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What will Obama actually do in his week traveling around Africa?

President Barack Obama finishes an address following a tour with his family of Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.
President Barack Obama finishes an address following a tour with his family of Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.
President Barack Obama finishes an address following a tour with his family of Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.

Now that the cost concerns about President Obama’s trip to sub-Saharan Africa are long forgotten, it is time for everyone to weigh in about the trip itself. So why is the President going to visit sub-Saharan Africa and what will he do for the next week?

Journalist Geoffrey York says that the trip is in response to the continuing growth of influence by China on the continent, in a column for the Globe and Mail. Aside from a 24-hour spell in Ghana, Obama has stayed away from sub-Saharan Africa since taking the office of President in 2009. York also highlights the fact that everyone is not cheering Obama’s visit.

[W]hile Mr. Obama is keen to revive the relationship, the response among many Africans has been lukewarm. Even though Mr. Obama is the most powerful leader to visit South Africa over the past decade, there is little excitement on the eve of his arrival here. “The build-up is strangely muted,” said a South African newspaper, the Mail and Guardian. “We are hearing very little from our own government about the agenda for the visit.”

South Africa’s international relations department has not yet even held a press conference to discuss the visit, twice postponing a planned briefing. President Jacob Zuma mentioned the visit only briefly on Monday, calling it a “significant” event but giving few details.

Within the ruling African National Congress, there has always been a vocal anti-American element, resentful of U.S. policy in the Middle East, including the Pentagon’s participation in air strikes against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The ANC’s youth league, reacting to Mr. Obama’s planned visit, attacked his “broken promises” and “imperialism.”

The trip is less about Obama’s Kenyan heritage and more about American leadership, says Tolu Ogunlesi in the Guardian who also alludes to China’s increasing presence. He argues that Bush set the bar pretty high for engagement with Africa through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the President’s Emergency Play for AIDS Relief  (PEPFAR).

Against this background of US, Obama comes across as positively neglectful. His only activity of note has been to ramp up US military activity in Africa, adding drone bases and deploying significant numbers of troops. When he was first elected there were celebrations across the continent, and perhaps unrealistic expectations that he would champion African interests on the world stage. Indeed on his first visit to Ghana, he declared that he had “the blood of Africa within me”. Since then his absence has been keenly felt, sparking accusations that he has betrayed his roots.

But is this fair? Does Obama have a special responsibility to the continent, because of his ancestry? Perhaps not. Perhaps the emphasis on Obama as a black president is missing the point. Because it’s not just for reasons of solidarity that the US president should attend to Africa. There are more selfish reasons, both , economic and political, as well.

So what will Obama do when he visits Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa? The Center for Global Development’s Sarah Jane Staats says that there will be three items on the President’s agenda.

  1. Economic growth, trade and investments.
  2. Democracy gains, youth and women’s empowerment.
  3. The initiatives: food security, global health and climate power.

She said that presidential trips are accompanied by announcements. So we should expect to hear some new programs or ways that the administration hopes to work with African nations. The likely scenario is that Obama will announce a new power initiative while in Tanzania, says Staats. It hits all the of the requirements she sets out. Though it is not out of the question that it becomes an expensive photo op.

While presidential trip announcements can draw global attention to important issues and policy responses, they run the risk of being photo ops that may or may not amount to much afterwards. The administration should signal how its executive branch officials will make sure any new announcements become something real, including working in partnership with Congress. One need look no further than the so-far failed food aid reforms to remember that a lot of people need to be brought along to make good policy ideas practice.

Staats’ colleague Todd Moss goes as far as to offer six suggested opportunities for the trip that can create impact and cost little or nothing. Such options include new trade agreements, a doubling of the US contribution to the African Development Bank in support of infrastructure and an energy access initiative. It is the very same idea that Staats references and would be in line with an initiative by the World Bank to achieve universal access to electricity around the world.

If we listen to the State Department, the trip is about trade and democracy.

“It’s critical to Africa’s economic growth, because where you have clear rules of the road and efforts to combat corruption, businesses will invest, and jobs will be created, and growth will take off,” said Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. “When we look back 20 years from now, 30 years from now, we’ll see this potentially as a pivotal moment when Africa took off in terms of economic growth.”



About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]