Obama’s Trip to Africa: Dancing to the African Beat?

Photo Credit: Huffington Post[1]

By: Rob Mukahlera

So Barack Obama belatedly made a trip, a real trip this time to Africa. The expected happened- jubilant and ecstatic crowds welcoming the First Family wherever they went, the powerful images of him in Nelson Mandela’s spruced up jail cell on Robben Island being broadcast around the world, and of course, the searing and captivating speeches. The unexpected, or rather, unannounced, happened as well, former president George W. Bush joined him to lay a wreath at a memorial in Dar es Salaam, built to commemorate the victims of the U.S embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998.

As the dust settles, and Obama turns his attention elsewhere, it is worth reflecting what the president’s African safari holds for the continent. The U.S president’s journey to the motherland this time was not a 21-hour sojourn like the Ghana visit in 2009: Obama made stops in Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania. What does this visit mean for U.S.-Africa relations, and perhaps even more importantly, what does this journey mean for the Obama-Africa relationship? If one believes that Africa runs deep in the veins of the former Illinois senator, as most Africans do, then Obama’s presence on the continent was even more significant.

Obama’s trip comes at a very fascinating time for Africa. For once, African countries are hitting the headlines for the right reasons- dynamic economic growth. The continent has experienced a strong run in economic growth over the past decade. Afro-optimism is abound. “Africa rising” is the buzz-phrase, emanating from the IMF findings that “6 of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies between 2001 and 2010 were in Africa” and that “between 2011 and 2015, African countries will account for 7 of the top 10 spots.”[2] An ever-expanding consumer-driven middle class, estimated to be over 350million (34% of the total continental population), is fuelling demand for goods and services.[3] What is noteworthy is not just the sheer size of this middle class but its increasing spending power, which is driving non-natural resources based economic growth. Again, another encouraging dynamic, given Africa’s sorry history with the extractive industries.

When a generalization about Africa is made, Africans are often quick to point out that “it is a continent not a country.” But when it comes to describing Africa’s growing economic success, Africans are more than happy to have that generalization stick. With good reason too, most of the 55 nations have experienced some growth in the past 10 years, albeit in varying proportions. Given this strong economic growth, underpinned by ever improving governance, surely Obama has every reason to promote greater economic and political ties with Africa, right?

Before Obama’s trip, there were growing voices that the first African-American president had or was neglecting the continent of his origin. Obama’s Kenyan heritage means Kenyans, and Africans at large, hold claim to him as one of their own. If one is familiar with African value systems, Obama can be likened to the eldest son of the family, who is fortunate enough to get an opportunity to make a living overseas. The expectation, as tradition has it, is that once the son gets a foot in the ocean of prosperity in the so-called First World, he has a responsibility to look out for the family back home. Given the relatively larger family sizes in Africa, the number of family members expecting a gift-wrapped parcel from their ‘big brother’, can easily run into a few dozen. It is against this backdrop that Africans let out a large cheer on November 4, 2008 when the Illinois senator was announced winner of the U.S presidential election. The African son had done the impossible, surpassing even the wildest of expectations. With success however, comes expectation. Fast forward to 2013 and the upbeat and euphoric mood of 2008 has steadily dissipated. Thus far, expectations of Obama have, for the most part, not been met: at least not in Africa.

To characterize Obama’s engagement with Africa so far requires one to first sift fantasy from reality, fact from fiction. Calling a spade exactly what it is- Africans were more than naïve to expect the U.S president to suddenly transform the entire continent and rid it of most, if not all, of the problems afflicting it. Obama operates within a set framework, a template long set by American men and women who probably would have never guessed, taking into account even the most vivid of imaginations, that a Kenyan man from Nyang’oma Kogelo would sire their 44th president. That template, more fancily termed foreign policy, does not allow Obama to deviate from the set course too much. For all the “change coming to Washington” talk, the reality is that little change had come in terms of engagement with Africa prior to this trip. Africa had been and still is at the back end of U.S foreign policy priorities.

2013: A New Partnership Between the United States and Sub-Saharan Africa?

Analyzing the initiatives announced by Obama during his Africa trip suggests a commitment to greater U.S economic participation in the motherland. But just how much of an impact will the commitment make?

Firstly, the Power Africa initiative identifies a genuine need, i.e. to provide accessible and affordable electricity to millions of under- and un-served households right across the continent. The White House details that “more than two-thirds of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is without electricity, and more than 85 percent of those living in rural areas lack access.”[4] To further give perspective to the enormity of the task at hand, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says sub-Saharan Africa needs a mammoth $300 billion in investments to achieve universal access to electricity by 2030.[5] The question then is will the $7 billion announced as the initial seed capital for the projects, most of it US taxpayer money, going to have a perceptible impact in the African countries selected as recipients?

Asians Roaring Louder


Photo Credit: BBC News[6]

Certainly, the $7 billion in financial guarantees and export credits pledged by the US government plus the roughly $9 billion pledged by various U.S private sector firms, pale in comparison with the massive amounts China is pouring in infrastructure projects across the continent. It is estimated that Chinese investment deals in Africa since 2010 are close to $101 billion.[7] The Japanese have belatedly joined the party as well. At the fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD V) in June, Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe announced a $32 billion dollar fund for Africa.[8]  If financial commitments were the sole indicator of a nation’s readiness and willingness to engage with another, then Obama’s $7 billion pledge tells a whole story, does it not?

