Obama in Africa: Will his trip be more about symbolism or substance?

President Obama's first three trips to Africa were high on symbolism. This one, at a time of heightened security concerns over Islamist extremism, aims to leverage private-sector investment and encourage entrepreneurship.

Ben Curtis/AP
Workers finish installing a large billboard showing Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (left) and President Obama (right) in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, on Thursday. In his first trip to Kenya since he was a US senator in 2006, Mr. Obama arrived in the country on Friday, the first stop on his two-nation African tour in which he will also visit Ethiopia.

Over his time in office, President Obama’s engagement with sub-Saharan Africa has often seemed to be heavy on symbolism but light on substance.

The first African-American president gave a soaring speech on Africa’s need for strong institutions over strongmen in Ghana in 2009, he visited historical vestiges of the transatlantic slave trade in Ghana and then in Senegal in 2013, and he attended Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2014.

Critics fault Mr. Obama for failing to offer Africa the kind of generously funded programs that President George W. Bush did with his President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR ) and the Millennium Challenge development initiative, and for ceding America’s preeminent place in Africa to a resource-hungry China.

But the Africa trip that Obama begins in Friday in Kenya – his paternal family’s home – before continuing on to Ethiopia offers him an opportunity to put his Africa policy on more concrete footing.

If it isn’t hijacked by the optics of Kenya’s most famous son returning to his roots, Obama’s fourth Africa trip as president presents a stage for him to lay out the more pragmatic policy he has developed for the continent in the homestretch of his presidency.

It’s a policy that is heavier on partnership and fostering homegrown entrepreneurship than on big-ticket aid programs, while moving away from the reliance on the symbolism of the administration’s early years, Africa analysts say.

“Obama came into office as a symbol for Africa, being the first African-American president, but that generated very high expectations that in turn led to very deep disappointment when it turned out Africa was not the priority for the US that people expected,” says Joseph Siegle, director of research at the National Defense University’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington. “There have been echoes of this discussion of him being all symbolism when it comes to Africa throughout his presidency,” he adds, “but I think we’ll see him act to change that on this trip.”

Expect to hear the word “leveraging” a lot over the course of the trip, Dr. Siegle says. Whether it’s a discussion of encouraging African entrepreneurship with American seed money, addressing Africa’s electricity deficit through Obama’s Power Africa initiative, or US support for the African Union’s peacekeeping forces – an effort Obama will laud when he addresses the AU in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – a theme of the trip will be helping Africans help themselves, he says.

“The administration’s goal is to build African capacities and support them rather than try to introduce new programs from the outside,” Siegle says.

In the view of some, Obama’s initial reliance on symbolism over substance as he addressed Africa had more to do with the context Obama confronted when he entered office – a global economy on the precipice of collapse and US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Given that sub-Saharan Africa issues have to fight for a seat at the policy table even in the best of times, it is no surprise that the continent fell further off the administration’s radar, particularly during the president’s first term,” says John Norris, executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

To some degree, it was a deteriorating security environment in a number of key African countries faced with the rise of Islamist extremism that prompted the administration to refocus on Africa, Mr. Norris says. He cites Somalia and the rise there of Al Shabab, the terrorist group that has extended its reach into neighboring Kenya, as one example.

But the fact that the United States was simply unable to deliver “traditional big-ticket aid packages” as it addressed a global economy in recession also “helped push the administration toward a more sophisticated and mature approach,” Norris says.

Power Africa – a program that devotes relatively small amounts of US financial aid and technical assistance to leverage much larger private-sector investment in Africa’s electrical infrastructure – is touted by administration officials as a prime example of Obama’s Africa policy.

Critics say Obama’s focus on pragmatic approaches to Africa has led him to play down the emphasis on democratization and human rights that has long been a hallmark of US Africa policy. Indeed, his decision to include Ethiopia in this trip drew howls of protest from human rights advocates who blast the Horn of Africa country as one of the continent’s most authoritarian regimes and worst violators of rights, particularly freedom of expression.

But visiting Ethiopia fits with Obama’s preference for engagement over isolation to try to bring about change. At the same time, his emphasis on pragmatism allows for melding key policy priorities for Africa with concerns like anti-corruption efforts and respect for human rights, some say.

This mix of priorities was on display at last year’s Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, the largest-ever gathering of African leaders in the US, experts say. Aside from Power Africa, that summit was also the launchpad for the administration’s security governance initiative, which the Defense University’s Siegle says aims to improve policing and security practices in countries – particularly ethnically diverse ones – to address the rising extremist threat.

That initiative includes a pointed emphasis on corruption and the role it plays in encouraging extremist ideology, Siegle says, adding that he expects a pragmatic Obama to underscore the corruption-extremism connection as he addresses African leaders on his trip.

“Africa is growing – Kenya, in particular, is enjoying sustained economic growth – but this growth tends to be highly unequal” and too often tied to corruption, Siegle says.

“The rising inequalities are a particularly strong rallying cry for armed violence,” he adds. “I think we’re going to see Obama emphasize to Africans that democracy and security go hand in hand, that they can’t have one without the other."

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