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Obama, off to Africa, aims to reenergize US role there. Is time ripe?

President Obama will emphasize benefits of partnering with the US on economic and social development, during his three-nation trip to sub-Saharan Africa. Rising disillusionment with other partners, such as China, may make that idea a slightly easier sell, experts say.

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“I don’t think he’ll mention China explicitly, because you don’t want to define US engagement in terms of China,” Cooke says. “But he will want to make the case [for] why the US makes a good partner in investment.” She says US firms “tend to bring technology transfer, knowledge transfer, training, maintenance packages, quality brand recognition, a whole slew of things that other international competitors don’t necessarily bring.”

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On the other hand, she says, China has a “mixed record” in Africa and has been criticized for “lack of transparency, bringing its own workers, bringing its own materials, not engaging with the communities around them.”

Beyond that, she says, the US “tends to do better” at including transparency, democracy, and governance issues in its relations, and at “engaging beyond the government” with more segments of the population than do China and some of the other “new” investors in Africa, such as Malaysia, which recently has surpassed China in African investment, and India.   

Others say particularly damaging publicity tarnishing some Chinese investors in Africa recently may make this a good moment for Obama to tout a “new partnership” with Africa.

“It’s not just about who promotes democracy and who doesn’t, what it really comes down to is how you treat people,” says Robert Lawrence, a senior fellow and professor of trade and investment at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

In a number of African countries, protests aimed at Chinese labor practices have broken out in recent years, Professor Lawrence notes. Last year, miners in Zambia, where China has invested heavily, killed a Chinese supervisor during a labor strike for better pay and working conditions. Also last year, Zambia elected a new president, Michael Sata, who ran on a fiercely anti-China platform.

Lawrence, who was born in South Africa, says Western countries traditionally were the target of African ire and suspicion, in particular over the legacy of colonialism. “In many African countries there’s been a deep-seated hostility toward the West, and that has energized these other relationships” with China and other new investors, he says.  

But now, he says, “we’re seeing something similar [to the anti-Western resentment] in this reaction to the Chinese,” which could make this a good moment for Obama to make his pitch.

Some Africa experts see recent US actions in sub-Saharan Africa – such as creation of Africom, the US Africa Command created in 2007, and establishment of a drone base in Niger – as evidence that the real US priority in Africa is security, not development.

“President Obama’s trip is likely to focus on trade and investment, but actually US policy toward Africa has been driven by militarism and resource extraction,” says Emira Woods, an expert in US Africa policy at Washington’s Institute for Policy Studies. She says the growing US focus on security concerns, as demonstrated by new drone bases on the continent, is a wrong turn for US Africa policy. “Instead,” she says, “the US should bolster Africa's dramatic economic rise.”

The White House insists that stepped-up US military engagement in Africa is primarily about preparing national militaries to provide their own national security. Some experts, such as Harvard’s Lawrence, say concerns about US “militarism” in Africa are exaggerated.

In any case, it will be up to Africans, from average citizens to their governments, to decide issues ranging from how much foreign military presence they want to the model of development they prefer to follow, others say.

“Ultimately it’s up to the African governments to set the terms of the engagement,” says CSIS’s Cooke. “Whether it’s on environmental due diligence, whether it’s on transparency, whether it’s on a level playing field for various actors, employment standards, safety regulations in mines in Zambia, those are for the partner governments to set and to enforce.”

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