Leadership: “no one is going to develop Africa but us”

The U.S President also announced the launch of the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders program. The fellowship, scheduled to begin in 2014, will give more than 500 young Africans an opportunity to receive leadership training and mentoring at universities in the U.S. capital. The initiative signals the President’s overall effort to encourage investment in the education and training of the continent’s next generation of leaders.[9]

However, this raises a fundamental question-should it be the U.S’s responsibility to develop Africa? Not according to Tony Elumelu, a prominent Nigerian businessman and philanthropist, whose foundation, the Tony Elumelu Foundation was selected to partner the U.S government’s Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders initiative. Elumelu puts it plainly, as though people were not already aware, that “no one is going to develop Africa but us.”[10] Elumelu has put forward an interesting concept he terms “Africapitalism”, exhorting Africans to seize the initiative.  Africapitalism, he says holds, is “an economic philosophy that embodies the private sector’s commitment to the economic transformation of Africa through investments that create both economic prosperity and social wealth.”[11]  If indeed the responsibility to take Africa to the next level is squarely on the shoulders of African men, women, and children, then why wait for Obama, or whichever world leader for that matter, to set the wheels in motion towards broad-based socio-economic prosperity?

In Obama’s Cape Town speech, the message was ever so clear, “Ultimately, I believe that Africans should make up their own minds about what serves African interests.  We trust your judgment, the judgment of ordinary people.  We believe that when you control your destiny, if you’ve got a handle on your governments, then governments will promote freedom and opportunity, because that will serve you.”[12] If Africa is to finally realize its full potential, then surely, Africans should move beyond expecting a foreign leader, be it a U.S president of Kenyan heritage or not, to be the catalyst or the solution.

But then again, in today’s interconnected and interdependent world, it is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve sustainable and meaningful economic growth without international cooperation. It is this cooperation, or partnership, that Africans have called out for from the U.S president.

Whether one is of a socialist, communist or Marxist inclination, the one aspect of capitalism that one ought to appreciate is competition. While competition has its pitfalls, which are well-documented, it does offer a lens through which comparisons can be drawn.  Politics, specifically foreign policy, is not immune to competition like any other discipline. Obama’s engagement with Africa has inevitably been compared with that of former U.S presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush Jr. Clinton’s signature legacy project was the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) of 2000, the policy backbone which allowed for increased, albeit limited, commercial trade between the U.S and African countries. It feels (and sounds) bizarre almost to suggest that Bush Jr. did (and is still doing) more for Africa, primarily through his PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) initiative, than Obama so far. It seems a fair assessment then to suggest that Obama’s engagement with Africa is miniscule in comparison to that of his two predecessors. A clear invitation for Obama to compete and walk the talk perhaps?

The remaining years of Obama’s presidency will be closely scrutinized world over, not least his legacy in Africa. The eyes following his every move will not just be of those in the halls of Washington. From the village of Nyang’oma Kogelo  where Barack Obama Sr. was raised, to homesteads in Hurungwe, Khayelitsha, Ofagbe, the 44th U.S. president’s extended family is expectant. Try telling them they are naïve.


Rob Mukahlera is a second year Master of International Affairs student at the Penn State School of International Affairs. Born and raised in Zimbabwe, his primary research interests are in economic development, specifically international trade policy, private sector development, and North-South trade relations. He received a BSc from The University of Zimbabwe. Rob has international work experience in telecommunications and international trade. He is proficient in both chiShona and English.

[1] http://i.huffpost.com/gen/1221705/thumbs/o-OBAMA-DANCING-facebook.jpg.

[2] The Economist, A more hopeful continent: The lion kings?, http://www.economist.com/node/17853324 (January 2011).

[3] Pascal Fletcher, Africa’s emerging middle class drives growth and democracy, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/05/10/us-africa-investment-idUSBRE9490DV20130510 (May 2013).

[4] The White House, Fact Sheet: Power Africa, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/30/fact-sheet-power-africa (June 2013).

[5] Francis Kokutse, Africa needs $300 bn in power investments: IEA, http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/africa-needs-300-bn-in-power-investments-iea-113070800957_1.html (July 2013).

[6] http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk/media/images/42374000/jpg/_42374811_tsunami416.jpg.

[7] Mamta Badkar, MAP: Here Are All Of The Big Chinese Investments In Africa Since 2010, http://www.businessinsider.com/map-chinese-investments-in-africa-2012-8 (August 2012).

[8] APDev, Fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development, http://www.africa-platform.org/events/fifth-tokyo-international-conference-african-development-ticad-v (June 2013).

[9] The White House, President Obama Announces the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/29/president-obama-announces-washington-fellowship-young-african-leaders (June 2013).

[10] The Tony Elumelu Foundation, http://www.tonyelumelufoundation.org (2013).

[11] Heirs Holdings, Africapitalism, http://heirsholdings.com/africapitalism (2013).

[12] The White House, Remarks by President Obama at the University of Cape Town, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/30/remarks-president-obama-university-cape-town (June 2013).


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