from Global Risk Insights..
June 17, 2013
In June 2013, US President Barack Obama visited Africa for the second time in his presidency. The first visit to Ghana, in 2008, lasted a mere 20 hours. This trip, however, was slightly different. Obama stayed on the continent for six days and visited three nations; South Africa, Senegal and Tanzania. The visit made during the first year of Obama’s second term was intended to symbolize a new Africa strategy for US foreign policy.
When Obama came to power, he was heralded as a symbol of hope for many in Africa, having family hailing from the continent. However, the enhanced African campaign hoped for by optimists was never implemented. Indeed, Obama has not even matched up to the work of his predecessors. In 2000, Bill Clinton implemented the African Growth and Opportunity Act to assist African exporters by removing import tariffs, a significant act in promoting trade. In 2003, George W. Bush was responsible for the PEPFA programme, which provides medicine to thousands of people inflicted with AIDS across Africa, the largest ever contribution to combat one disease. However, thus far throughout the incumbent administration, ties have been residual. The US remains noticeably less invested in Africa than in any other continent on the planet.
While on his trip, Obama visited Robben Island where his “personal hero”, Nelson Mandela, was held captive for two decades. Obama also travelled to Goree Island, the hub of the slave trade from the 15th to 19th century. The symbolism of these places seems like an attempt for Obama to re-connect with Africa and illustrate the sincerity of the America’s new endeavours. At the University of Cape Town, Obama announced plans for the project ‘Power Africa’ which pledges a $7 billion investment into the African energy market. The initiative plans to provide electricity to 20 million more households and businesses. Then at the Symbion Power Station in Tanzania, Obama delighted the crowd by playing with a soccer ball, which uses kinetic energy to power small household appliances. The ‘energy’ theme in Obama’s visit was clear.
Does this focus on energy illustrate the America’s motives in its new strategy? Professor Kimenyi of the Brookings Institute argues that if you look a little closer at ‘Power Africa,’ it is not a sustainable, long-term programme, nor as generous as it initially seems. For example, of the $7 billion pledged, $5 billion will support US exports in the power sector, with a majority of the remaining funds going towards the Millennium Challenge Corporation initiative already in place.
Has the US rivalry with China motivated a sudden interest in the continent and in particular the energy sector? Unlike the US, China has invested heavily into Africa since 2000 and has become a major stakeholder in the region. Billions have gone to development programmes across Africa, with a considerable amount spent on the extraction of raw materials. Clearly, China is making far moreuse of a ‘rising Africa’ than the US. Perhaps the hasty move to compete with Chinese presence on the continent signifies the realisation that should the US want to maintain its position as global hegemon, it must continue to lead in every field. Perhaps the Obama administration is feeling threatened by China’s advancement in Africa and that neglecting a continent in which others see so much potential is simply irresponsible.
The reality is that US foreign policy regarding Africa was, and will continue to be, driven by self-interest, when being driven at all. The symbolism of Obama’s visit unfortunately does not correlate with the substance of the new plans announced. Obama needs to put long-term programmes in place that make a positive difference to people across Africa, just as Bush and Clinton did before him. The ‘Power Africa’ initiative does sound promising in the short-term, as does the African youth scholarships scheme. However, upon closer inspection, the US seems to be more focused on Asia in Africa than on Africa itself.