Obama prepares to visit an Africa more skeptical of his presidency

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush left a mark on Africa that Obama so far has not. Will Obama's second term change that? 

Joe Penney/Reuters
Artist Ouzin puts the finishing touches on a painting honouring the upcoming visit by US President Barack Obama to Dakar June 24. Obama and his wife Michelle will visit Senegal from June 26 to June 28, before travelling to South Africa and Tanzania. Senegal's President Macky Sall is pictured on the right of the painting.

In June 1966, at the University of Cape Town in apartheid South Africa, Bobby Kennedy gave a speech that eulogized the power of the individual to overcome even the most powerful tyranny.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice,” Senator Kennedy told the students, “he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and … those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Tomorrow, US President Barack Obama, a man who has made "hope" his watchword, and whose father was Kenyan – begins a week-long trip to Africa that by Sunday will put him at the same South African university, where he will give a speech of his own.

The speech is eagerly awaited. When Mr. Obama won the 2008 election, Africans erupted into near-unanimous joy that an American of African heritage would for the first time be president of the United States. Perhaps, many hoped, he would help build "ripples" into "currents" to tackle Africa's entrenched challenges.

“Guys went nuts,” says Octopizzo, a rising hip-hop artist from the slums of Kenya’s capital Nairobi. “He was seen as a real hero for Africa, because he changed the way people looked at themselves. People used to set themselves standards, goals, and try to pass them. Obama made us build higher standards and set higher goals, and inspired us to reach them.”

But now, five years later, there is disappointment at a lack of substantive new continent-wide assistance programs from the man some in Africa once called a messiah.

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, launched the multi-billion-dollar President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, credited with averting 1.1 million deaths from AIDS in Africa. Obama effectively cut its funding in 2009.

President Bill Clinton was hugely popular among ordinary Africans. He was more so with the African business community for initiating the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which cut or scrapped duty for goods from the continent exported to the US.

So far, however, there have been no such major initiatives from Obama, the son of a Kenyan economist who grew up a poor goatherd. In the meantime, China, Turkey, Brazil, and other emerging nations are sweeping across Africa, gaining influence and lucrative contracts.

“In some parts of the continent, his gloss has not come off, but in many places, it has,” says Steven Friedman, a South African academic specializing in democracy studies.

“There’s no great mystery to it – he is the first African-American president, whose father was a Kenyan, and perhaps that raised expectations. In fact, it likely made him more reluctant than his predecessors to be some great savior for Africa.

“He’s had major problems at home, but he’s also had to go out of his way to demonstrate that he’s the American president, not the African president, and as a result he’s not done terribly much here.”

Obama has barely visited, in fact, spending only 22 hours in sub-Saharan Africa during a fly-by through Ghana in 2009.

Tomorrow's trip that will include Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania, may either be his only major visit here as president, or the start of a more regular second-term involvement. 

White House officials argue that there have been major engagements with the continent since 2008.

Obama has held meetings with African leaders focused on food security and nutrition. America’s military has been involved in conflicts in Somalia, Mali, Libya, the Central African Republic, and Uganda. The US remains the world’s largest contributor of humanitarian aid to Africa.

Nonetheless, Obama’s team is acutely conscious of the anticipation ahead of the tour.

“Frankly, there’s been great disappointment that the president hasn’t traveled to Africa until this point, other than a brief stop in Ghana,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, told reporters in a recent White House briefing. “Africa is a critically important region of the world. We have huge interests there. We need to be present in Africa."

The stated aims of the visit, to Africa’s west, its south, and its east, are to boost US trade and investment, encourage democracy, advance food security and health, and inspire young people.

For Charles Dokubo, research professor at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs in Lagos, what is expected from Obama’s visit are “actions, not promises.”

"If he wants to make any difference in Africa, truly we want to see actions that that improve the social provisioning for Africa’s people, not promises," Mr. Dokubo says. "Until Obama brings about something that makes that happen, he is like any other president.”

That misses the point of Obama’s power in Africa, says Rosebell Kagumire, a respected Ugandan rights activist and blogger.

“Obama will always be a role model, especially for our young people who very much look up to him in a place where we’re very short of good role models,” she says. “He understands the continent and has more links to here than any other US president before him, and his approach is very different from that of a traditional donor who comes with promises to fix everything for us."

Ms. Kagumire continues: “Obama is almost hands-off, which has been criticized as doing nothing. But in fact it allows us the space to search for our own solutions. He’ll support Africa then, when it’s necessary and when it’s still in US interests. But he’s right that it’s up to Africans, not outsiders, to fix our problems.”

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