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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.

By Staff writer / June 26, 2013

Artist Ousmane Sow Soleil (c.) helps a child make a handprint next to an image of Barack Obama, as he paints a mural to welcome the US President, in Dakar, Senegal, Tuesday. President Obama arrives in Senegal Wednesday to kick off a three-nation trip to sub-Saharan Africa.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP

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Washington

President Obama departs Wednesday on what is only the second trip of his presidency to sub-Saharan Africa, touting a development model that promises American investment in everything from food production to natural-resources extraction while also emphasizing democracy, anticorruption efforts, and strengthening the rule of law. 

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It’s what the White House calls a “partnership model.” And, at least on paper, it stands in stark contrast to the model of China and other countries hungry for Africa’s resources and keen on taking part in its economic development, but who make few demands on Africa’s leaders for political reforms. In recent years, China has roared into Africa with billions of dollars in investments – in mining, transportation infrastructure, energy – while leaving issues of political and social progress largely on the sidelines.

Mr. Obama’s job over his seven-day, three country trip – with stops in Senegal, Tanzania, and South Africa – will be to convince the political leaders, entrepreneurs, and young Africans he meets that, in the long run, the model the US proposes will serve more Africans and contribute more to the continent’s stability and prosperity. Five of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa. 

But first, many Africa experts say, the US president will have to convince a continent that America, which has largely sat out Africa’s recent impressive economic growth, really is ready to get back in Africa’s game.

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made strides in US Africa policy, but then “President Obama came in, and there was a sense of stall,” says Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. “Africa just seemed to fall away in terms of excitement, in terms of energy and momentum.”

White House officials insist that the administration is serious about reenergizing the US role in Africa beyond what Ms. Cooke calls the “maintenance mode” of Obama’s first term. They say he will signal that new commitment not only through the 500 US business leaders who will accompany the president at some point on his trip, but also through his emphasis on the US “model” of a mutually beneficial relationship.

“The type of leadership that the US brings to the continent uniquely advances opportunities for more Africans, and frankly, we believe represents a better model of engagement not just for the United States, but for democratic development on the continent,” says Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. Citing “our democratic values … our businesses and … our focus on capacity-building for African solutions,” Mr. Rhodes says the American development model “is ultimately going to be welcomed on the continent” because it will be seen as in the interest of the widest range of Africans.

Given Africa’s emergence, they’ll be making determinations about their own futures and about their own partners," Rhodes says. “And we believe that what the United States brings to the table is a model of partnership that serves our interest but also the interest of people in sub-Saharan Africa.”

No one expects Obama to draw a specific comparison with China, but his emphasis on the broad advantages of partnering with the US will be clear enough, some regional experts say.

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