Q&A: Is Africa finally on Obama’s agenda?

Former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs Jendayi Frazer discusses Obama’s extended trip to Africa.

President Obama Visits Berlin
Obama will spend seven days visiting three African countries: Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania [Getty Images]

US President Barack Obama embarks on his first extended trip to the African continent on Wednesday – visiting Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania – in a trip many see as long overdue.

Obama spent just 22 hours in sub-Saharan Africa during his first term in office, in a stop-over trip to Ghana in 2009. 

As a result, there is much interest in the timing of Obama’s trip and speculation about the issues he is likely to raise and discuss, especially at a time when China, Turkey, Brazil and Japan are demonstrating remarkable fervour in pursuing stronger ties with African nations.

Al Jazeera talks to Jendayi Frazer, an adjunct senior fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations and former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs, about what President Barack Obama’s extended visit is likely to focus on, and whether Africa can expect to benefit.

Al Jazeera: Why has President Barack Obama chosen Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa as his destinations on his second visit to sub-Saharan Africa?

Jendayi Frazer: President Obama’s selection of Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa as destinations on his second visit to Africa highlights stable democracies.

The Obama administration has prioritised engaging countries in Africa with a democratic tradition. South Africa has had multiple elections, though only two parties have governed for the past 65 years, the National Party (1948-1994) and the ANC (1994-2013).

Tanzania has had one governing party for the union since its independence. Senegal has managed both multiple elections and transitions to different political parties. All three countries have relatively strong governing institutions.

Also, previous US presidents have visited these countries, making them destinations that the US Secret Service is more comfortable with taking the US president.

AJ: What is the strategic importance of the three countries to the United States?

JF: South Africa is a strategic country to the United States since many US companies invest in South Africa, which has the largest and most diversified economy in sub-Saharan Africa.

Frazer headed the Bureau of African Affairs between 2005-2009 [EPA]

South Africa also plays a major role shaping African affairs through its influence in the African Union and contribution to peacekeeping and conflict mediation across the continent. South African businesses are also significant investors in other African economies.

South Africa is also positioning itself as a global player through its membership as a BRIC(S) [Brazil, Russia, India, and China] country.

Senegal and Tanzania are less strategic than South Africa to US interests, but have been significant and reliable partners and beneficiaries of US assistance, including the Millennium Challenge Corporation that rewards lower-income countries globally that are well-governed, invest in health and education of their populations, and have undertaken strong economic reforms.

Tanzania was awarded the largest compact [grant] – $698m over 5 years – of all countries during the Bush administration, and Senegal was awarded a five-year $540m compact in September 2009.

AJ: China’s footprint in Africa is increasingly becoming bigger while the US is becoming less conspicuous. China is becoming more influential on the continent. Is Obama doing something to counter this?

JF: President Obama is making his second trip to sub-Saharan Africa since becoming president. In contrast, the former Chinese President Hu Jintao made multiple trips to Africa during his presidency and the new Chinese President Xi Jinping’s maiden international trip was to Africa, visiting South Africa, Tanzania and the Republic of Congo in 2013.

President Obama’s trip will help project America’s influence. However, his administration will need to make more strategic investments and pursue significantly higher levels of engagement to effectively compete with China’s growing influence in Africa.

AJ: Some commentators say Obama’s visit to Africa is merely symbolic, and Africa does not stand to gain anything from it.

JF: Obama’s trip to Africa is important to strengthen US-Africa relations, especially with the three countries he will visit. He will meet with African officials, entrepreneurs, civil society leaders and young people, offering an opportunity to explain US policies and deepen our ties. President Obama will also announce an energy initiative in Tanzania.

But the most significant gain for Africa is his direct engagement that will give Africans an opportunity to influence his administration’s approach and policies towards Africa.

AJ: The president has, for the second time, avoided Kenya – the birthplace of his father – and is instead visiting neighbouring Tanzania, which is less strategically important.

JF: To date, no sitting US president has visited Kenya despite Kenya’s strategic importance to the United States. Kenya is certainly the destination of most American private investment in East Africa, and it is the hub for international organisations operating in the region.

Many American tourists and students visit and live in Kenya, so US-Kenya people-to-people ties are significant. Kenya has also played a pivotal and positive role in the peace and security of the region with its significant contribution to mediating the Sudan comprehensive peace agreement and supporting stability in Somalia. In the past, the US Secret Service has vetoed US presidential visits to Kenya due to al-Qaeda security threats.

AJ: To what extent will counter-terrorism efforts with African nations feature in talks, given the fact that the president is not visiting African countries plagued by extremism?

JF: The terrorist threat is very likely to be raised during President Obama’s visit to Senegal, which borders Mali, a country that is now at the centre of the terrorist threats across the Sahel. The three countries President Obama will visit have faced terrorism challenges, including the 1998 al-Qaeda attack against the US embassy in Dar es Salaam. South Africa has done a particularly good job managing the People Against Gangsterism and Drugs vigilante and terror campaign in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Tanzania’s long maritime border requires significant monitoring.

AJ: The president will likely emphasise good governance and economic progress, and speak about the importance of human rights. But the US maintains relations with countries with poor human rights records such as Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

JF: The United States has multiple interests that have to be managed, so human rights is not the single litmus test for US engagement anywhere in the world.

Ethiopia and Rwanda, for example, have made significant economic progress and have better governance and human rights records than those of other countries the Obama administration has prioritised, such as Myanmar.

AJ: How does the Democrats’ record on US-Africa relations compare with that of the Republicans?

JF: US policies towards Africa have been largely bipartisan. Republicans have treated Africa in more strategic terms. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Republican administrations have also provided higher levels of assistance than available under Democratic administrations.

Both Democratic and Republican administrations have to do a better job articulating Africa’s importance to the United States and leave behind paternalistic views of the continent.

The foundation for mutually beneficial partnership has to be anchored by understanding Africa’s importance to realising America’s global interests and reinforcing America’s contribution to Africa progress.

Source: Al Jazeera