Obama and Africa: Guilt Trip or Pivot?

President Obama’s recent visit to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania was written off as a “guilt trip” by some and a “last chance” to salvage an Africa policy legacy by others.

In fact, the initiatives that President Obama introduced during his trip have the potential to be as transformative, if not more so, than those developed by his predecessors, Presidents Clinton and Bush.

True, there was frustration on the continent and in some U.S. policy circles that the Obama administration has not paid more attention to the continent during his first term, frustration which I shared.  His 2009 visit to only one country, Ghana, for less than 24 hours diminished expectations and conveyed a sense of detachment on the part of the first African-American president whose father was from Kenya.

Nevertheless, the president has put in place a number of initiatives that have the potential to reorient U.S. policy on the continent.  Chief among them is Power Africa, which is designed to add 10,000 megawatts of cleaner, more efficient electricity to an estimated 20 million homes and businesses in six countries over the next five years.  The U.S. will commit $7 billion in financial support, and companies such as General Electric, Symbion Power and the African Finance Corporation have pledged more than $9 billion to support the development of at least 8000 megawatts of new electricity.

The president’s focus on trade and investment was timely and welcome.  Not only did this focus emphasize that Africa is a continent of commercial opportunity, but it also helped broaden the American agenda in an area where U.S. companies have been largely absent.  If the U.S. is able to negotiate an investment treaty with the five countries of East Africa, a goal the administration has announced it will explore, commercial ties would deepen with one of the continent’s most vibrant regional markets.  The CEO Summit that President Obama convened in Dar-es-Salaam was a good idea and should be held every year.

The decision to restructure the East African trade hub to work with American companies entering the East African market is positive, especially given the lack of a U.S. Department of Commerce presence throughout the region.  Hopefully, USAID will do the same with the regional trade hubs in South Africa and West Africa.  President Obama’s announcement that newly confirmed Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker will lead a major trade mission to Africa within the next year will help Commerce get back in the game in Africa and will sustain the president ‘s efforts to deepen trade and investment ties.  The AGOA Forum in Addis Ababa in August should also contribute to this effort.

Food security and increased agricultural productivity was a theme that President Obama underscored at every stop.  According to the administration, after five years, its signature development program, Feed the Future, has helped 7 million farmers gain access to new agricultural techniques, which has increased the value of goods they sell by more than $100 million.  At the 2012 G8 Summit, Obama brought the private sector into the initiative through the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, which now includes more than 70 companies that have committed $3.7 billion to the program.  This important initiative appears to be generating results toward the administration’s goal of lifting 50 million out of poverty.

Building on his 2010 White House Forum with Young Africa Leaders, President Obama announced the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders that will bring 500 young Africans to U.S. universities and colleges annually for leadership training starting next year and expanding to 1000 per year in 2019.  The goal is to engage and mentor the next generation of African entrepreneurs, civil society leaders and innovators.  Companies like Boeing, Ethiopian Airlines and Microsoft have committed to support this program, and others will likely follow.

The president also took the overdue step of announcing that he would convene a summit with Africa’s current leaders in the U.S. next year.  This move is important symbolically and substantively, although it remains to be seen who will be invited and how the summit will be structured.

Underlying the initiatives, several key themes of Obama’s Africa policy emerged on the trip.  The president took pains to underscore his ongoing commitment to the Bush administration’s program to combat AIDS, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).  If it wasn’t clear before, it is evident that the U.S. has transitioned to a “post-PEPFAR” engagement with the continent.  There is no question however that aid programs on PEPFAR’s scale—which was initially funded with $15 billion and increased to $48 billion—are a thing of the past, given the constraints on the U.S. economy and the progress in economic development that much of Africa has made over the last 20 years.  The private sector, both in the U.S. and Africa, is playing an increasingly active role in enhancing food security, generating power and developing leaders, which increase the prospects for sustainability and, ultimately, African ownership.  As long as there is accountability for program implementation, these public-private partnerships are a positive and necessary trend.

The issue of China and Africa was a constant theme that President Obama encountered during his visit.  He was right to welcome China’s engagement on the continent as well as that of Brazil’s, India and other nations.  Africa is far too large and diverse a continent to be dominated, or “taken over,” by any one nation.

As the outlines of an Obama legacy in Africa begin to emerge, difficult issues remain to be addressed.  The U.S. has identified Nigeria and Angola as strategic partners, along with South Africa.  How and when will President Obama engage the leaders in Abuja and Luanda in a substantive manner?  Ethiopia is another important American partner deserving attention.

Kenya, of course, presents numerous complications given the International Criminal Court indictments of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto.  Nevertheless, a visit by President Obama to his nonagenarian grandmother, Sarah Onyango Obama, in her village in western Kenya should not be predicated on developments in Nairobi, 250 miles away. It is hard to imagine a more powerful reflection of the depth and complexity of the U.S.-African relationship in the 21st century than a reunion in Kenya between the president and his grandmother.

One of the key challenges to the Obama administration’s Africa policy is to strike a balance among its four priorities: security, trade and investment, democracy and development.  The conflicts in Mali, Somalia, the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan/South Sudan require ongoing U.S. attention and engagement if there is to be stability and peace.  Yet with more than 2000 members of the U.S. military on the continent and less than a handful of Commerce Department officials, there is an imbalance of resources and priorities.

Finally, one of the most compelling images of the trip was President Obama and President Bush together laying a wreath to honor those lost during the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Tanzania in 1998.  Their joint appearance was a useful reminder to political opponents in Africa that intensely fought elections can give way to shared national objectives, a role that former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga seems to have embraced in his country.  Perhaps more significant, the image was also a reminder to the polarized members of the U.S. Congress that when it comes to Africa, there is an enduring bipartisan consensus on the value of the U.S. investing in the future of the continent.