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Obama's Africa trip bolsters US interests

American president quiets criticism of disinterest in the continent with successful eight-day visit.

Last Modified: 02 Jul 2013 16:01
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President Barack Obama walks past an honour guard upon arrival in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania [AFP]

Nairobi, Kenya - Barack Obama wound up his first lengthy trip to sub-Saharan Africa as US president on Tuesday having tackled concerns that he is less interested in the region than his two predecessors, as well as such rising economic powers as China, India and Brazil.

Ahead of Obama's eight-day tour, America's first black president was criticised for a perceived indifference to the continent of his father's birth and its fast-growing economies. Analysts compared him unfavourably to Bill Clinton and George W Bush, who boosted assistance to the region, and said Washington was being sidelined by Beijing.

During the trip, much media attention focused on Nelson Mandela - the anti-apartheid icon who languishes in a hospital with a life-threatening lung infection - rising protests in Egypt, and ongoing revelations about US intelligence-gathering by the itinerant whistleblower Edward Snowden. 

But Obama's three-nation safari, together with schemes to boost trade with East Africa, spend US$7 billion on energy generation, and get more young Africans into US universities, has won him ripples of applause from Senegal to South Africa and Tanzania.

If the trip was about tackling concerns that Obama is disinterested in the region, then I would say it's mission accomplished.

Scott Firsing, US-Africa analyst for the South African Institute of International Affairs

"If the trip was about tackling concerns that Obama is disinterested in the region, then I would say it's mission accomplished,” said Scott Firsing, a US-Africa analyst for the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

"I'm amazed by how much attention the trip has got in Europe, the US and globally. Hopefully it has changed the perception of the American businessman, who thinks of Africa as the Dark Continent, to see sub-Saharan Africa not in a paternalistic way, but as a business and trade partner.”

Although sub-Saharan Africa only accounts for about three percent of international trade, it is home to 875 million people, and some of the world's fastest-growing economies.

The US has faced criticism for lagging behind such emerging powers as China, Brazil and India, which are striking business and infrastructure deals across the 49-nation region. China's trade with Africa is about $200bn, more than twice that of the US.

Trade versus aid

Obama was flanked by hundreds of American business executives. During speeches in South Africa and Tanzania, he said he welcomes "everybody playing in Africa”, and posited a "new model” for growth that focussed more on trade than aid. But he also warned that sub-Saharan Africa feeding natural resources to overseas factories is not a "sustainable model over the long-term”.

"You produce the raw materials, sold cheap and then all the way up the chain somebody else is making the money and creating the jobs and the value,” the president said. "Make sure that whoever you're dealing with ... you're getting a good deal that's benefiting the people here and that can help to spur on broad-based development.”

Obama's centrepiece was a $7bn plan to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa, where blackouts are frequent and more than two-thirds of people live without electricity. The Power Africa project involves newly-discovered oil and gas reserves and renewable energy across Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, and Tanzania.

President Barack Obama and former president George W Bush at a ceremony for US Embassy bombing victims [AFP]

Other schemes aim to boost East African trade, create more US scholarships for young Africans, and a US$10m commitment to tackle a growing poaching menace, which threatens to wipe out elephants, rhinos and other endangered animals. A summit of African leaders in Washington slated for next year has been compared to high-level Africa-China meetings over the past decade.

But one major US-Africa issue was unresolved as Air Force One left Tanzania's tarmac: the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) - a tariff-free trade deal that was devised during Clinton's administration and expires in 2015. Obama spoke in favour of renewal, but negotiations are ongoing.

Catherine Grant Makokera, an SAIIA economist, welcomed Obama's visit, saying it was a "definite sign of America re-inserting itself into Africa” that echoed former US presidents, particularly Bush, who oversaw a quadrupling of aid to the continent, reaching more than $8bn a year in 2009.

"Obama is held to a higher standard because he's African-American,” she said. "But we've seen signals that he wants an African legacy along the lines of president Clinton, with the AGOA, and president Bush, with the Millennium Challenge Account. Now you'll hear about Obama when it comes to education, Power Africa and strategic partnership with the continent.”

Security concerns

While trade grabbed headlines, security remains a prominent US interest. The Pentagon flies drones from several African bases and is concerned with religious extremism in Africa, such as Somalia's al-Shabab, the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, and Nigeria's Boko Haram. 

Africa's terrorism threat was highlighted on Tuesday by Obama laying a wreath to commemorate the victims of the 1998 US embassy bombing in the Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam, part of a double-attack by al-Qaeda that also struck America's diplomatic outpost in Nairobi, Kenya.

During his first term, it was inevitable that Obama was distracted by North Korea, Syria, Iran and Iraq. So this trip was a statement that Africa will be more prominent on the policy agenda.

Alex Vines, Chatham House

While Washington has been a political force in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in the split of South Sudan from the Khartoum-ruled north, Alex Vines - from Britain's foreign policy think-tank Chatham House - said the region was only edging slightly up Obama's agenda.

"During his first term, it was inevitable that Obama was distracted by North Korea, Syria, Iran and Iraq,” he said. "So this trip was a statement that Africa will be more prominent on the policy agenda during his second term. But, you never know - developments in Iran's nuclear programme or the pull-out from Afghanistan will always trump Africa.”

It was not all red carpets and dancing troupes. In South Africa, nearly 1,000 Muslim and leftist activists rallied against Obama's "arrogant and oppressive” foreign policy. Emmanuel Kisiangani, a Nairobi-based analyst for the Institute for Security Studies, said the US president had hectored African leaders over gay rights.

The British rights group Amnesty International said threats against gays and lesbians are reaching dangerous levels in Africa, where lawmakers are toughening anti-homosexual laws. While in Senegal, where homosexuality is illegal, Obama said everyone should be "treated equally” under the law.

"Making criticisms on issues like gay rights in a conservative Muslim society like Senegal is not really in tune with local sensitivities,” said Kisiangani. "The US talks about human rights, but Africa's relationship with China is different. China comes here and builds roads. For many people in Africa, that has much greater value.”

Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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