On June 26, President Barack Obama embarked on his second trip to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office in 2009. Significant though it was, this long-awaited visit may have fallen short of the expectations of many Africans. Over the last four and a half years, Africans have grown increasingly critical of Obama’s limited interest in the continent — an interest that seems confined to security — and many feel that the U.S. president has taken their goodwill for granted. The excitement that accompanied his historic 2008 election has given way to widespread cynicism on the continent. It remains to be seen if Obama’s trip has changed the prevailing view among Africans that Obama is out of touch with the new realities of an emerging Africa.
On Obama’s return to Washington from a week long trip to the continent, he will have increased the amount of time he’s spent as president in Africa nearly tenfold — from 21 to about 200 hours. He will also have gone from having visited only one country — Ghana — to having visited four (Senegal, Tanzania, and South Africa). For the Obama administration, these are important milestones and a sign of his renewed commitment.
But for a president who has failed to seize Africa’s many economic opportunities, the additional time spent there is still pathetic and embarrassing — especially when compared with China’s deep engagement in the region. Over the last five years, China’s top leaders — including the president, vice president, premier, vice premier, cabinet ministers, and top Communist Party officials — have visited around 30 African countries. Former Chinese President Hu Jintao visited 17 African nations in a single 10-month stretch between July 2006 and February 2007. And China’s current president, Xi Jinping, has already visited three African countries since taking office on March 14, 2013. President Xi Jinping visited Tanzania soon after visiting Russia.
Even by recent U.S. presidential standards, Obama’s travel to the region has been minimal. At this point in George W. Bush’s presidency, he had taken a five-country tour of sub-Saharan Africa and spent more than 100 hours on the continent. He then made another six-day trip to Africa near the end of his second term – that was George Bush.
Another major criticism of Obama’s Africa trip concerns the makeup of his itinerary. The president will be passing over three of the continent’s regional anchors: Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia. In fact, some had thought Obama would attend the African Union heads-of-state summit in Addis Ababa last month to celebrate the organization’s 50th anniversary. This would have been more significant than visiting any group of countries and especially poignant given Obama’s African heritage. Instead, he sent his secretary of state, which African leaders could have perceived as a sign of disrespect.
Obama has indicated that he will use his trip to highlight U.S. development programs in Africa. But since the president has established no significant NEW Africa-related programs, he will inevitably be highlighting the work of his predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Obama has also indicated he will highlight U.S. engagement on food security, terrorism, youth leadership, and energy.
When Chinese leaders visit Africa, they come with very specific development initiatives and return home with hundreds of bilateral agreements, many of which involve investment by Chinese companies.
So, what will he accomplish beyond symbolism? Probably not much. The president’s advisors will spin the trip as proof that Obama hasn’t ignored Africa and that the region is an important U.S. partner. And while the latter bit might be true, most Africans don’t see it that way. In fact, what Africa may need to consider is its involvement in the globalized world and how it can ensure its interests on its own.
If Obama was right about one thing, then it is in what he said in his speech in Tanzania.
“Ultimately the goal here is for Africa to build Africa, for Africans,” Obama said after talks with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete on Monday.