Tuesday, 25 June 2013

AFRICA: Obama's second trip

Starting Wednesday, US President Barack Obama will visit Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania on what will be his second trip to the continent as president. The White House says that trade and investment and the economic opportunities on the continent are going to be an important part of the agenda; also democracy and democratic institution-building. According to aides, Obama will also put significant emphasis on supporting growing democracies in each of the three countries.

In addition to bilateral meetings with political leaders in the three countries, Obama will participate in events with private sector leaders. Development issues will play a key role, particularly regarding food security.

Obama has been criticised for paying relatively little attention to Africa during his presidency. His first and only trip to the continent lasted less than 24 hours.

Early in his first administration, Obama visited Ghana in July 2009. The speech he gave in Accra has few specific pledges other than a promise to cut down on funding American consultants and administrators. Instead, President Obama's Ghana trip was mostly about symbolism, offering an effective backdrop for a sharp critique of corruption and repression on the continent, and advocating home-grown governance and stronger institutions and remedies. Ghana was chosen to illustrate an African country that enjoys political pluralism and a growing economy.

However, there were highlights during Obama's first term: Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State made Africa diplomatic priority, visiting 23 African states out of 54; the 2011 referendum and then the independence of South Sudan; the changing fortunes of Somalia and discreet mediation efforts by key officials in Malawi, Guinea, Senegal, are all examples of what US good offices can achieve.

The $ 3.5 billion African food security initiative of the Obama's administration had impact and the African Growth and Opportunity Act, enacted under the Clinton administration, has increased US trade with Africa. It is due for renewal by 2015 but early action on this would be a positive statement of America's desire to deepen trade partnerships with Africa.

There were also disappointments: slowness of appointments to key Africa jobs, such as no permanent assistant administrator of the US Agency for International Development for Africa until 2012 and a US strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa was not released till June 2012; hardly the signal that Africa was an Obama administration priority.

Hopefully for Obama's second trip, African expectations are more realistic. Symbolism plays a role again: Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania are important democratic US partners. Obama will not be visiting the continent most unstable countries: Somalia, Mali and Democratic Republic of Congo. Some observers argue that the instability in these parts of Africa is due in part to U.S. support of authoritarian regimes. Kenya and Nigeria are also omitted in Obama's second trip in the continent. In the case of Kenya, it would be a ''political faux pas'' for a U.S. President to visit an African President under the radar of the International Criminal Court. But it is not sure why Nigeria is left out.

Nevertheless, If the U.S wants to be in step with the 21st century and centuries to come, it needs to pay attention to Africa. Obama's second trip to the continent should not be a light-hearted and easy trip. It should not be about economics and investing, because there are more serious issues that need to be addressed.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
African Affairs Expert