With Africa's eyes on Obama trip, a continent takes stock of its progress

As President Obama visits Africa – and the world tracks reports about Nelson Mandela – Africans are due praise for 15 years of triumphs.

AP Photo
President Barack Obama listens as Senegalese President Macky Sall speaks during a news conference in Dakar, Senegal, June 27. Obama is visiting Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania on a week-long trip. There are no plans to visit Nelson Mandela.

For too long, the rest of humanity has viewed Africa as a final but frustrating frontier to end war, tyranny, and poverty. Yet over the past 15 years, the continent has begun to reverse that image. President Obama’s six-day trip to Africa reflects a new perspective.

His visit offers more of a slap on the back for African countries doing well than the old gesture of a helping hand. The three stops on his trip – Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania – reflect Africa’s progress since the late 1990s in curbing poverty, ending civil wars, and improving governance.

For the first time, the percentage of Africans living on less than $1.25 a day has declined. Sub-Saharan Africa is now home to 11 of the 20 fastest-growing economies. It also has both the youngest and fastest-growing population in the world, which has caught the eye of big companies (such as Wal-Mart) in search of consumers in fast-growing markets. 

And instead of the 20th-century pattern of wealthy nations competing for influence with aid, rising countries from Brazil to China are vying for the new opportunities in trade and investment. It is the United States that has been slow to catch on.

Since 2009, for example, China has surpassed the US in trade with Africa. The US accounts for only 10 percent of the continent’s foreign investment. Mr. Obama’s visit is a way to play catch-up with China and others.

The US has not been idle, however, in the pursuit of one American interest. It helped fell a dictator in Libya, sent marines to hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa, helped quell Islamic militants in Somalia, and set up a drone base in Niger to track Al Qaeda-linked militants in Mali. North Africa’s struggle with violent Muslims and other militants will still need US aid, but in many cases, African militaries are doing the job.

Most of the continent’s old woes remain, reflected in the fact that it is home to about half of the world’s children who die before the age of 5. Too many countries have leaders with authoritarian streaks or poor human rights records. And Africa is a laggard in manufacturing exports despite the lure of low wages.

But a rising middle class that is plugged into global commerce with cellphones has firmly emerged, a cause for many of the positive trends. Within 20 years, most Africans will live in cities rather than rural areas.

As Africa welcomes America’s first black president, it can look at how far it, too, has come in achieving what was once not expected. For that, it deserves a slap on the back.

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