Obama In Africa; Too Little, Too Late?
Perhaps not, but there’s not much dispute on the reasons for President Obama’s most recent trip to Africa. It is actually growing economically, despite the incessant stream of conflict zone news and worries that militant Islamic terrorism could be on the rise there. And, as the first Black president who also struggles between two cultural universes within the Black Diaspora (one Kenyan, the other African American), there’s also acknowledgement that the Black migrant population from African and Caribbean countries is growing fast. Many experts predict the foreign Black population in the United States will increase to 16 percent by 2050.
Still, many countries in Africa are meeting, if not exceeding, economic growth goals and expectations. By the end of 2015, it’s gross domestic product growth should rise to 4.5 percent and many Africa analysts, including those at the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the African Development Bank and the UN Development Program, all peg the continent’s 2016 growth rate at 5 percent or more.
“Some 20 of the continent’s over 50 countries have moved in democratic directions, usually with better economic policies and more accountable governance,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a co-Director for Brookings’ Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence.” Aided by groups like the Gates Foundation and many other philanthropic organizations, huge headway was made in areas such as child and maternal health. The African Union began to take more responsibility for conflicts on its own territory, with various members and sometimes the organization itself sending more effective peacekeeping forces to Somalia, Sudan, Congo, and elsewhere.”
And for the Obama administration, the geopolitical calculus is obvious: get in while it’s still hot. Skeptics will continue harboring doubts about the massive, resource-rich and ethnically diverse African continent, particularly in the wake of Ebola, raging civil wars and large scale terrorist attacks. But, for the first time in many years, Africa optimists such as President Obama are winning the argument on the need for investment and partnership. In recent years, Western countries have shifted the extent of Africa involvement from what was once a nearly exclusive economic and disaster aid model to an approach that’s now much more targeted and persistent on metrics. No one wants to simply throw money at distressed African countries anymore. Everyone from investors to policymakers demand empirically-proven returns on the investment.
Hence, most observers weren’t surprised by the White House selection of Kenya and Ethiopia to mark the last of several trips to the continent throughout the Obama presidency. The meanings behind each visit easily carried visible symbolic value, with the president comfortably embracing his Kenyan roots at the twilight of his two terms while then crossing into Ethiopia as a show of support for a nation once the leading global poster-child for world hunger and catastrophic drought.
However, there was just as much a mix of speculation and some cautious bewilderment over the countries he didn’t visit. Some hoped for a visit to the continent’s largest economy, Nigeria, particularly in the wake of its historic and comparably smooth presidential elections. Others assumed modern bastions of relatively violence-free democracy like South Africa would have been on that list, too.
But in a move perhaps designed to mute critics of the lack of a Nigeria visit, the Obama administration played host to newly-elected Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari a week before during a much hyped Washington visit. Better that, many foreign policy observers noted, than the massive security challenges presented by a sitting American president visiting a country still faced with mounting civil unrest in its Northeast responsible for the deaths of more than 13,000 since 2009. While hesitant to call it “civil war,” Nigerian officials were still figuring out ways to respond to a reconfigured militant Boko Haram recently re-branding itself as Wilayat al Sudan al Gharb and aligning itself as an Islamic State affiliate. The new Buhari administration, while deeply rooted in Nigeria’s military tradition, wouldn’t have been able to accommodate President Obama’s arrival.
And in the case of South Africa, few wanted the optical headache of an American president taking photo ops with controversial political boss-lite President Jacob Zuma, especially as an emerging crowd of new school black leaders hope to eventually unseat him. “Nobody should be president for life,” said President Obama during a speech at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “Your country is better off if you have new blood and new ideas. I’m still a pretty young man, but I know that somebody with new energy and new insights will be good for my country. It will be good for yours, too, in some cases.”
What is evident is that the selection of Kenya and Ethiopia also represents a critical pivot point in long-term U.S. policy interests with respect to Africa. On a macro-level, it’s all about competition: U.S. policymakers and military planners worry heavily about growing Chinese interests in the region. Much of that is driven by resources, namely oil, with Beijing making certain that the bulk of its imports out of Africa – 80 percent – consist of raw resources. Today, Chinese trade with Africa is at $200 billion compared to $100 billion between the U.S. and Africa.
Fortunately, President Obama was able to arrive in Nairobi and Addis Ababa, the Kenyan and Ethiopian capitols, with a newly passed U.S.-Africa trade deal in hand recently passed by Congress. Yet, the administration finds itself playing catch up to Chinese economic and military interests. Even as President Obama spoke to the African Union in Ethiopia’s capitol, he did so well aware that it was Chinese money – some $150 million, in fact – that help erect the spanking new state-of-the-art AU headquarters facility there. Asking the AU to play a much more aggressive role in policing its continent is one thing, but African leaders were definitely seeking much more from the administration in the form of actual tangibles such as investments, promises of trade and future military transactions.
As a result, Kenya and Ethiopia were obvious choices. Kenya, with its rapidly growing middle class, is the core of an emerging economic union of Eastern African nation states such as Tanzania and Uganda. And while it has found itself wracked by occasionally fierce al Shabab-led violence such as the infamous Kenyan mall attack and a more recent bloody terrorist assault on a college campus, it is still the key to providing needed support in a larger effort to restore stability to neighbors such as Somalia.
Ethiopia, despite critics who blasted the president for meeting with a regime known for its human rights abuses, is also another such partner. With Western countries, especially the U.S., pressing African nations to take more responsibility over their continental businesses (particularly through the use of African nation peacekeeping troops in major conflict areas), Ethiopia plays a central role in that as the best trained military force on the continent.
And, as Brookings’ fellow Mwangi S. Kimenyi argues, “the leadership in Addis Ababa has demonstrated a willingness to reform… Although a work in progress, the reform process is on a positive trajectory and is a good example for other African countries. Second, the country is an important ally in the war against terrorism and has been pivotal in the war against al-Shabab.”
Questions, however, will remain as to how fast American influence can move in comparison to a robust Chinese presence that continues to spread throughout sub-Saharan Africa.