, he will not be forgiven".

No, we are not obsessed with China

Even Ben Rhodes, his long-time advisor, openly acknowledges that the absence of the American president has greatly disappointed the continent.

But Barack Obama has got the message. From 26 June to 3 July he will be visiting three countries: Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. That choice, according to one of his officials, is simply "because he sees his tour as an extension of 2009".

"In Accra he encouraged democracy and good governance. Today he is going to countries that apply those principles."

Since his first election, Obama has been careful in his choice of African leaders he invites to the White House. Not a single putschist or president-for-life has been entertained.

Obama met with Malawi's President Joyce Banda, Sierra Leone's Ernest Bai Koroma, Senegal's Macky Sall and Cape Verde's Jose Maria Pereira Neves in March at the White House.

"Senegal is one of the few countries in West Africa where there has never been a coup d'état," an American diplomat highlighted. "And despite all of our concerns the country came out on top in the 2012 presidential election."

The US put a lot of pressure on former Senegalese president, Abdoulaye Wade, ahead of the last elections, to dissuade the octogenarian president from changing the constitution to run for a third term.

That pressure soured Wade's relations with the American ambassador in Dakar.

The new Senegalese president, Macky Sall- a former oil executive, who owns an apartment in Houston, Texas - is in the good books of Washington.

In a case of one good turn deserves another, Sall's presence at Obama's inauguration as the Democratic Party's presidential candidate at their August 2008 convention has been rewarded.

So was Senegal meticulously selected to show that the US has not forgotten about Francophone Africa?

"No", says another of Obama's officials. "He could, perhaps, have made such a move during [former French President] Sarkozy's era, because he [Sarkozy] was unpredictable.

"But things are much simpler with President [François] Hollande".

Obama's speech in Dakar is expected to focus on the virtues of democracy and transparency.

During his trip, he will also call for a renewal of Africa's ruling classes in what he calls a "new leadership".

In 2010, he hosted 120 young Africans on the occasion of Africa's 50 years independent celebrations. Obama is seeking to empower young Africans through "The President's Young African Leaders Initiative", which he hopes to handover to his successor in 2017.


This visit "comes at a most opportune time," says a Senegalese government official.

"Last September, when the French sounded the alarm bells over Mali's situation at the UN, the Americans dragged their feet, especially because of the United States ambassador at the UN, Susan Rice [now the National Security Adviser-designate], who was resolutely hostile to an armed intervention in the Sahel.

"We hope they have learnt a lesson from the events in January."

But it is not likely that the US president will talk about Nigeria's war against the Islamist terror group Boko Haram whose deadly attacks in the northern parts of that country has caused the deaths of several thousands of people.

"Nigerians are not particularly happy that Obama is visiting South African and not Nigeria" says one of his advisors. "They told us that. It won't be appropriate to stoke the fire".

In Pretoria and Cape Town, on 28 June and 1 July, Obama's pronouncements will not be limited to democracy in South Africa. And Madagascar and Zimbabwe should not expect accolades.

Between 1 and 3 July in Tanzania - the closest he will get to Kenya, his father's country of birth, while in office - his speech will be directed towards the fight against Al Shabab in Somalia and the need to bring lasting peace to the Great Lakes region.

The countries of the Great Lakes region have in recent years seen a resurgence of rebel hostilities, especially in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Chinese Obsession

At a glance, it looks like the US president is tailing the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping.

Although Jinping did not visit Senegal, but rather Congo-Brazzaville - also a French-speaking country, his first tour of the continent took him to South Africa and Tanzania.

"No, we are not obsessed with China", argues the official, despite the seemingly similar tour: South African and Tanzania and one French-speaking country.

Nonetheless, China has overtaken the US as Africa's largest trading partner since Obama's 2009 visit to Ghana. In the same year Xi Jinping and Hu Jintao, his predecessor, travelled to over 30 African countries.

As Obama's advisor, Rhodes, implicitly suggests, it is not by chance that the American president is visiting Africa with an armada of businessmen in tow.

"The United States would lose its leading role if the president does not invest himself fully in Africa. And that is exactly what he is doing," says Rhodes.

But this trip leaves a trail of broken hearts, and Nigeria is not alone in the disappointment department.

Obama's children will not be going on a safari tour while in Tanzania, a country known for its impressive wildlife, as originally planned. The cost of his trip, estimated between $60 and $100 million, sent the US media into overdrive.

Obama's only escapade will be politically correct. He will visit Robben Island prison, where Nelson Mandela, Africa's legendary personality and former South African president was imprisoned, before his election in 1994.

Without a shadow of doubt, however, Obama must have understood that Africa is not a big sick child that needs to be rescued, but an opportunity.

Subscriptions Digital EditionSubscriptions PrintEdition










Music & Film



Keep up to date with the latest from our network :


Connect with us