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.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
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.

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. 

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.

“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.”

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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