Obama’s Africa Trip: Symbolism and Substance

In many respects, President Obama’s second trip to Sub-Saharan Africa is significant. For the past four years, the president has faced a barrage of criticisms for literally ignoring Africa.

In Washington for example, all leading think tanks that have a focus on Africa have expressed dismay at the continued marginalisation of Africa in U.S. foreign policy even when other nations have heightened interest.

Obama has been seen as one with very limited interest in Africa and so the fact that he did spend a week in Africa at least shows that Africa is still in his radar screen.

The frustration with the Obama administration is in part the result of misplaced expectations that many had about Obama in as far as Africa was concerned. There was expectation that with an African American president in the White House and in particular one with direct family lineage in the continent, there would be a substantive shift in U.S. policy towards Africa.

Furthermore, with literally invasion of Africa by the BRICs-Brazil, Russia, India and China, it was expected that the United States would be more focused on an African strategy. This did not happen.

After three years of practically no clear policy direction on Africa, the Obama administration quickly put together a policy paper with catchy phrases such as “New Strategy for Africa”– that was released in June 2012 just a few months before the November election and during the annual joint forum of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) that was attended by African trade Ministers.

A careful evaluation of this document reveals that there is nothing new or strategic and in many ways the documents rehearses hitherto existing approaches. Writing then, I noted that the policy was more of a triple Re “rehearses, recycles, renames,” existing approaches and strategies.

The strategy did not lay a foundation for creative engagement and instead was more of a campaign document to respond to critics who saw Obama as overseeing the ceding of United States to China.

Upon the election of Obama in 2008, I accepted to join the Brookings Institution in part because I believed that with a president who understands Africa, it was possible to impact U.S. policy on Africa by engaging the U.S. Congress, the White House and the various government agencies.

Although Congress has been quite receptive, the White House has not been quite focused on Africa—at least during the first term.

Many of us became apologists for the administration. First we argued that the president had not come up with new initiatives because of the state of the economy and the two wars—Iraq and Afghanistan that he had inherited. But this did not really stand to scrutiny because U.S. interest in other regions remained high.

Many of us became apologists for the administration. First we argued that the president had not come up with new initiatives because of the state of the economy and the two wars—Iraq and Afghanistan that he had inherited.

But this did not really stand to scrutiny because U.S. interest in other regions remained high. We then argued that the failure of the administration to focus on Africa was due to a highly polarised congress. But again this does not hold water—some of the strongest supporters on Africa are Republicans.

Then we rationalised that he feared focusing on Africa to avoid a backlash from voters eager to criticise him should he focus on Africa.

Lately, however, most analysts have run out of excuses to cover for the president’s inaction. Many have come to see Obama as president out of touch with Africa and one with limited interest.

The administration seems to have been stuck to a view of a hopeless continent and not the “rising” Africa that other nations have come to see. Although Obama’s pronouncements suggest a great interest in Africa, actions have not supported those pronouncements.

The saying that talk is cheap could be an accurate description when it comes to Obama’s pronouncements and actual action in Africa. May be until now.

To be fair, it is important to take Obama’s trip and his overall policy within the context of the broader U.S. policy towards Africa. First, Africa, and in particular Sub-Saharan Africa, is not, and has never been a priority.

US foreign policy has often viewed Africa more of a nuisance. I have in the past characterised U.S. policy towards Africa as a residual, leftover after dealing with all other regions of the world. The heightened interest shown during the Cold War quickly dissipated after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Thankfully, president Bill Clinton did quite a bit to present a different image of Africa and to the surprise of many, so did president George W. Bush. There are also several champions of the new Africa in Congress—Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate.

Second, US foreign policy is centred primarily on self interest and especially security. One of Obama Administration’s focus in Africa has s been on issues related to security that could impact on the United States. This is what drives U.S. policy.

Third, Africa is not a priority for United States in terms of foreign direct investment (FDI). Of the total global U.S. FDI flows, Africa receives only about one per cent. Furthermore, most of these investments are in natural resource extraction especially in oil and gas—again directly related to U.S. own interest of enhancing energy security and diversifying sources away from the volatile Middle East.

Although the president took every opportunity to criticise china’s operations in Africa, the American extractors are no different. The American FDI do not follow quality of governance—they are in Nigeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, etc.

Nor can we say that the American firms have been socially responsible especially as regards environmental protection—just go to the Niger Delta in Nigeria and you will see the disaster caused by American firms. These are facts not rhetoric.

Finally, in relative and absolute terms, U.S. aid to Africa is small and bears no relationship to democracy or extent of needs. In Africa, the only country that is of real serious focus to the United States is Egypt. Of total U.S. aid to Africa, Egypt receives between 25 and 33 per cent. Another 47 countries share the rest.

The elected government of Egypt has just been overthrown by the military. Now, if this was a country like Kenya, Tanzania or Uganda, the United States would freeze support with immediate effect.

But do not expect that to happen to Egypt. So we have to be careful when we analyse US policy towards Africa. This is important in understanding Obama’s trip and the substance of the trip.


The president’s trip has a great deal of symbolism. The mere fact that he visited three African countries is important and I am sure that the White House has been hoping to erase the “only Ghana” statement in describing the president’s visits to Africa.

He also visited two very important islands — Goree Island in Senegal and Robben Island in South Africa.

Goree was a slave port where thousands of Africans were shipped to America and the Caribbean and Robben Island was home of Nelson Mandela for 18 of his 27 years that he spent in prison.

As anyone who has visited these places has experienced, they stir deep emotions. They are humbling experiences and one would hope that the visits impacted on the president for the better.

Throughout his trip, the president emphasised the issue of the youth and their role in leadership and development of Africa. This is an important issue and highlighting its importance has symbolic value.

