What did Obama ever do for Africa? Quite a lot actually, argues former US Ambassador to Tanzania Charles R. Stith
With Barack Obama’s recent whirlwind of activity around Africa, I’m reminded that it was almost eight years ago that Africans on the continent and in the diaspora waited with bated breadth for his presidency to begin and, hopefully, with it a new era in US-Africa relations.
When Obama was elected in 2008, the celebrations in Africa were as enthusiastic as those in America. For Africa, there was obvious pride that comes with seeing one of its sons elected to arguably the most powerful political post in the world. There was also the expectation that he might set new benchmarks of cooperation between the US and the continent.
At the time Obama was inaugurated, the US economy was suffering from the financial crisis and the US was fighting wars on two fronts. Under such circumstances, it was understandable that Africa was not at the top of the President’s agenda. That said, Obama visited Ghana in 2009 and spoke of Africa’s promise. Including his most recent trip, he will have visited the continent three times. The First Lady and his daughters have visited the continent as well. This attention, if nothing else, has contributed to changing the narrative about Africa’s prospects and reputation as a place of extraordinary opportunities.
The past year, the Obama administration has been particularly focused on its Africa agenda. From the African Leaders Summit a year ago, to the Power Africa Initiative, to renewing the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), to his swansong trip to Kenya and Ethiopia, Obama has kept the US on track in its effort to engage Africa as a partner rather than patron.
The African Leader’s Summit in August 2014 was historic. With similar summits having been hosted by China, India, and Europe, the Summit was meant to keep the US competitive on the continent. By all accounts, it achieved that aim.
The summit was not simply good politics; it provided an opportunity for the President to push US economic interests. During the event, Obama raised the prominence of his Power Africa initiative. Since last year’s announcement, US companies have closed more than $20bn in deals. US companies like GE have stepped up in major ways.
In July, I attended an event at the White House celebrating the renewal of AGOA. Since the Bill’s initial passage during the Clinton administration, there have been debates about the extent to which it has helped increase African exports to the US. What is not debatable is that the amount of trade between Africa and US has increased since the bill was enacted. As Africa becomes more competitive, AGOA is an important weapon in the US arsenal to keep it in the game. China has become increasingly engaged, as has Europe. Given the increased competition, if AGOA were to have lapsed it would have been the wrong message at the wrong time. African governments would have interpreted AGOA’s lapse as a lack of commitment, which is exactly counter to the message Obama wanted to give when signing it.
“Now that it’s been renewed, AGOA will be central to our efforts to boost the trade and investment that supports hundreds of thousands of jobs both in Africa and the United States, creating opportunities for all of us,” he said. “And I’m especially pleased that AGOA will continue to encourage good governance and labour and human rights.”
He went on to announce that his administration will “host the next business forum, next year”. It will be an opportunity, he said, “to help unleash the growth and opportunity that we know Africa is capable of…[furthering] progress that delivers more hope and more progress to Africans across the continent, and more jobs and growth here in the United States.”
A final goodbye?
Following the reauthorisation of AGOA, the President headed to Kenya and Ethiopia. The President’s trip to Kenya could not be a better swansong, if this is it, and there was an air of excitement about the return of one of Africa’s favourite sons. Everything everywhere was spit-shined and polished.
On the eve of his departure, Obama noted with pride that he has visited the continent more than any US President in history and was to be the first to address the African Union.
As the final chapter of the Obama presidency takes shape, the commitment to Africa is writ large. The sum and substance of what we have seen from his administration regarding Africa is that it has continued to put meat on the bone as it relates to the breadth of programmes and investment by the US in Africa.
As Obama said, on the eve of what could be his final trip to Africa as President:
“My trip, although not long…reflects a truth that has guided my approach to Africa. Despite its many challenges – and we have to be clear-eyed about all the challenges that the continent still faces – Africa is a place of incredible dynamism. [It has] some of the fastest growing markets in the world, extraordinary people, extraordinary resilience. And, it has the potential to be the next centre of global economic growth.”
Whether Obama’s legacy in Africa will be the standard by which all other US presidents will be judged is something only time will tell.
But what is inarguable is that he has built on the foundation laid by his predecessors and in doing so has advanced the ball in a way that will make it difficult for those that follow to reverse the course the US is on.
Charles R. Stith served as US Ambassador to Tanzania during the Clinton Administration. He is currently Chair of The Pula Group and member of the US Trade Representative’s Africa Trade Advisory Committee.