Obama's 'partnership of equals' in Africa: Both sides must step up

President Obama, who departs Africa today, has cast his mark on the US-Africa relationship by calling it 'a partnership of equals.' This is more of a goal than reality. Over the past decade the US has squandered its advantage. And Africans bear shared responsibility for economic stability.

President Obama, right, walks with former President Bush during a wreath laying ceremony July 2 to honor the victims of the US Embassy bombing in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 15 years ago. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: 'President Clinton moved to open up US-Africa trade, and President Bush made a significant contribution with his program to combat AIDS. So for Obama to hold out the idea of a "partnership of equals” might justifiably leave Africans wondering.' (Evan Vucci/AP)

St. Louis

Fifteen years ago President Clinton traveled across Africa hailing a “new partnership.” President Bush followed five years later affirming a “close partnership.” Now President Obama, who winds up his Africa trip today, has cast his own mark on the US-Africa relationship, calling it “a partnership of equals.”

Rhetorically that befits a trip across Africa by the first US president of African descent. It has an appealing ring for African leaders wary of the strings attached to Western economic assistance and security priorities. But what does it really mean and how might it be realized?

Africa tours have become a diplomatic set piece of the modern American presidency. They have a feeling of being almost routine and prompted by moral obligation. Mr. Obama spent a mere 20 hours in sub-Saharan Africa during his first term in office. Four years later he returned on a six-day, three-country tour with only a modest set of boiler-plate initiatives – most of them extensions of policies started by his predecessors. He dismisses the need to compete with China for resources and market share on the continent.

Many Africans have felt snubbed by Obama. They expected him to make Africa a greater priority. President Clinton moved to open up US-Africa trade, and President Bush made a significant contribution with his program to combat AIDS. So for Obama to hold out the idea of a “partnership of equals” might justifiably leave Africans wondering.

To say that the United States and the states of Africa are equals is, by the numbers, nonsensical. Although six of the world’s fastest growing economies are in Africa, the list of African woes remains frustratingly long.

African countries overwhelmingly populate the bottom rankings of Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index. Thirty-nine of 54 African nations are net food importers. Three quarters of all deployed international peacekeepers are in Africa. Average life-expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is 52 years. Human rights, democracy, and the rule of law have only toe-holds in many African nations.

Obama surely knows all this. For the second time in his presidency, he chose not to make a state visit to Kenya, his father’s country, to avoid giving official sanction to state-sponsored violence. Kenya’s new president faces charges in the International Criminal Court for electoral violence that killed 1,300 people and displaced hundreds of thousands in 2007. Obama prodded Senegal, his first stop and where homosexuality is a crime, to be more tolerant. In South Africa, the ruling African National Congress – the party of Nelson Mandela – is addled by incompetence and corruption. Its president, Jacob Zuma, has faced rape charges and repeated allegations of graft.

Even stable Tanzania, where Obama wrapped up his trip today, has seen an uptick in violence against opposition parties and journalists over the past year.

Gone, however, are the days when Africa could be dismissed as a hopeless continent. The size of its markets and vastness of its resources ensures the importance of Africa as a long-term economic partner. Its location on the globe makes it a vital strategic partner in containing international security threats.  

Nothing rivals a state visit in conveying that legitimacy and promise. But Obama’s foray into Africa has led to an inevitable exercise in making comparisons. China’s trade with Africa is twice the US volume. China’s past and current presidents have tallied eight state visits during Obama’s tenure. Beijing outpaces Washington in bilateral trade with Tanzania $2.47 billion to $360.2 million. Obama’s main new Africa initiative – $7 billion for projects to extend Africa’s power grid – is still $2 billion less than the cost of just the first phase of an ambitious hydro-power project due to start in 2015 on the Congo River.

Volume and miles traveled are useful indices of international commitment, but they can also be distracting. Obama’s notion of a partnership of equals places a constructive burden on African leaders to harness emerging opportunities more effectively. That means two things: strengthening constitutional democracy and overcoming resentments accrued during decades of both colonialism and often insensitive Western development prescriptions.

There is no mystery to the core elements of economic growth: trade, development of human capital, open markets, and sound fiscal policies. Nor is there any doubt about the preconditions necessary for these to flourish in Africa. Weak constitutionalism and disregard for the rule of law remain abiding weaknesses of Africa’s post-colonial states. More subtly, Africans are understandably weary and wary of the many ineffective austerity and development agendas imposed on them over decades by Western governments and international financial institutions. That mindset remains an obstacle to embracing the tools that have driven growth in Asia and Latin America.

Between 2006 and 2010, US foreign aid to Africa rose nearly four-fold. Africa’s demographics underscore the need to move beyond the aid-based approach of the past. By 2025, according to the African Union, Africa’s youth population will account for 25 percent of the global population. That can be seen as either a crushing burden – or a huge resource.

The rapid rise of international competition for African markets and resources means the continent can bank on a steady cash flow from several directions. Over the past decade the US has squandered its advantage. But the message behind Obama’s partnership of equals should also be that Africans bear shared responsibility for economic stability on the continent and need to up their game.

Kurt Shillinger is a former political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He also covered sub-Saharan Africa for The Boston Globe.