The other notable feature of the Obama trip was his focus on China. He criticised China on natural resource extraction, on not employing labour, and so on. It was like that he was walking in the shadows of China—which may as well be true.

This significance if this focus on China is that he seems to have realised the extent to which America engagement has been over-shadowed by new partners. The message is that U.S. is keen to reclaim its position in Africa. He may as well been signalling the beginning of a new “cold war.”

Throughout his trip, the president emphasised the issue of the youth and their role in leadership and development of Africa. This is an important issue and highlighting its importance has symbolic value.

Finally, the president announced that he would host a summit of all African leaders in Washington next year. This is a good signal and shows that Obama is listening to proposals we have made over the last four years. Such a meeting will be significant and will show that America is indeed serious in engaging Africa.

On Substance

The substance of the president’s trip should be evaluated on the basis of the extent it deepened the U.S. engagement with Africa. A lot of numbers were mentioned and it helps to interrogate these numbers to get a real sense of the substance of the trip. It is also important to clearly identify already existing initiatives versus new ones.

Take the Presidents Young African Leaders Initiative. This is an on-going program although there is a plan to expand it in the future. The main goal is to take 500 young Africans to the US each year for leadership training.

The young fellows will be taught skills to run ministries, start businesses and serve communities. They will spend six weeks at American universities, and at OPIC and Ex-Im Bank.

This is substance but it is important to look at what the numbers mean. By simple calculation, these numbers translate to about 10-15 fellows per country. Each fellow receiving six months of training. These attachments are valuable but the scale is a bit to small in my view but I wait to be contradicted.

The most significant initiative unveiled during the president’s trip is Power Africa. The president indicated that United States would commit 7 billion USD to this initiative over the next 5 years.

The most significant initiative unveiled during the president’s trip is Power Africa. The president indicated that United States would commit 7 billion USD to this initiative over the next 5 years.

The goal is to add more than 10,000 megawatts of clean efficient electricity generation, increase electricity for 20 million new households and commercial entities, and enhance energy resource management capabilities of partner countries.

These initiatives will benefit 8 countries. The American private sector will also commit 9 billion dollars, many of which comprise already on-going investments.

Let us do the math. The USD 7 billion for a period of 5 years means roughly USD 1.5 billon per year. For each country, this comes to about USD 200 million/year. Africa should be grateful for this support. But look at the numbers more carefully.

Of the USD 7 billion, 5 billion will be channelled through the Export Import Bank of the United States to support US exports for power projects. Another $1.5 billion will be channelled through Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) for financing and insurance to energy projects.

These funds will be financing American companies to be able to compete in the African market. Other funds will go to technical assistance and to finance projects under already existing Millennium Challenge Compacts.

It is important to note that there has not been any new major increases in congressional funding to Ex-Imp bank and OPIC. So these are just reallocations to focus on energy and not additional funding.

But although the funding will not go directly to the countries, those resources will help American businesses compete in Africa. In a way, it is quite evident that this project is more to assist American firms compete with Chinese firms in the energy sector.

But how does the U.S. commitment really mean relative to other countries. Analysis by Frontier Advisory points to the fact “ Obama’s proposal… may look low-wattage compared with China’s already ongoing big electricity projects.” Japan is also investing in electricity—the geothermal investments in Kenya are a good example.

The other initiative announced during the trip is Trade Africa that is focusing on increasing trade within East African Community and also exports to United States. This is supposed to be achieved through trade facilitation and also enactment of trade protocols. However, it is not quite clear the actual commitment by the United States. This is a bit opaque and will need to be elaborated.

But I am a bit concerned by the stated goals of Trade Africa. For example, goals of the initiative are to double intra-regional trade in the EAC; reduce by 15% the average time needed to import or export a container from the ports of Mombasa or Dar es Salaam to land-locked Burundi and Rwanda in the EAC’s interior, and decrease by 30% the average time a truck takes to transit selected borders.

Well and good. But the East African Community countries are already working towards these goals and in fact EAC is the model Regional Economic Community in Africa. On this one, the United States will be riding on already demonstrated success but of course any support to accelerate the process is welcome.

Looking Ahead: Too Little but not Too Late

Obama’s visit to Africa has been important and will go a long way to deepening the relationship between America and Africa. He has started to show that he understands that African matters. Or at least, he seems ready to up his game.

The president announced various initiatives but these are much smaller than the numbers may portray. It is too little but fortunately it is not too late. He still has a chance to deepen engagement with Africa.

In an article published in the Guardian (UK) in 2011, I suggested that if Obama want to leave a legacy on Africa, he should focus on supporting American businesses to invest in Africa. I proposed that he must visit Africa with hundreds of business executives and work with African governments to identify opportunities.

He has clearly started this during the trip and he has promised that his cabinet secretaries will follow with visits accompanied by business people. American investments can go a long way in transforming African economies and the move by the president is bound to have impact.

Africa-US commercial relations are defined by the African Growth and Opportunity Act that was signed into law by Bill Clinton.

AGOA was extended several times by president Bush and is now set to expire in 2015. During the trip, the president indicated that he will be supporting the extension of AGOA. This is a good signal and already many of us are working with the US Congress and other organs of the government on the structure of an enhanced AGOA.

The president will need to show leadership on this and be bold. For AGOA to have real developmental impact in Africa, it must be redesigned and should include more involvement of the American private sector so as to assist in transformation of the economies so that Africa can export more processed and manufactured products.

In addition, there is need to remove the many barriers to exports of agricultural products from Africa.

The African leaders’ summit that will be held next year will be a good opportunity for both the Obama administration and African leaders to chat a new trajectory of US-Africa relations. With such initiatives, the president still has a chance to leave a strong legacy.